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All Things Consumed: Taking A Closer Look at Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc

Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Roussanne

Roussanne Roussanne, with its honeyed richness and excellent longevity, forms the backbone of our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc. In addition, it has the balance and character to make a compelling single varietal wine, as in our varietal Roussanne that we've made each year since 2001. The varietal takes its name from “roux”, the French word for “russet” – an apt description of the grapes’ reddish gold skins at harvest.

Roussanne in France
Although no one is precisely sure where Roussanne originated, it seems likely the varietal is native to the Rhône Valley and to the Isere Valley in eastern France. The varietal has not ventured far from its origin; most of the world’s Roussanne is grown throughout the Rhône, where it is traditionally used as a blending grape. In the Southern Rhône, Roussanne is one of six white grape varietals permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and it is often blended with Grenache Blanc, whose richness and crisp acids highlight Roussanne’s pear and honey flavors. In the Northern Rhône, Roussanne is frequently blended with Marsanne in the appellations of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and Saint Joseph to provide acidity, minerality and richness. As a single varietal wine, it reaches its pinnacle as the sole component of Château de Beaucastel’s Roussanne Vieilles Vignes.

Roussanne is also found in the Savoie region of France (where it is known as Bergeron), and in limited quantities in Australia and Italy. In the United States, Roussanne is most planted in the Central Coast, but can also be found in Sonoma, Napa and the Sierra Foothills regions of California, as well as in the Yakima Valley of Washington State.

Roussanne in California
After some early, largely unsuccessful experiments with Roussanne (the last of which were pulled out in the 1920s) early Rhone Rangers reintroduced Roussanne into the United States in the 1980s. Cuttings, taken from the Rhône Valley, were propagated and planted in vineyards around California, and many wines from those cuttings garnered critical acclaim. Years later, in 1998, DNA tests identified those vines as Viognier – a discovery which led to years of controversy. We ensured the authenticity of our clones by importing vine cuttings directly from Château de Beaucastel; the Roussanne available from the Tablas Creek Nursery is a certified clone, tested by the USDA. Around the same time we brought in the Beaucastel clones, John Alban imported Roussanne to plant in his Central Coast vineyards. Those clones were also true Roussanne, and virtually all of the 348 acres of Roussanne planted as of 2008 in California are descendants of the clones brought in by Alban and by Tablas Creek.

A few years back, we put together a page that identifies the principal attributes of both Roussanne and Viognier, with distinguishing characteristics highlighted, should you have some in the ground and want to research which you have.

Roussanne in the Vineyard
Roussanne has a well-deserved reputation as a difficult varietal to grow (our nursery partners at NovaVine call it "the princess") and as such is often passed over in favor of the more cooperative Marsanne. In its native France, plantings had declined to just 54 hectares in the late 1960s before rebounding thanks to superior clones developed towards the end of the twentieth century. Roussanne grapes are susceptible to powdery mildew and rot, and the vine is a shy and erratic producer even under ideal conditions.

Of the five white Rhône varietals that we grow at Tablas Creek, Roussanne is generally the latest-ripening. In addition, it is prone to shutting down toward the end of harvest, as well as to shatter and uneven yields. The vines are very responsive to sunlight, and grape bunches on the western side of the vine tend to ripen more quickly than bunches on the eastern side. To combat this tendency, we aggressively thin the leaves to expose more bunches to sunlight and harvest the grapes in multiple passes. Eighteen acres of our vineyard are devoted to Roussanne, representing about half of our white Châteauneuf-du-Pape varieties and over 5% of the Roussanne planted in California.

Tablas Creek hosted a summer 2008 producers-only symposium on Roussanne to discuss the viticultural, winemaking and marketing challenges it presents. Other producers, as well as trade and consumers, may be interested in the Roussanne Symposium recap notes (in PDF).

Roussanne in the Cellar
In contrast to the challenge it presents in the vineyard, Roussanne is flexible and forgiving in the cellar.  It can be successfully fermented in large or small oak, or in stainless steel.  It can be harvested at lower sugars but still have good body, or can be left to greater ripeness without losing all its acidity.  It has the body to take to new oak, or stainless steel can emphasize its minerality.  And unlike most white wines, Roussanne ages very well due to its unusual combination of richness, minerality and balancing acids; many Roussanne wines can be enjoyed up to 15 years or more after bottling.

At Tablas Creek, we ferment and age about one third of our Roussanne in one- to five-year-old small French oak barrels, one third in large 1200-gallon French oak foudres, and the remainder in stainless steel. The oak provides a structured richness and enhances the rich texture of the grape, while the stainless steel emphasizes the minerality of the wine and heightens the floral aromatics. 

Flavors and Aromas
Wines made from Roussanne are rich and complex, with distinct honey, floral and apricot flavors.  They have a characteristic oily texture and a full body that is more reminiscent of red wines than whites.  We make, in a normal year, at least four wines that contain Roussanne. Our varietal Roussanne showcases wine lots with particularly intense varietal character. A Bergeron bottling, from grapes harvested earlier, with brighter acidity, pays homage to the Roussannes of the Savoie. Finally, Roussanne forms the core of our signature Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc and adds structure and acids to our Viognier-based Cotes de Tablas Blanc. It also makes a delicious base to our Vin de Paille dessert wines.