A Symposium on Roussanne (AKA three days spent with an infuriating, unpredictable, enticing, lovely grape)
September 17, 2008
Don't be fooled by this Roussanne cluster's
innocuous appearance. It's a relentlessly
Last month we hosted a producers-only symposium on Roussanne. Roussanne has tremendous potential, and at its best makes wines with richness, striking minerality, ageability, and balance. Robert Parker has called it "clearly the most noble of these [Rhone] white wine varietals". Still, it has frustrated nearly everyone who has worked with it. It grows erratically and is prone to shutting down mid-ripening, losing its leaves and turning yellow. It is (unusually for a white wine) prone to reduction in the cellar, and yet is renowned in France for its oxidative periods as it ages. The market for Roussanne is challenging, with even the best producers capping their production around a few thousand cases. Most are smaller.
Although there are only about 180 acres planted in California (10% of which are at Tablas Creek), Roussanne has made an outsize impression on the wine community, with highly publicized, highly scored wines from producers such as Alban, Konsgaard, Qupe, Sine Qua Non, Bonny Doon, Linne Calodo, and Stolpman. But plantings of Roussanne have slowed in recent years. According to the USDA's Wine Grape Acreage Reports, just 12 total acres of Roussanne were planted in California between 2003 and 2005 (compared to an average of 20 acres each year between 1998 and 2002). This reflects both a period of assessment after the early adopters jumped in and the reality that Roussanne has proven to be more difficult to make in California and to sell to American consumers than most of us expected.
So, we figured that the time was right to get some of the leading producers of Roussanne together to discuss this uniquely talented but undeniably challenging grape. The response that we received is an indication both of Roussanne's appeal and its challenges. The list of attendees (Adelaida Cellars,
Bonny Doon Winery,
Château de Beaucastel,
Domaine de la Terre Rouge,
Halter Ranch Vineyard,
Zaca Mesa) included most of the leading lights of Rhone whites in California. A photo of the attendees is below:
Standing (from left): Dan Cuzzi (JC Cellars), Tom Nemcik (NovaVine), Tony Truchard (Truchard), Doug McCrea (McCrea), Linda Truchard (Truchard), Tegan Passalacqua (Turley), Chelsea Magnusson (Tablas Creek), Steve Anglim (Anglim), Pierre Perrin (Domaines Perrin), Neil Collins (Tablas Creek), Charlie Tsegeletos (Cline), Lood Kotze (Cass), Ernst Storm (Curtis), Steve Lohr (J. Lohr), Ryan Hebert (Tablas Creek), Ruben Solorzano (Stolpman), Jeff Meier (J. Lohr). Front Row (from left): Jason Haas (Tablas Creek), Burke Owens (Bonny Doon), Sashi Moorman (Stolpman), Judy Starr (Starr Ranch), Molly Dow (Halter Ranch), Bob Lindquist (Qupe), Robert Haas (Tablas Creek), Kyle Knapp (Stolpman). Sitting: Phil Stevens (Starr Ranch).
The results of the symposium were fascinating and helpful to us as a producer, but also brought to light some items that seemed to be of general interest. Hence this blog post.
We began the three-day symposium with presentations on the history and current state of Roussanne in France by Pierre Perrin of Beaucastel and in California by Patrick Comiskey of Wine&Spirits Magazine. Roussanne appears equally as challenging in France as in California; the appellation best known for it (Hermitage in the Northern Rhone) has almost entirely replaced Roussanne with the easier to grow and more reliable Marsanne. Yet producers, seduced by the heights that great Roussannes have attained, continue to try it in new places. Plantings of Roussanne in France have increased over the last 40 years from 58 hectares to 1074 hectares. Eighty percent of the acreage is located in Provence, Languedoc-Roussillon and Vaucluse. In California, Roussanne arrived in the 1870s into Northern California, but was not found to be particularly well suited to the needs of the day for grapes that grew easily and produced immediately appealing wines. Acreage declined gradually and the last vines were pulled out in 1927. There followed a long fallow period until the 1990s, when several producers intrigued like us by the Vieilles Vignes Roussanne from Chateau de Beaucastel (including John Alban, Bill Easton and us) brought in new cuttings of Roussanne and planted our first vines. The modern history of Roussanne in California is still remarkably short.
