STEPHEN BROOK samples the 1999 and 2000 vintages of Californian white Rhône varietals

STEPHEN BROOK samples the 1999 and 2000 vintages of Californian white Rhône varietals

That seductive grape variety Viognier is the speciality of the Rhône village of Condrieu, where its susceptibility to various maladies makes it notoriously difficult to grow. You can imagine the delight of California producers when they discovered that Viognier recovered its health when planted in their balmy climate.Once rich, ripe Viognier from California proved feasible, growers and winemakers began to look at at two other Rhône varieties: Marsanne and Roussanne. As in southern France, they were used mostly as blending varieties but also for occasional varietal bottlings.For some years, delicious white Rhône-style wines have been emerging from all parts of California, but the enthusiasm of the producers has not always transmitted to the consumers. Californian consumers are used to high alcohol wines, and even admire them, but Viognier can pack an excessive punch. ‘It has a thick leathery skin,’ explains Bob Blue, winemaker at Fetzer, one of California’s largest Viognier producers, ‘and only tastes fully ripe at very high sugar levels.’ It is not uncommon for Viognier to ferment to over 15%. When that happens, producers such as Fetzer and McDowell, another Mendocino Rhône-variety specialist, employ spinning-cone technology to remove some of the alcohol from the wine.

Some Viogniers have been over-oaked. Ten years ago, winemakers were excited by the variety but didn’t know how to make it, so they would throw it into new oak and charge a lot of money. Consumers understandably resisted, and they were right: many of the wines were coarse. But today one encounters very few extravagantly oaky Viogniers.With Roussanne an entirely different difficulty arose. I recall admiring many Californian Roussannes a few years ago – rich, flowery wines of succulence and charm. Unfortunately most weren’t Roussanne at all. Cuttings brought into California by Randall Grahm at Bonny Doon, to be propagated and sold by commercial nurseries, turned out to be Viognier! It’s been estimated that 60% of all ‘Roussanne’ planted in the state is in fact Viognier. The owner of Mer Soleil, Chuck Wagner, went so far as to institute legal action against Grahm and the nursery from which he bought the cuttings. Zaca Mesa recalled its ‘Roussanne’ and re-released it, correctly, as Viognier.

Nonetheless, the problem is being sorted out. One of the leading Rhône Rangers, John Alban, has authentic Roussanne in his vineyards, as does the nursery at Tablas Creek, owned by the Perrins of Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe.California has some way to go with Marsanne. But then no one would claim that Marsanne is a noble white variety. Some Californian winemakers do look wistfully towards the great white Hermitages of the Rhône, but they can’t reproduce the special terroirs of the Hermitage hill.

The notes that follow are on recent or forthcoming releases of white Rhône varietals from all parts of California. It’s not comprehensive, and it was not always possible to taste some of the leading examples, often because the 1999 was sold out and the 2000 still not bottled. But it’s safe to assume that wines from the likes of Alban and Arrowood are likely to be first-rate. The 1999 and 2000 vintages were very good in most parts of California, although decidedly cool in more southern regions such as Santa Barbara, where heat-seeking varieties such as Viognier had some difficulty in ripening at certain sites.

VIOGNIER

Despite producing significant quantities, Fetzer makes one of the best Mendocino Viogniers. The 1999 Bonterra, from organic vineyards, is perfumed with wafting honeysuckle aromas, its power and spice aren’t dependent on oak, and the wine is balanced and lively. The 1999 Claudia Springs is more peachy on the nose, and is equally rich and spicy, if less long; the 2000 (tank sample) also shows promise. The 2000 Jepson (tank sample) is more delicate and lower in alcohol, yet the wine is concentrated and has fine acidity.From Napa, Phelps remains the leading producer, and the 1999 has a splendid nose of blossom and lychees; this is truly delicious, creamily textured, with good acidity and a burst of white pepper on the finish. The 1999 from Beaulieu is velvety and spicy, but a touch of bitterness suggests slightly too much exposure to new oak. The 1999 Beringer is better, having greater elegance; not as complex as Phelps, but lush and with a firm, nutty finish. New Napa star Pride Mountain also goes for an oaky style with its 2000 Viognier, which is full-bodied and powerful. The new Darioush estate goes for a barrel-fermented style in 2000, but the wine is a touch light.Of the few Viogniers emerging from Sonoma, Arrowood’s is usually the most polished. The 2000 Preston has a very charming floral nose, and ample vigour and persistence on the palate, which is rich and svelte. The 1999 Cline has unusual delicacy and freshness, which no doubt reflects the origin of the grapes in the cool Carneros region. Up in the Sierra Foothills there are many enthusiastic producers. The 2000 Terre Rouge is outstanding: barrel-fermentation adds spice to the honeysuckle aromas, and the wine is plump and full-bodied but has good length. The 2000 Sobon is less oaky, more flowery and piquant.

