Rhone Part 2: Finding whites in the land of reds

Syrah may be the king of Crozes-Hermitage, but the Northern Rhone’s largest appellation is also home to some stunning whites, as Peter Ranscombe discovers.

Word association can be a dangerous sport in the world of wine. Mention the name “Crozes-Hermitage” and most wine fans will immediately think of deliciously rich and ripe reds made from the Syrah grape.

Yet the biggest appellation or wine-growing area in France’s Northern Rhone is also home to two often-overlooked white grapes – Marsanne and Roussanne. One of the highlights of a recent visit to Crozes-Hermitage was the opportunity to learn more about the area’s white wines and how well they pair with a broad range of foods.

A great introduction to white Crozes-Hermitage is the 2015 Cave de Tain Grand Classique Blanc (£12.79, Uvinum), made from Marsanne and packed full of apricot and pear flavours, balanced by refreshing acidity. Stepping up a gear, the Cave de Tain co-operative’s 2015 Les Hauts d’Eole Blanc (£20.04, Uvinum) is made from a blend of 60% Marsanne and 40% Roussanne taken from three or four plots that vary with each vintage, with the current bottling featuring apricot and lemon rind flavours, plus a distinctive smoked mackerel note on the nose, arising from its nine months ageing in oak barrels.

The contrast between single varietal bottlings of Marsanne and blends of Marsanne with Roussanne is also on show in the range made by Paul Jaboulet Aine, one of the area’s best-known producers. The 2016 Les Jalets (£18.20, Fine Wine Company), which is made from fruit bought from different growers, consists of Marsanne and is very fish-friendly, with lots of fresh acidity and crisp lemon flavours, while a fifty-fifty mix in the 2016 Domaine Mule Blanche (£26.24, Exel) adds Roussane’s freshness to Marsanne’s rich apricot flavours.

Smaller producers

It’s not just the big boys that bottle white wine in Crozes-Hermitage either. Brother-and-sister Laurent and Céline Fayolle make their 2016 Sens Blanc (£14.06, Christopher Keiller, 2015 vintage) from 60% Marsanne and 40% Roussanne, which produces peach and apricot flavours balanced by refreshing acidity and a touch of roundness from 10% of the wine being aged in oak.

The 2015 Fayolle Les Pontaix (£25.20, Hedonism Wines) is produced using 60-year-old Marsanne vines and is aged in oak casks for a year. The result is smoke on the nose, balanced by fresh apricot aromas, with a creamy mouthfeel and a bit of tannin giving texture.

Winemaker Gilles Robin headed in the opposite direction with the blend for his 2015 Les Marelles (£20.53, Christopher Keiller, 2016 vintage), with 40% Marsanne and 60% Roussanne. It’s apricots and peaches all the way, with a bit more roundness and body.

In contrast, I found the 2015 Yann Chave Crozes-Hermitage Blanc to be more savoury, with its two-thirds Marsanne and one-third Roussanne mixture. Almonds join the lemon and apricot on the nose and there’s a steeliness to the palate that makes it a great match to seafood – and cheese.