The following day we spent focused on problems in the vineyard. The principal challenge that we were looking to solve was that of leaf yellowing. We and several other Paso Robles producers have seen Roussanne vines whose leaves will turn yellow and fall off early in the season (as early as mid-July) with grapes still hard and acidic. Grape ripening stalls and the grapes can end up achieving desired sugar levels through dehydration but never achieve physiological ripeness. Other vineyard problems with Roussanne include widely variable yields, uneven ripening (we typically harvest Roussanne a minimum of three times through each block), often searing acidity and late ripening in cool climates and low acids in warm climates. Other than that, it's easy.
We feel that we might have made a breakthrough on the problem of leaf yellowing. The attending producers who described the problem were all located in high-calcium soils with a fairly extreme temperature variation (Paso Robles or Santa Ynez). The symptoms are consistent with stress exacerbated by a nutrient deficiency, and intensive foliar fertilization appears to have some minor positive impact, though soil analysis has not shown any specific nutrient is missing. Young vineyards appear to be less affected than older ones. The key to the solution appears to be found from vineyards in similar conditions who did not see the leaf yellowing. All such wineries acidify their water to keep the high-pH soils from restricting nutrient uptake. Knowing that (or at least suspecting that) the yellowing is a stress-induced reaction to a vine's mineral deficiency caused by an overabundance of some other mineral gives us a hope of a solution to a problem that has been bothering us for years.
The final day included six panel discussions on different winemaking and marketing challenges of Roussanne. The topics included Roussanne from different regions/climates, Fermentation choices in Roussanne, Roussanne in Blends, Roussanne in the Marketplace, Roussanne as a Dessert Wine, and Roussanne with Age (what a treat to taste a 1990 Bonny Doon Le Sophiste, 1987 and 1996 Beaucastel "Vieilles Vignes" and 1996 and 1999 Qupe Roussannes).
The discussion of Roussanne in the marketplace (a panel on which I sat, along with John Alban and Burke Owens of Bonny Doon) was for me the most fascinating. Roussanne is not a widespread varietal; no producer there made more than 2500 cases of their Roussanne-based wine. Further complicating matters, the market generally associates it with blends, and the consensus was that in a crowded marketplace, unusual varieties can't just get by with being unusual. They need to be great. Roussanne (in the words of John Alban) "tends to be a rollercoaster". It varies often widely depending on where it's grown and where it is in its life cycle. And it's a polarizing wine; different people will love and hate the same wine. This makes it more of a challenge.
The successes are not always intuitive. Wineries report some success focusing on red wine drinkers, who appreciate the textural and structural character of Roussanne, as well as its ageability. Roussanne is a great "winter white", and pairs naturally with the richer, creamier flavors of winter. Many wineries who have had the most success have taken it out of the category of a varietal and put it into proprietary blends where the wine becomes an artistic expression rather than one of a category. Similarly, many wineries have associated their Roussanne-based wine with their better-known red blend. Examples include Bonny Doon's Cigare Blanc or our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc.
One particularly hopeful note is that at the end of the first day of the event, we held a group tasting of Roussanne wines from any of the participants who brought one (most did). Although styles varied, the quality of the wines we tasted was remarkable. Even better, most wines were priced in the $20 range.
I'm not sure I've ever written a blog post which has attempted to cover this much ground. And I'm sure that I've never taken this long to write a blog post (I began writing this nearly six weeks ago and have worked on it, on and off, ever since). But Roussanne seems to me a wine of such great potential, and the producers who attended showed such passion for this Quixotic grape, that it seems worth a special effort to share what we learned. Anyone who would like more details can find them in the symposium notes (in PDF format) from the Tablas Creek Web site, or is encouraged to ask questions here.
One addendum: anyone who is interested in Roussanne is particularly encouraged to come to this year's Vintner's Holidays event at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Park. We will be one of the presenting wineries of the December 2-4 session, and my seminar will be on the many faces of Roussanne, including two different single-varietal versions (our traditional Roussanne and our earlier-picked, more mineral Bergeron), as a blending component, and as a dessert wine. This is a great event anyway, and one of my favorites each year. What could be better than to have great wineries, terrific educational seminars, a dinner in the Ahwahnee's grand dining room, and one of the most beautiful spots on Earth almost entirely to yourself? Oh, and our company for the session? Randall Grahm, Merry Edwards, and Rombauer. Definitely the A-list. I hope to see many of you there.