Apologia for Le Cigare Blanc

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 Rhône 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 Rhône 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 conferères.5 Voilà, 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 Rhônesick Blues music video with footnotes“ blog post and on YouTube.

Purchase Le Cigare Blanc in the Bonny Doon Vineyard store.

  1. It turns out that the “Roussanne” in my vineyard wasn’t in fact Roussanne, but rather, amazingly, Viognier. That sad story has already been told many times before and does not bear repeating. []
  2. I recently tasted an older vintage en magnum (1993 if memory serves) and the wine, at least in magnum, was still absolutely magnificent. Sophiste had a great vaguely Deco-ish collage label and was capped with a top hat, which we had specially produced for the wine. Most everyone, apart from Larry Stone, buyer at the time at Charlie Trotter’s, greatly appreciated the top hat.  So anxious were we to ingratiate ourselves chez Trotter, we replaced the top hats with black sealing wax. []
  3. In the early 1980s I visited M. Multier of Chateau Du Rozay, a small Condrieu estate imported by Kermit Lynch. M. Multier, himself a very diminutive hunchback, navigated the exceptionally vertiginous slopes of his vineyard with the agility of a mountain goat. I was so taken with his wine and the other Condrieus I had tasted, and being somewhat in a state of denial of the technical issues the grape presented, I imagined that there was an infinitely vast opportunity for Viognier in California. M. Multier was clever enough to detect the cupidity written on my face. “Young man, let me give you some advice,” he said. “First, make your money and then plant Viognier, not the other way around.” []
  4. Yield must also be quite restricted and the utterly unique growing conditions of Condrieu and Chateau Grillet are rather difficult to emulate. []
  5. Wines made from Marsanne, viz. Hermitage Blanc, are often wines for gourmandizing as well; they are so rich and unctuous, their application for food pairing is somewhat limited. I once opportunistically dropped in on Gérard Chave at lunchtime (to the great disapproval of Mme. Chave), but was fortunate enough to have been served his ’67 Hermitage Blanc with fresh foie gras he had prepared himself. Mind-altering. []
  6. In a perfect world we would also be able to include Picpoule and Clairette and that may well happen someday. While Picpoule and Clairette lack the structure of Roussanne, they furnish (as does Grenache Blanc) a much needed refreshing acidity. []
  7. We’ve adopted the practice of irrigating in the vine middles on a diamond pattern, with the intention of encouraging the vines to seek water in all four directions, thus enhancing the rooting mass (with a lot of positive benefit, not the least of which is at least a theoretical enhancement of mineral content, though we have not demonstrated that with anything approaching scientific rigor. []
  8. Certainly one real issue is that of ripeness. Roussanne and Grenache Blanc in the Beeswax Vineyard seem to develop flavor at a relatively high Brix (24++) and this will give us, even with the use of indigenous yeast, a wine fairly rich in alcohol. In earlier vintages, we have resorted to technological means to remove alcohol from the wine, but this is no longer a practice that I can support. We are thinning the crop to achieve more even ripening, and living/coping with alcohols in the low 14s, an ethanol level that seems to work reasonably well for this style of wine. []
  9. It is small consolation that white Rhônes as a category, even for top-notch Rhône producers are a very difficult sell, certainly on the retail shelf. Sommeliers have largely worked out how wonderful they pair with food, but are still mostly viable in the “by-the-glass” format. To purchase an entire bottle of wine in a restaurant is now (more than ever) a Major Commitment, and that usually means playing it safe. []
  10. Lobster will do very nicely, but pork belly or even a fowl that has been appropriately larded will be brilliant. []
  11. Screwcaps provide a more reductive environment for wine (generally a good thing), but tend to quite literally close up a wine. []
  12. I’ve been consuming a fair bit of ’04 Cigare Blanc lately, a wine that was incredibly backward in its youth, but is now showing remarkably well, that pome thing coupled with toasted hazelnuts, a pretty unbeatable combination. []
  13. It is not inconceivable to me that there are possibly some of the identical flavor compounds in Roussanne skins that one finds in (russeted) pear skins. Nature never likes to waste any of Her great biochemical ideas. []
  14. There are likely a set of environmental conditions that might be more optimal for the retention of acidity in Roussanne, and with several centuries of iteration and observation in California, they will likely ultimately be determined. []
  15. Thoroughly in step with the Santa Cruz practice of Keeping One’s Options Open. []
  16. We attempted this year a small (one barrel’s worth) lot of Roussanne, fermented on the skins to dryness and the results were pretty dreadful. Most significantly, the skins are quite rich in potassium, which elevates even further the already elevated pH. Probably would have been a better idea to have attempted this with Grenache Blanc, but oh well. []

4 Responses to “Apologia for Le Cigare Blanc”

  1. Tom says:

    One of my nicest Thanksgiving memories was a dinner with our family in Charleston, South Carolina — the restaurant and company was of course contributed in large part to the fond memory — but Le Sophiste was on the wine list and I remember really enjoying the wine and it really made the evening more memorable. It seems like it has been about 20 years since that was last produced — would be great to pull out the old top hat for a special bottling.

    • Randall Grahm says:

      D’accord, Tom. Maybe it was simply a lot of dumb luck, but the wine did seem to be quite special, and as I said, the magnum recently opened confirmed that fact. Having the chance to plant those particular grapes at that particular site was a one in a million bet. You can’t achieve it by moving towards it head-on. Don’t imagine the plastic top-hat will return – it will have to be made from more sustainable materials, but there will be great great whites coming from BDV in the not too distant future.

  2. JohnSmith says:

    Have you what they are write about cigares http://magazine.joomag.com/Cigars/146

  3. Emily Towe says:

    The 2007 Cigare Blanc certainly showed its anthropomorphic side when I poured it last week, even before the topic of St. Michael came into the Twittersphere to put all the pieces together a few days later. I’ve just written about it in the blog I keep about my family’s adventures in winemaking and blind food & wine pairing, Garagistes-in-Traning.

    Thank you, Randall, for doing what you do. It is a pleasure to share in your story.

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