July 17-24, 2016
Avignon – Lyon
Aboard the Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection’s New Ship: The S.S. Catherine
Prices start at $4,274 per person, all inclusive
Years ago, when I had decided that Pinot Noir and that other Burgundian variety were just not going to work so well at our Estate Vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, I began to focus instead on RhÃ´ne varieties. We produced then an extraordinary haunting wine from our Estate called “Le Sophiste,” a putative blend of “Roussanne”1 and Marsanne2. No need to dwell on the painful past and all of its fateful turns, but Le Sophiste really focused my attention (as much I could muster) on white RhÃ´ne grapes.
In the ‘80s many winemakers imagined that Viognier would be the Vinous Great White Hope,3 but there are a lot of reasons why the grape has never fulfilled its promise. To really do its best work Viognier generally needs to be darn ripe, and as a result turns out a wine heady in alcohol,4 lovely as an apéritif, but problematic to drink with an entire meal. It is clear to me that at least in the realm of the Rhodanien whites, for a real gastronomy wine, one that will pair with a wide range of dishes, one really needs to consider Roussanne and its vinous conferÃ¨res.5 VoilÃ , Le Cigare Blanc, a blend of Roussanne and Grenache Blanc in varying proportions, dependent on the idiosyncrasies of the vintage. LCB is the conceptual analogue of Le Cigare Volant and is a blend of the primary white grapes of Chateauneuf-du-Pape6 and is made entirely from fruit from the Beeswax Vineyard, located at the mouth of the Arroyo Seco in Monterey County. The soils of the Arroyo Seco are significant for the extraordinary profusion of river rock; the soil at Beeswax is deep but well drained and the vines root exceptionally well in it7.
I realize that this piece is beginning to sound a bit like an infomercial for the wine, and that is not my intention at all. So, here’s the real story about Le Cigare Blanc: It is a wine that I have really struggled with – struggled to find a style8 that is truly distinctive and of course, struggled to educate customers to the great beauty of the category in general, and this wine specifically.9 It is really a swan/ugly duckling story.
The received wisdom is that Roussanne is a “noble cépage,” one with a reputation for great elegance and finesse, more than say, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc, possessed of more structure and complexity than Clairette or heaven forfend, Picpoule. And yet, in my own experience, Roussanne has tended to produce wines often incredibly awkward and gawky in their youth. I assumed that I just wasn’t quite getting Roussanne, certainly not as a stand-alone. I loved its musky, quince/Asian pear skin nose, but there was often a real austere edge to the wine, at least very much evident in its youth. Whether this was the much vaunted “minerality” of the variety or the phenolic nature of its skins (most likely a bit of both), the wine was generally not so forthcoming until food was brought to the table – ideally something a little bit rich or fatty.10 The wine sealed with a screwcap closure tended to reinforce its austere mineral aspect,11 (probably low concentrations of sulfur-containing compounds, i.e. thiols) and you (either producer or purchaser) could either allow yourself to become slightly depressed by this fact or alternatively, become utterly elated that you had the wit to produce or purchase a bottle that would evolve brilliantly if you just had the patience to wait a little while – two to four short years – and let the wine do its thing.12
Roussanne, when it is not being a dream grape is also a bit of a nightmare. The word itself derives from the same root that gives us “russet” – for Roussanne to be truly ripe, it has to take on an autumnal coloration,13 which it does when exposed to sufficient light and heat. These conditions obtain on the south and west side of the vine, meaning, of course that they don’t, at least not quite as promptly on the vine’s opposite side. So, typically, one half of the cluster will become ripe and flavorful while the other half remains lime-green and relatively tasteless. Ideally, you have had the wit to set up the trellising and manage the canopy in such a way as to even up the light conditions on both sides of the vine, but, take it from me, this is a bit easier to do conceptually than in practice. So, you wait for the north/east side of the clusters to catch up before the south/west sides are done to a faretheewell. Picking decisions, like every decision undertaken in life, tend to be a compromise between a set of ideal conditions and the exigencies of harsh reality. You wait and wait for the flavor to develop in the Roussanne, and by that point, the acid has dropped away and the pH is beginning to go to hell.14
Enter Grenache Blanc. G.B. seems to be brilliantly suited to our growing conditions, lightly shrugging off the heat and bright sunlight of the Central Coast with the nonchalance of Surfer Girl. It doesn’t sunburn easily and retains its crisp acidity like a champ, making it a natural and necessary ally to Roussanne. The wine, on its own is not so terribly phenolic; mildly melon-like, almost pineappley or minty. If one anthropomorphically thought of it as a person, you might even call it “friendly,” like a true Californian. So Grenache blended with Roussanne brings a level of approachability and balance to the conversation – like a well-matched couple, each balancing one another’s deficits.
We have gotten in the habit of combining Grenache Blanc and Roussanne in something like a 50/50 proportion as juice and co-fermenting, whilst retaining a portion of each unblended for the final assemblage.15 We ferment approximately half of the wine in neutral puncheon and half in stainless steel tank, a relatively Solomonic strategy – blending redox profiles of the different fermentation and élevage regimes as an acupuncturist might do to balance yin and yang. I am keen to experiment this year with a certain amount of Cigare Blanc ageing in bonbonnes (carboys), to optimize yeast autolysis.16
To all of those reading out there in Grapeland: Give Cigare Blanc a try, with an open mind and open palate. Invest in some nice, not necessarily crazy expensive wine glasses, and serve the wine not too cold, giving it time in the glass to expand and spread its wings. We would all do well to do the same.
Watch new video! “Sub-terroir RhÃ´nesick Blues music video with footnotes” blog post and on YouTube.