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08.09.2014

The Great White South: An Introduction to Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc

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One of the world's greatest white wines is also one of its least known. The wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape generally cross a wine lover's radar at some point, but even those who enjoy the vibrant Grenache-based reds from France's first officially declared appellation are often unfamiliar with the region's white wines. Yet they are often more consistently in their quality than the reds, and they can reward long cellaring with remarkable results. They also happen to be damn delicious.

White wine makes up only a mere 7% of the production in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape appellation, but that percentage has been rising in recent years, thanks to a slowly growing interest in the wines from outside the region for the first time.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape has long been known, in part, for the multitude of grapes that are allowed to be grown in the appellation, which number anywhere from 13 to 18 depending on how you count the color mutations of certain grapes (e.g. Grenache Gris vs. Grenache Blanc, Clairette vs. Clairette Rose).

The white wines of the region usually employ a dominant amount of Roussanne or Grenache Blanc, as well as Clairette Blanc, Clairette Rose and Bourboulenc. Some wines also contain smaller amounts of Picpoul Blanc, Picpoul Gris, and Picardin.

Grenache Blanc, in particular, bears much of the responsibility for making Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc so special. One of the world's most underrated white grape varieties, at least in my humble opinion, Grenache Blanc naturally possesses an incredible balance between luscious fruit, bracing acidity, and more savory saline and herbal notes. When well vinified, the grape delivers a positively mouthwatering, gulpable quality that is matched perhaps only by some of the world's best Rieslings and White Burgundies.

Mixed, as it often is, with spicier Roussanne and the other distinctive white varieties of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Grenache Blanc brings a juicy, luscious brightness to the white blend.

Depending on your point of view, the wide variety of blends employed for Châteauneuf-Du-Pape Blanc either represent an appealing variety, or a somewhat frustrating inconsistency. Simply put, the flavor profile of Châteauneuf-Du-Pape Blanc can vary widely from producer to producer, and that's even before the added variability in oak aging (or lack thereof). Some producers use a majority or even solely Roussanne, making for slightly spicy and rich baked apple and buttery lemon flavors, while others use significant percentages of Clairette and Bourboulenc, which provide more green apple and wet stone characteristics to the wine.

Some producers prefer to keep the wines entirely in stainless steel, while others employ oak fermenters and aging, and still others mix the two approaches. As with the region's reds, too much new oak on the whites easily overwhelms the wines and leaves them with the viscous vanilla richness that turns so many off of California Chardonnay. The use of neutral oak, in whole or in combination with steel tanks, can result in a remarkable depth of flavor, and a particularly silky texture.

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Interestingly, at least to those who care to know a bit more about the intricacies of winemaking, practically none of the producers allow their wines to go through a secondary malolactic fermentation. The primary reason given for this approach has to do with the slightly lower natural levels of acidity present in most of the region's white grapes at harvest. The thinking being that allowing this secondary fermentation, which transforms spiky malic acid into smoother, more mellow lactic acid, has the effect of raising the overall pH of the wine and reducing the acidity.

Christophe Sabon at Domaine de la Janasse accidentally allowed his white wine to complete a secondary fermentation in 2000, and was pleasantly surprised by the resulting wine, which did not seem to suffer from a significant reduction in acidity. As a bonus this accident allowed him to leave the wine unfiltered, and he has repeated the process every year since, leaving him somewhat alone in this approach amongst his peers in the region.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc drinks deliciously for the first couple of years after it is released, generously filling the glass with its sunshine-like brightness. However after a few years in the bottle it can undergo a transformation that leaves it somewhat narrow, bitter, and tasting as if the wine has oxidized (though it has not). This closing down, or "dumb phase," as some would call it, can last for a few years, and bears resemblance to the similar characteristics of Hermitage Blanc, and to a lesser extent some Rieslings. In my experience, however, the wines that emerge from this phase of their development have incredible character and depth, having gained a phenolic richness that seems almost sweet, as well as finer, more delicate savory notes that add fantastic complexity to the wines. Most may not have the patience to wait 20 years for this alchemy to take place, but even they should keep an eye on restaurant wine lists and the contents of friends' cellars for the opportunity to try a well-aged example.

Even without the patina of age, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc can be extraordinary, and a worthy white counterpart to the profound reds of the region, who also have the characteristic in their best years of being both rich and light at the same time. Drenched with sun, battered by the merciless Mistral winds, and warmed through the night by their famous rounded white river stones, the white wines and the reds have a grace and power unique in the wine world.

While I find as many red Châteauneuf-du-Papes that I don't like as those I do, the same cannot be said for the regions whites, which I generally enjoy almost without exception. If you pardon the borrowing of an old joke, this makes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc a lot like sex. Even when its bad, it's still pretty damn good.

