Last weekend was the 15th Annual Hospice du Rhone festival, an event that every year draws a couple of thousand people to Paso Robles to learn, drink, and to celebrate wines of (or in the style of) the Rhone Valley. This was my first year attending the event (it’s usually not held at a good time of year for me, but this year I got lucky), and I was excited at the opportunity to attend an event that incorporated Rhone wines from outside of California. As regular attendees know, the French and the Australians show up loaded for bear, and it is extremely interesting to taste their wines side-by-side with some of the best California Rhone-style producers.
Of course, one of the other benefits of the international presence at the festival are the opportunities to have in-depth conversations with winemakers and producers about the wines they make and how they make them. For those who haven’t attended the event before, like many large wine festivals of its kind, Hospice du Rhone is a weekend long event that consists of tutorials and seminars as well as one or more grand tastings.
I’ll get to my scores and notes from the grand tasting later in the week, but certainly the highlight of this year’s tutorials was a seminar on the white wines of the Rhone, which I have long trumpeted as some of the best food matching and most underappreciated wines in the world. It was a great pleasure, then to get the opportunity to both taste and discuss a series of white Chateauneuf-du-Papes, Condrieus, and Roussannes with Yves Cuileron of Domaine Yves Cuileron, Yves Gangloff of Domaine Yves et Mathilde Gangloff, Marc Perrin of Chateau Beaucastel, Claire Michel of Le Vieux Donjon, and Francois Villard of Domaine Francois Villard.
John Alban kicked off the session with enthusiasm and with the little known fact that 15 years ago Hospice du Rhone actually had its origins in a group of winemakers he assembled to celebrate Viognier of all things, which at that time was virtually unknown in California. That little gathering grew into the organization and festival whose dominant varietal is certainly Syrah, but that morning’s session was a nice return to its beginnings, and a treat for those of us who have a soft spot for Viognier, as well as Roussanne, Marsanne, and the other white varietals of France’s Rhone Valley.
It’s hard to know how best to present my notes from this session, so I’ll just wing it and present you with some tasting notes that are intermixed with the various notes I took on the producers and their methods.
2005 Domaine Francois Villard “Mailant,” Saint Joseph, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of white flowers, peaches, and hint of orange blossom and freshly baked bread. In the mouth it is round and well textured, with good acidity that delivers a bit of ginger flavor mixed in with white stone fruits that linger to a long finish. From a long and narrow appellation in the Northern Rhone just south of Cornas, this wine is 50% Marsanne and 50% Roussanne fermented on natural yeast and matured in 35% new oak for 11 months. 9.
2006 Le Vieux Donjon Blanc, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine has an almost savory nose of butter and lemon curd. In the mouth, through a nice level of acid and a pleasant texture, it offers lemon curd, orange zest, and a slightly sea salt aspect on the palate. Unique and lovely. This wine is made from 50% Roussanne and 50% Clairette, making it a somewhat unusual blend for the appellation. It is fermented and aged in stainless steel and goes through no malolactic fermentation. 9
2004 Chateau Beaucastel Blanc, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of nut skin, burned sweet rice, cafe latte. Yes, call me crazy, but that’s what it smelled like. In the mouth it is gorgeously silky, with a cascade white flowers and poached pear flavor riddled with a refreshing stony quality that lingers into a long finish with a hint of butter. 9/9.5. Where to Buy?
2002 Chateau Beaucastel Roussanne Vielles Vignes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France
Medium yellow gold in the glass, this wine offers a nose of cold cream and wet chalkboard aromas, tinged with the tropical funkiness of ripe papaya. In the mouth it has considerable length and a nice weighty body. Nice acidity supports flavors of peach pie, hints of minerality, and a lingering note of dried leaves on the finish. Made from vines with an average age of 75 years, this wine is aged half in cement vats, half in old oak barrels. 9/9.5. Where to Buy?
1986 Chateau Beaucastel Roussanne Vielles Vignes, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of candied nuts and slight hints of petrol that might make a blind taster guess that it was an aged Riesling. In the mouth it possesses great acidity and a distinct chalky mineral aspect on the palate. The flavors eventually resolve to what I can best describe as juniper berry and candied lemon peel, which last through a very nice finish. 9.5
This wine needs some further explanation. Firstly, it was quite a treat to have Marc Perrin bring this wine with him to the tasting, as one rarely gets the chance to taste a 20 year-old white from the southern Rhone. He brought it to illustrate the amazing aging potential of the Roussanne variety, which he described as having some of Riesling’s longevity. Perhaps more interestingly, he describes his family’s experience aging Roussanne, in which quite consistently the wines completely shut down after about 4 or 5 years into a state of oxidized, flabby funk. But quite consistently, apparently, after 10 years, the wines emerge into a Riesling-like maturity with great acidity and minerality.
My tasting notes certainly bear that out, and now I’m of half a mind to go searching through the internet for forgotten stores of old-vine Roussanne, though I’ve little hope of finding any.
2005 Yves et Mathilde Gangloff Condrieu, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of peach, peach, peach, and more peach. In the mouth it has the body of an Olympic swimmer crossed with a Victoria’s Secret model. Supple and beautifully textured with an underlying strength, it offers lovely white peach and lemon flavors that fade into what tastes distinctly like warm buttered cornbread in its long finish. Fermented and then aged in 35% new oak for a year, this wine is 100% Viognier from vines grown in typical Condrieu terraced, granitic hillsides. 9.5. Where to Buy?
2005 Domaine Yves Cuilleron “Les Chaillets” Condrieu
Bright yellow-gold in the glass, this wine has a fantastic nose of peaches and apricots. In the mouth it takes flight with an ethereal quality that is hard to describe. Strong mineral flavors and floral, peach, and pear notes mingle amidst a perfect balance of acidity and silky body that makes it hard to swallow this wine, and even harder to spit it out. Made from grapes grown at a staggering density of 4000 vines per acre that yield an equally staggering 140 cases of wine per acre, this 100% Viognier wine ferments slowly over three months with natural yeasts in 30% new oak. It ages on its lees and is never racked before bottling. 9.5/10. Where to Buy?
2004 Yves Cuilleron “Ayguets” Late Harvest Condrieu, France
Light amber in color, this wine has a nose of honey and candied apricot. In the mouth it offers candied apricots, honey, and candied orange peel flavors buoyed by good acidity, and encased in a lovely textured body. The finish is lingering and pleasant. Made from botrytized grapes harvested carefully over the course of 2 months. Grapes from ach pass through the vineyard are vinified separately. 9/9.5. Where to Buy?
And I’ll cheat a bit and throw in this last wine, which was actually not from this session, but showed up in the next session of the day.
2006 Domaine De Marcoux Blanc, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, France
Light gold in the glass, this wine has a nose of cut grass and warm hay. In the mouth it offers bright acidity, and fresh fruit flavors of lemon juice mixed with a bracing minerality that lasts through a moderate finish. Made from equal parts of Roussanne and Bourboulenc, the wine matures on its lees with generally no malolactic fermentation. 8.5/9. Where to Buy?