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The History of Rhône Valley White Wines—Plus, Bottles to Try

Photo by Tom Arena

Whether Côtes du Rhône or Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Saint-Joseph or Hermitage, the appellations of the Rhône Valley are best known for red wines. Yet there’s a long, illustrious history of white wine production in the region, too.

One of the earliest American champions of Rhône whites was Thomas Jefferson. In the late 18th century, soon after his return from France, he wrote authoritatively about Hermitage to a Philadelphia wine merchant.

“The red is not very highly esteemed, but the White is the first wine in the world without a single exception,” he declared. Unfortunately, “there is so little of the White made that it is difficult to buy it.”

As then, white wines of the Rhône Valley are still marginal in volume, comprising less than 10% of the wines produced regionwide. Scarcity is a large part of why Rhône whites are so little-known outside of France, suggests winemaker Bastien Tardieu, who, with his father Michel, helms the negociant Maison Tardieu-Laurent.

However, “white wines are more important today than any time in the last 20 years,” says Tardieu. The wines continue to increase in quantity and evolve in style as winemakers have become more specialized and equipped for white wine production.

Château La Nerthe 2018 Clos de Beauvenir White (Châteauneufdu-Pape). Cellar Selection; $136. Whiffs of vanilla and forest floor are rousing on the nose of this robust blend of…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Château de Saint Cosme 2019 Condrieu. Editors’ Choice; $100. Swirls of fresh white peach and melon juxtapose toasted notes of biscotti and charred vanilla bean in this lavish…SEE SCORE AND FULL REVIEW

Photo by Tom Arena

Noble White Wines of the North

With its harsh, continental climate and steep, terraced vineyards, the terroir of the Northern Rhône, as well as the wines produced there, are remarkably distinct from those of the South.

Hermitage, as Jefferson suggested, is the region’s most famous appellation, a majestic granite hill looming over the Rhône River and producing exceptionally age-worthy red and white wines.

Marsanne and Roussanne are the two white grapes permitted for Hermitage blanc, “but Hermitage was always more Marsanne,” explains Michel Chapoutier, whose family domaine, Maison M. Chapoutier, is the largest vineyard holder in Hermitage. Unlike most Hermitage blancs that are blended, Chapoutier’s wines are exclusively single-varietal expressions of Marsanne.

White wines of the Rhône are diverse in grape variety and style, but they tend to share a softness of acidity that sets them apart from popular white wines around the world, like those made from Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling. Marsanne, in particular, produces seductive, opulent wines often described as glycerol, even oily, in texture.

Most white wines are defined by their acidity, Chapoutier explains, but “Marsanne plays on a noble bitterness, or tannins, for structure and aging potential.” Tasted young, says Chapoutier, “Marsanne can be a bit austere, suggesting notes of green almond” rather than exuberant fruit or flora. As it matures, Marsanne gains texture and complexity along with a unique “torrefaction”—deliciously smoky, spicy hints of roasted coffee or cacao beans.

Roussanne, by comparison, is more floral in youth and oxidizes quickly, making it better suited to wines intended for early consumption, Chapoutier suggests. Blends of Marsanne and Roussanne are the backbone of the vibrantly fruity, easy-drinking whites of neighboring appellations like Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Saint-Péray.