TASTING NOTES:

2012 Domaine de la Solitude White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of Ranier cherries, poached pears, and apple. In the mouth the wine is beautifully balanced between apple, quince, and citrus flavors. Wet stones and crackling acidity make this wine utterly fresh and delicious. A blend of Roussanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Grenache Blanc. The Roussanne and Grenache Blanc are aged in oak for 6 months on the lees. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $40 click to buy.

2012 Domaine de la Janasse White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, pears, and white peaches. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful salinity to it underneath flavors of white peach, pears and apples. Beautifully round and rich but without being too ripe this wine is perfectly balanced and delicious. A faint tannic grip remains through a very long finish. A blend of 40% Grenache Blanc, 30% Roussanne, and 30% Clairette all grown on sandy soils with a little clay. 14.5% alcohol. 350 cases made. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2013 Domaine du Pégau White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass with a touch of green, this wine smells of green apples and lemongrass. In the mouth the wine has a fantastic green brightness and a lean green apple and lime quality that is quite unlike most white Châteauneuf-du-Pape in part due to solitude_blanc.jpgthe blend's dominance by Clairette. Juicy and delicious. A blend of 60% Clairette, 20% Grenache Blanc, 10% Bourboulenc, and 10% Roussanne. 13.4% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2012 Domaine Giraud White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of ripe pears, wet stones and white flowers. In the mouth, bright pear and apple flavors have a wonderful brightness to them thanks to crisp acidity and a nice mineral undertone. Clean, bright, balanced, and quite delicious. Contains 25% each of Roussanne, Clairette, Bourboulenc, and Grenache Blanc. The Roussanne is aged in wood, the rest in tank. Only around 100 cases of the wine are made each year. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2013 Chateau La Nerthe White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of poached pear and white flowers with a hint of white peach. In the mouth white peach, pear, and beautiful honeysuckle flavors have a gorgeous texture and a hint of chalky grip to them. Crisp minerality and excellent acidity make this a joy to drink, especially with a tart green apple kick to the finish. Lighter on its feet than most Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blancs. A blend of 40% Grenache Blanc, 40% Roussanne, 12% Clairette, and 8% Bourboulenc. 33% of the wine is fermented in oak, with the rest kept in tank on its fine lees. 13.5% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $50

2012 Domaine de Beaurenard "Boisrenard" White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of ripe pears and pear skin with wet stones and fresh rainwater. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful deep minerality with a waxy quality that wraps around a core of pear and apple and a hint of apricot. A blend dominated by Roussanne and Clairette, with smaller parts of Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc and a few percent of Picpoul and Picardin. 14% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $60 click to buy.

2012 Ogier "Heritages" White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of unripe pear and lemon juice. In the mouth the wine has a wonderfully juicy lemon pith and lemon juice brightness, but just as the wine leans toward the tart end of the spectrum, a honeyed richness emerges to balance things out. Fresh and delicious and quite easy to drink. Excellent acidity and moderate finish. Contains 25% of each of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, and Bourboulenc. 13% alcohol. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $42 click to buy.

2013 Domaine de Cristia White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of pears and apples with a hint of peach. In the mouth, flavors of peaches, apples, and pears blend nicely with a stony mineral underbelly. There's a spiciness to the wine too, like a whiff of cumin or some other exotic spice floating by on the breeze. Excellent acidity and balance. While fresh and bright now, it will benefit from a year or two in the bottle to broaden and deepen. A blend of 40% Roussanne, 40% Clairette, 20% Bourboulenc. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $40 click to buy.

2012 Chateau La Nerthe White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light gold in color, this wine smells of wet chalkboard and white flowers with a bit of unripe pear backing that up. In the mouth, the wine has a lean mineral quality to it, with lemon oil and wet stones mixed with unripe pear and unripe peach. A bit tart, to be honest, but quite pleasurable. With time, the wine will fatten, but for now it is quite crisp and enjoyable as such. A blend of 40% Grenache Blanc, 40% Roussanne, 12% Clairette, and 8% Bourboulenc. 33% of the wine is fermented in oak, with the rest kept in tank on its fine lees. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2012 Domaine de Beaurenard White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of baked apples and poached pears. In the mouth, gorgeously silky and honeyed flavors of pears, apple, and honeysuckle turn peachy towards the finish. Rich and broad with good acidity. Nice long finish. A blend of roughly equal parts Roussanne, Clairette, Grenache Blanc, Bourboulenc, plus a few percent of Picpoul and Picardin. 14% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $36 click to buy.

2012 Domaine Chante Cigale White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of cold cream, lemon zest and ripe pears. In the mouth, the wine has a crisp freshness as flavors of pear and unripe peaches dance with a bright minerality. Juicy and lean, but with some richness that hangs in the background, the wine has a long finish. Excellent acidity and balance. Contains 25% each of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Clairette, and Bourboulenc. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $36 click to buy.

