Grapes of the Rhone Valley: Clairette Blanche
July 11, 2017
Terret Noir isn't the only new grape that we're getting to explore right now. In that same batch of imports, we brought in a white that is fairly widely planted in the Rhone Valley but new to California. Clairette Blanche (pronounced Kleh-RHEHT BLAHNSH) is a grape that was once one of the most widely planted white grapes in the south of France, and while acreage has declined, is still used in a variety of ways, including as a component of the Rhone's best-known sparkling wine.
Clairette is an ancient grape, first mentioned in the historical record in 1575 and famous as a component (along with Picpoul Blanc) of the renowned Picardin white wine that was widely exported from the Languedoc in the 17th and 18th centuries.1 Then, as now, it was valued for its adaptation to hot, dry climates; it can be picked early to show freshness and minerality, or can be left on the vine for a richer, more alcoholic result. As recently as the late 1950s there were more than 34,000 acres planted in the south of France, and while acreage has declined to some 6,000 acres now, it is still a major component of the white wines in the Rhone, the Gard, the Var, and the Drome. In Chateauneuf du Pape, it is the second-most-planted white variety after Grenache Blanc, with about 175 acres planted2 and is actually enjoying a bit of a moment right now, with a growing number of Chateauneuf-du-Pape producers turning to it to produce wines with more freshness and minerality.
Although it is rarely acknowledged as a varietal wine in France, it is the only variety permitted in the appellation Coteaux de Die, in the Drome region east of the city of Valence. Curiously, it is not the lead grape in the sparkling wine "Clairette de Die", which must be at least 75% Muscat. Up to 25% Clairette is permitted, and it is used to provide "elegance and finesse" to the otherwise intensely floral Muscat grape.3
Clairette Blanche's name is somewhat redundant, as "claire" means clear, fair, or bright, and "blanche" means white. There is a pink variant (Clairette Rose) that is not widely planted, so much so that for most French winemakers, they simply refer to the white version as "Clairette". For the Francophiles out there, Clairette is one of very few French grape names that is feminine. Most grapes are masculine, and the white variant is "Blanc". Because Clairette is feminine, the adjective white becomes "Blanche".
In 2003, we decided that we wanted the complete collection of Chateauneuf-du-Pape varieties, and took field cuttings from Beaucastel of the seven grapes we had not yet imported. Clairette Blanche was one of these. It spent seven years in quarantine at U.C. Davis before being released to us in 2009, propagated, and in 2010 planted in a half-acre block at the extreme western edge of our property. Our first release of Clairette off of these vines came in 2014.
Clairette Blanche in the Vineyard and Cellar
Clairette Blanche is relatively late-budding, and therefore less vulnerable than most of our white grapes to the spring frosts that are the chief weather hazard we deal with each year. It grows vigorously and very upright, and produces large, oval grapes. Its upright growth pattern means that it can be head-trained (and typically is in France) but we planted our small block double-cordon on trellis. It ripens in the middle of the harvest season, after grapes like Viognier, Marsanne, and Syrah, and typically right as we're finishing Grenache Blanc and starting Grenache Noir.
As this grape is new to us, in 2015 we experimented and picked our block twice: once in mid-September (at 21° Brix and a pH of 3.6) and once late in the month (at 22.8° Brix and a pH of 3.9). We found that the grape lost more than it gained with the later harvest, picking up some additional richness but at the cost of the citrusy expressiveness we liked from the earlier picking. To give more richness to the earlier picking, this year we fermented Clairette in neutral oak and stirred the lees regularly, and feel like this treatment gave us the best of both worlds: freshness and expressiveness, but also richer mouthfeel.
As we do with our new varieties whenever we're in our first few years of production, we have bottled our Clairette Blanche on its own in 2014, 2015 and (just last month) 2016. That said, we expect it to ultimately be a blending grape most years. We were excited to be able to source in 2016 some Clairette from a nearby vineyard to include in the 2016 Patelin de Tablas Blanc. It's only 3% of that wine, but its citrus character fits in nicely with the Grenache Blanc that leads the blend, and its modest alcohols moderate the higher-sugar Grenache Blanc and Viognier components.
Flavors and Aromas
Clairette Blanche is quite pale in color (it name means "clear white" after all), and on the nose reminiscent in many ways of Picpoul; in our newly-bottled 2016 I found aromas of pineapple, key lime, and mint. In the mouth, it stands right on the edge between sweet and tart, with flavors of kaffir lime, green plum, and lemongrass. The finish is clean and slightly nutty, with an anise note. If you are interested in trying it, we will be releasing our 100-case production of the 2016 Clairette Blanche at the end of the month.
- Jancis Robinson, Wine Grapes, HarperCollins 2012
- Harry Karis, The Chateauneuf-du-Pape Wine Book, Kavino, 2009
- Clairette-de-Die official Web site, June 2017