From Monterey, the 1999 Chalone is magnificent: powerful and toasty with a strong mineral character typical of this remarkable and atypical limestone terroir. The 1999 Calera is almost as fine – a subtle, brooding wine, peachy and dense, with a long nutty finish. In Paso Robles, Eberle has been making single-vineyard Viogniers for a decade. His 2000 Mill Road Vineyard is elegant and perfumed, and powerful on the palate, if a touch alcoholic. From the Fralich Vineyard come three sound Viogniers: the 1999 Dover Canyon Reserve, marred by a slight herbaceous tone; the 2000 Martin & Weyrich which is juicy but lacks acidity; and the late-harvest style 2000 Garretson.In Santa Barbara Andrew Murray makes two Viogniers. ‘Tous les Jours’ 2000 is plump but lacks finesse. It is outclassed by the 2000 Estate Viognier, aged in older barriques to preserve its exquisite floral aromas; on the palate, it shows delicious ripe fruit, even a touch of pineapple. The 1999 Curtis and 1999 Curtis Rothberg Vineyard Reserve are honeyed and succulent, but a touch heavy. The 1999 Sunstone Estate has exotic mango aromas, and is full-bodied but spicy.

ROUSSANNE

Fetzer is one of few producers in Mendocino, and the 1999 Bonterra has an appley nose and a full-bodied, concentrated palate. From the Sierra Foothills the 1999 Sobon is strangely austere, but the 1999 Terre Rouge is exceptional: oaky on the nose, with rich peachy flavours, ample weight, and a hint of dryness from the oak. From Paso Robles, Wild Horse made a fine example under its Equus label in 1999: aromatic but hefty and powerful; little finesse, but an impressive mouthful of wine. So is Qupé Alban Vineyard 1999 with its elegant peach nose, and its bold oaky flavours. From Santa Barbara, Ojai’s Vin de Soleil (80% Roussanne) has a spicy honeysuckle nose reminiscent of Viognier, and on the palate it’s lush but firm.

MARSANNE

In Mendocino, McDowell produces a 1999 Marsanne with upfront fruit and better acidity and freshness than most other examples, including the 1999 Bonterra. In Napa the 1999 Phelps is peachy and juicy but the acidity is low, resulting in a dull wine. Indeed, neutrality is the overriding character of most Marsannes. The best seem to come from Santa Barbara. The 2000 Beckmen is clean, ripe and tangy, and the 1999 Andrew Murray, aged in older barrels, is broad and rich but without great length.

BLENDS

The 1999 Niebaum-Coppola Blancaneaux is an intriguing wine from 40% Chardonnay, the rest being the three Rhône varieties. The aromatic lift of Roussanne and Viognier dominates the nose, and the wine is lush and concentrated, the lashings of new French oak nicely absorbed. The 1999 Beaulieu Napa Ensemble (mostly Marsanne and Roussanne) has aromas of tropical fruit but is somewhat flabby.In Sonoma, Wellington’s as yet unnamed Roussanne-dominated blend in 2000 showed promise from cask, as did a Viognier-dominated blend in 2000 from Renwood in the Sierra Foothills, with its nose of almonds and honeysuckle. Terre Rouge’s 1999 Enigma, a blend of all three varieties, is bold, rich, with hints of mango and a long, almondy finish. In Paso Robles, the tiny Reed Cellars made a wonderfully perfumed, tangy Roussanne-Viognier blend in 2000, a keen rival to the better-known 2000 Qupé Marsanne/Roussanne, which was nicely made but slightly neutral.

Written by STEPHEN BROOK