Roussanne: A White Wine in Red Clothing


It's that time of year when deciding what wine to drink can be climatically tricky. Heat spikes for a few days, making one wish for the freshness of a chilled rosé; then some pre-June gloom rolls in, and that seems to ask for something a bit heartier, like a warming, spicy syrah. That those two things can often happen in one day only confuses the matter more.

That's why a white that drinks like a red can be perfect for a Southern California lost on the thermometer between spring and summer. Let me introduce you to roussanne (roo-sann), especially since it's one of our state's rising stars. What might be most striking about roussanne is its almost unctuous mouth feel. The wine gets called "honeyed" a lot, and it's not just because of its taste (and it's not a sweet white, despite all its wonderful stone fruits of apricot and white peach): it will coat your mouth and make you like it. There is a range, depending on the producer, but roussanne tends to "drink heavy" like a red. So if that's important to you, you may have found your white.

And then if you like history or winning bar bets, it's an even more fascinating grape. For instance, it's been involved in more lawsuits than Donald Sterling, especially since many California producers were actually selling viognier for a time as roussanne, and when some of them figured that out, the litigation began. (It's a long disputed tale.) Roussanne also pulls an amazing trick if you try to age it, as it's good for its first few years, closes up for the next 5-7, then becomes a richer stranger wine again after that. Nobody quite knows how that happens (it's science!), but if nothing else, it's one more lesson in the amazing ways wine is a living thing, even in the bottle.

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Yes, it's a French/Rhone grape, and its name is derived from "roux" for the russet color it gets near harvest, which tends to happen late in the season for a white wine, which makes it harder to grow. (You get those grapes in early and you risk less problematic weather.) It often gets blended with other whites (like the viognier it got confused for in CA in the '90s), but more and more California producers are opting to make it as a single varietal, which is good for all of us hoping for a richer white than chardonnay or sauvignon blanc. It doesn't feature citrus or "butter," but more complex, floral flavors, so it can handle almost all seafood, from the simplest to creamier sauces, plus many chicken, veal, perhaps even some pork dishes if you leave out the kraut.

If you want to jump into the deep end, you need to try Stolpman L'Avion, which is 100% roussanne and grown in the spot where there once was a landing strip in the vineyard site (hence the name). They baby these grapes -- the clusters get hand-turned for even sun coverage -- and you can taste it in a practically showy expression of opulent roussanne. Arguably it's my favorite white wine, year in and year out. If you'd like to try something dialed back a bit from that, but still full of stone fruit goodness, there are classic producers like Alban, Qupe, and Tablas Creek (most real roussanne is on their rootstock, wherever it's grown on the west coast), and newcomers like Press Gang Cellars, making it a bit racy and a bit cheaper, if you can find it.

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