Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Roussanne-a-thon! A Blind Tasting

In the wrong hands, the roussanne grape yields a wine of sweaty corpulence, a palate-flattening liquor oil. In the right hands, all that flesh can be allied with acidity, stone, and spice to render a taut grace. After experiencing deep and mineral roussannes from Renaissance and Château de la Gardine, I started to fixate on the possibilities. What can roussanne say? In what places and in whose hands does it speak most clearly? How much attention must be paid?

I decided to host a blind tasting to find out. With a gaggle of friends, a murder of pals, we brown bagged five roussannes and compared notes. We did this not in a clean room but in a kitchen. We stacked plates with cheeses and meats, grilled lamb sausages, noshed on baba ghanouj and vinegary potato salad. The wine rag gods will need to be appeased at a later date.

I found it somewhat difficult to find wines for the tasting, which we stipulated could simply be majority roussanne. Rhône blancs are usually majority marsanne, and the applicable Rhônes I did find (Beaucastel, for example) were prohibitively expensive. Brun's roussanne from Beaujolais, which I would dearly like to try, seems not to be in Chicago. And there are only so many from California to choose from, too, as even the large stores I perused offered at most two applicable bottles.

Of course, there's barely any roussanne planted in either Oregon or Washington, and per the Tablas Creek blog there were as of 2008 only 348 acres planted in California, so it follows that availability of even domestic roussanne in Chicago is limited. Perhaps so little is grown because, as our friends in Paso say, roussanne "is a shy and erratic producer even under ideal conditions... prone to shutting down toward the end of harvest, as well as to shatter and uneven yield." Gulp.

In the end, we all brought examples from California: the 2006 Renaissance Estate Roussanne from the northern section of the Sierra Foothills ($35), the 2006 Tablas Creek Vineyard Roussanne from high on the west side of Paso Robles ($32), the 2008 Truchard Estate Roussanne from the Napa Valley side of Carneros ($20), the 2007 Qupé Roussanne Bien Nacido Hillside Estate from the Santa Maria Valley ($40) and the 2008 Booker White from the west side of Paso ($45?). Both Tablas Creek and Renaissance grow their fruit organically and ferment with native yeasts; the other three producers trod more conventional paths, although Booker is now converting to biodynamics.

After we tasted and jotted and tasted and chatted and tasted some more, it came time for us to reveal our thoughts; and fascinatingly, the wines clearly divided into three levels.

The odd wine out, and the only one to be somewhat panned, was the Booker White, which is 60% roussanne and 40% viognier. I thought it fat and syrupy and hot — it really showed its astonishing 14.9% alcohol. Others noted some bitterness, but also mentioned orange, bubblegum, or pear tart characteristics.

Up a sure notch were the low alcohol roussannes (12.5% and 12.8%, respectively) from Qupé and Renaissance. Although they shared low alcohols, they couldn't have been more different. The Qupé, which comes from a west-facing block of the notoriously cool Bien Nacido vineyard, was lush and ripe, and my friends and I noted toasty oak, sweet pear, almond, and buttercream, yet it was also described as "spry" and "crunchy." Its lack of structure underwhelmed me but I was impressed with its smoky palate and very long finish, and I didn't find it overly ripe.

By contrast, the Renaissance, farmed from a north-facing granite slope, was stonier and more structured, but also shorter. It didn't show as well as it had previously, as this bottle was slightly oxidized, and so forest floor / mushroom / earth characteristics overcame its stony and ethereal side. I also had to ding it for its short finish. Nonetheless it was balanced and showed its characteristic salted butter, yellow flower, brown spice, and rock characteristics.

All seven of us agreed that the Tablas Creek and the Truchard, both just a tick over 14%, were our two favorites. The Tablas Creek, from calcareous clay, was praised for its characteristics of flowers and stones, apricot, brown butter, and slightly salty minerals. Upon smelling its rich marzipan nose I thought, "late harvest!" but it's dry on the palate, both clean and rich, and nicely balanced. I wish it was more structured, but no one else complained about this.

For me, the Truchard had it all: excellent structure, great length, a stony nose, brown spices, ginger, and the kind of acidity that made it feel totally alive. Interestingly, all of us noted a candied note that was alternately described as dusted taffy, chalky candy, and creme brulée, but no one thought this wine confected or sweet. Is there something about the Truchard vineyard's volcanic soils that gives it this chalky candy aspect? In any case, it received the most top votes.

All the wines were smoky and quite full-bodied, but beyond that each wine was very different, and each was made from different soils and sites and made in very different ways: whole cluster pressed vs. not; partial malo vs. full malo; native vs. cultured yeast, etc. So it's not easy to say from my limited vantage point that all necessarily express terroir and not just the variety.

One thing is clear, though: just as the better producers of California chardonnay are backing away from the butter, so too are the better producers of California roussanne pursuing definition and expression. If the wines can be good to very good now and are able partners with food, future vintages of California roussanne from these and other careful producers should be even better. I look forward to getting to know them.

1 comment:

TWG said...

time for a new post