2012 Domaine Saint Michel White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of ripe pears and white peaches. In the mouth the wine offers spicy pear and unripe peach flavors that lean towards apricot in the finish. A nice mineral undertone keeps the fruit fresh and lean, as does excellent acidity. There is a faint note of cinnamon or some other exotic spice that lingers in the mouth. A blend of 30% Grenache Blanc, 20% Clairette, 20% Roussanne, and 20% Bourboulenc. 25% of the wine is aged in new oak barrels. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $35 click to buy.

2013 Le Vieux Donjon White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Palest greenish gold in color, this wine smells of green apple and pears. In the mouth, bright green apple and pear flavors have a snappy zing to them thanks to fantastic acidity and a wet cement minerality. Lean and mean, and built to age. Very bright and delicious. Equal parts Clairette, and Roussanne, from a small vineyard planted in 1990. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2012 Domaine de Galet des Papes White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of golden delicious apples, pears, and a hint of honey. In the mouth, apple and pear skin flavors have a nice brightness thanks to good acidity and a nice snappy acidity. Clean and crisp with a nice balance between richness and fresh bright minerality. A blend of 60% Grenache Blanc, 20% Clairette, and 20% Bourboulenc. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9. Cost: $??

2012 Domaine de la Charbonniere White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon curd, oak, and spiced pears. In the mouth the wine has a wonderful balance between bright peachy and pear fruit and deeper mineral aspects. Round and rich without sacrificing the brightness and mineral aspects of a fresh white, this wine is quite well balanced. There's slightly more influence of oak than I would prefer but it is not egregious. A blend of 40% Grenache Blanc, 40% Roussanne, and 20% Clairette. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $50 click to buy.

2013 Clos St. Jean White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass with a faint green hue, this wine smells of green apple and Fuji apple with a bit of poached pear. In the mouth poached pear, green apple, and wet stones have a bright floral quality. Excellent bright acidity keeps this wine quite fresh and crisp. A blend of 25% Grenache Blanc, 25% Clairette, 25% Roussanne, 25% Bourboulenc. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $45 click to buy.

2012 Domaine de 3 Cellier "L'insolent" Roussanne, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light yellow-gold in color, this wine smells of ripe pears and honey. In the mouth, the wine has a spiced and poached pear flavor mixed with a nice stony quality that deepens with time and pervades the finish. A hint of lemon zest lingers also creeps into the end. 100% Roussanne. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2013 l'Abbé Dîne White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light gold in the glass with a hint of green, this wine smells of crisp apples and a hint of exotic citrus. In the mouth the wine has a light sweetness to it with apple and pear flavors mixed with a nice white floral character. A bitterness creeps into the finish, but not to the point of distraction. 50% of the wine is fermented and aged in wood. A blend of 98% Grenache, and the rest being Bourboulenc, Clairette, and Roussanne. 15% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $??

2012 L'Or de Line White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of pear and grapefruit pith. In the mouth, zippy flavors of grapefruit pith and citrus zest have a wet chalkboard kind of minerality to them. A hint of honeysuckle floats through the finish. Lean and fairly austere for a white Châteauneuf, this wine will blossom with some time in the bottle. A blend of 20% Grenache Blanc, 20% Roussanne, 20% Picpoul, 20% Bourboulenc, and a little bit of Picardin and Clairette. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9. Cost: $33 click to buy.

2012 Domaine Font de Michelle White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in color, this wine smells of ripe pears and a hint of stone fruit. In the mouth, bright pear and unripe peach flavors have a brisk acidity to them, and a nice leanness, but also a hint of woody bitterness on the finish that I don't care for. A blend of 50% Grenache Blanc, 25% Clairette, 20% Roussanne, and 5% Bourboulenc. 25% of the wine is aged in new oak barrels. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $43 click to buy.

2012 Domaine de Marcoux White Blend, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France
Light gold in the glass, this in wines smells of baked apples and pink grapefruit. In the mouth grapefruit, golden apple, and poached pear flavors have a light bitterness to them and a rich honeyed character. Good acidity and mineral notes, but also some sensation of alcohol on the palate. A roughly equal blend of Roussanne and Bourboulenc. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5. Cost: $63 click to buy.


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Comments (3)

Jerry wrote:
08.11.14 at 9:46 AM

I notice that one of the photos shows drip irrigation. Is this in an AOC vineyard? Have the rules about irrigation in France changed?

Alder wrote:
08.11.14 at 12:10 PM

Jerry,

Good eye. That photo is of the vineyard in front of Chateau La Nerthe in Chateauneuf. It is a vineyard within the bounds of the AOC and I believe the grapes from it are used in the estate's white. That would mean that USING that irrigation line would be illegal under most circumstances without special permission.

Alder

08.12.14 at 6:13 AM

Great piece, Alder. I, too, love CdP Blanc, and you tasted through some really good ones! Interesting to read more about maloactic fermentation in CdP Blancs, which is something I've wondered about before but never really investigated. I was under the impression most winemakers allowed little, but I think sometimes the richer Roussanne-heavy wines confused my perception of the maloactic. Cheers!

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