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Roussanne - A Case of Mistaken Identity

Even the wine industry has its fair share of mystery and intrigue, and so is the case with the white grape variety known as Roussanne.  Originally from the Rhone Valley wine region in France, its popularity there in the late 1980s led the self-proclaimed “provocateur, punster, philosopher and winemaker” Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon Vineyard in Santa Cruz California, to help a few cuttings of Roussanne abscond from a vineyard in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  Seemingly innocent enough, the grape cuttings travelled to the US, in the comfort of Grahm's Samsonite luggage.  The plantings took a fancy to the terroir of the Santa Cruz Mountains and in only a few short years the winery was producing world class Roussanne.  The success was shared with neighboring vineyards and soon the Roussanne clones were appearing at theaters everywhere.  There was only one problem.  When the cuttings wound up with winemaker Chuck Wagner (Caymus, Belle Glos, Mer du Soleil, Conundrum) via a commercial nursery, their pedigree was challenged.  After DNA testing reminiscent of Criminal Minds, the vines turned out to be Viognier!

Despite this inauspicious renaissance of Roussanne into the New World, the grape has continued a steady climb in popularity, spirited by the Rhone Rangers, a group of winemakers dedicated to the promotion of Rhone Style wines throughout California.

Where does Roussanne Grow?

France – As with so many Vitis Vinifera, Roussanne hails from France, specifically in the northern reaches of the Rhone Valley.  Although The Rhone Valley is best known for red blends, there are numerous white blends, delicious and full bodied, that fly below the radar of most wine consumers, and Roussanne plays a leading role in these blends. Roussanne's most common blending partner is its “sister” grape, Marsanne, both being permitted grapes varieties in the Appellation Origine Controlee (AOC)s of Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Saint-Joseph.  In the southern Rhone, Roussanne is one of the six permitted white grapes allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  The French still dominate the global Roussanne vineyard acreage although by any measure plantings are miniscule as compared to any of the major grape varieties.

French producers to look for: Chateau de Beaucastel, Chateau la Gardine, Domaine de la Janasse, Marcel Richaud.

Limeshack Roussanne
Limeshack Roussanne
United States – Thanks in part to Mr. Grahm's adventures, Roussanne has enjoyed a continued growth in plantings in the United States after nearly being expunged from vineyard acreage in the late 1920s.  Roussanne is grown in California, Washington, and more recently, Texas and Virginia.  In Washington the grape is frequently blended with Viognier, another Rhone varietal, producing a rich depth of fruit aromas.

United States producers to look for: Alban Vineyards (California), Bonny Doon (California), Brian Carter (Washington), DeLille Cellars (Washington), Line Shack (California), Qupe (California), Sobon Estate (California).

The grape is also planted in small quantities in other wine regions around the world including Australia, Crete, Tuscany and Spain.

Roussanne Styles

Roussanne is frequently used as a blending grape however can also be produced as a still single variety wine or as a sparkling wine.  The aroma profile depends on age, with younger wines characterized as having aromas of pear, honey, apricot and occasional minerality.  As the wine ages, intense aromas of tea, beeswax, jasmine and a variety of floral notes develop.  The wine is most commonly vinified dry although some Washing State producers are experimenting with off dry renditions, coming in with just under 2% residual sugar.  The wines are medium in body, with alcohol levels in the 12.5 – 14% range.  The grape requires a lengthy growing season to develop and can be challenging in the vineyard.  For this reason there may be significant differences between vintages.  The wine may spend a little time in oak although seldom is there a strong oak influence, and many Roussanne wines are fermented in stainless steel tanks, bypassing barrels altogether.

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