Warm Weather Whites-Part 1
As warmer weather and summertime approaches, many feel a strong attraction to the lovely white wines produced by Texas vintners. There are many to choose from, and this Part 1 edition will focus on Viognier, Vermentino, and Roussanne, three of the so-called Rhône white varieties that tend to grow well and make delicious wines in the Lone Star State. A number of these wines are produced by the owner-partners at 4.0 Cellars – Brennan Vineyards, Lost Oak Winery, and McPherson Cellars – and are available for purchase (shipping or curbside pickup during these crazy COVID-19 times).
Viognier [vee-ohn-YAY] probably originated in Croatia and was brought to the Rhône Valley of France by the Romans. Popularity declined in the mid-20th century, but rebounded in the 1970’s-80’s, which helped provide vine-stock (scion) for the rest of the world. As in France, Viognier is often blended but has certainly shown great merit as a single varietal – often winning prestigious awards like Top Texas Wine at the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo International Wine Competition (Brennan-2008, Becker-2009, Pedernales-2013).
Viognier can produce full-bodied wines with lush, soft character. Lovely natural aromatic components in Viognier give rise to floral notes (honeysuckle blossom, lilacs, violets) as well as the smell and flavor of fresh fruits (peaches, pears, apricots). However, these aroma and flavor components can be readily oxidized, so care must be taken in the winery to preserve these components. For that reason, barrel fermentation or aging, where air/oxygen diffusion occurs, is used cautiously. Viognier is typically cold fermented in stainless steel tanks and aged on the lees (spent yeast cells) for several months to preserve intense aromas, develop a deeper flavor profile, and maintain overall acidity. It should be noted that most Viogniers, especially those made in Texas, are typically best drunk young within 1-3 years of the vintage.
Vermentino (or Rolle) is a white wine grape that may have originated in Spain, but is now found predominantly in Italy where it serves in many DOC (like appellations or AVA’s) regional wines, including Sardinia, Liguria as Pigato, the island of Corsica, Piedmont as Favorita, and Tuscany as Vermentino. The grape is also common to the southern French regions of Languedoc and Roussillon where it is called Rolle. Because Wild Horse Winery in Paso Robles originally registered the grape as Vermentino in the U.S., this name, rather than Rolle, is normally found on U.S. and Texas wine labels.
Vermentino has bright acidity, making it very refreshing and food friendly, with citrus and mineral aromas and flavors. The grapes are large with excellent sugar/acid balance, and produce full-bodied wines with rich floral aromas. Vermentino is also commonly harvested for table grapes. The hot, dry, rolling rocky hills of the island of Corsica are the most common growing area for Vermentino - sort of sounds like the Texas Hill Country, right?
In the vineyard, Vermentino is a vigorous vine, resistant to most vineyard diseases and pests, tolerant of drought conditions, and tends to ripen conveniently in the middle of the harvest cycle. To preserve freshness, bright citrus character, natural minerality and mouthwatering acidity, Vermentino is usually fermented cool in stainless steel tanks and not allowed to undergo secondary malolactic fermentation. Wines tend to be light in color and lower in alcohol with aromas and flavors of green apple, lime fruit and oyster shells. Make sure to try as many Vermentino wines as possible and prepare yourself for many more as Texas growers and winemakers focus on this versatile and valuable white grape.
Roussanne (roos-ahn or roos-ann) is believed native to the Rhône Valley near the Mediterranean Sea in Southern France. Although most of the world’s Roussanne is today grown in the Rhône Valley, other regions, especially Texas, are showing significant interest in the variety. In the Southern Rhône, Roussanne is one of six white grape varieties permitted in the famous wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (blanc & rouge). It is often blended with Grenache Blanc, which adds richness and crisp acidity to Roussanne’s pear and honey flavors. In the Northern Rhône, Roussanne is frequently blended with Marsanne to provide acidity, minerality and richness.
When ripe, Roussanne grapes typically have a russet color – called roux in French, which is probably the root for the grape’s name. The aroma of Roussanne is often reminiscent of a flowery herbal tea coupled with rich flavors of apples, peach, apricot, citrus, cream and honey. For a white wine, Roussanne can have excellent longevity.
If Roussanne has a downside, it is a reputation for susceptibility to powdery mildew and rot in the vineyard. Other issues include late and uneven ripening, irregular yields and sensitivity to drought conditions which requires growers to focus on the vineyard’s moisture requirements and irrigate appropriately (certainly nothing new in Texas). Roussanne takes well to oak treatment in the winery, thus allowing these wines, in many instances, to sort of take the place of chardonnay in the Texas wine market. In blends, Roussanne can add aromatics, elegance and acidity with the potential to age and develop in the bottle.
For many of the Rhône varieties grown in the U.S., vines were originally sourced from NovaVine nursery in CA, the partner of Tablas Creek Winery owned by the Perrin family, proprietors of the famous Chateauneuf-du-Pape estate, Ch Beaucastel. The Perrins brought these grapes to the U.S. believing they would thrive in the warm, rocky limestone soils of Paso Robles. They are doing pretty well in Texas, too.