Roussanne, an aromatic white wine grape from the Rhone valley of France, is one of a number of Rhone-inspired varietals being explored here...

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Roussanne, an aromatic white wine grape from the Rhone valley of France, is one of a number of Rhone-inspired varietals being explored here in Washington. I’ve long believed that one of the best ways to learn about wine is to focus on single varietal wines, and taste a selection of them together, to see what might be the character of the grape, rather than the influence of the winemaker.

British wine writer Oz Clarke pegs roussanne as “a tricky, finicky, inconsistent beast of a vine” but for all that, he likes it, at least when it is not ripened past 14 percent alcohol. Although the classic comparables are from France — notably Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, Domaine de la Janasse and Chave — roussanne is still too new and too rare in Washington to have fully defined itself.

The question is, what should Washington roussanne taste like? “Intense… elusive and intriguing,” says Clarke in his Encyclopedia of Grapes (speaking of the French wines), “reminiscent of pears or aromatic herbal tea.” But New World wine flavors are almost always bigger, rounder and more fruity than the European classics. In California roussannes such as Qupé and Tablas Creek, the extra ripeness can be smelled and tasted as apricot, orange and peach. There may be hints of honey and vanilla as well.

The only Washington roussannes I have seen so far are all sourced from either Alder Ridge, Ciel du Cheval or Stillwater Creek. Interestingly, these three vineyards are located in three quite different parts of the state. There is also a small planting, Doug McCrea tells me, at Dick Boushey’s vineyard, along with small amounts of grenache blanc, marsanne and picpoul.

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McCrea, who pioneered roussanne in Washington, answers the question about varietal character in this way. “Typically,” he writes, “descriptors would include apricot, honeyed white peach, blanched almond, crisp apple and a distinct minerality.” He also believes that Washington roussanne will have very good potential for bottle aging.

Most winemakers use roussanne as part of a Rhone Ranger blend. Three of my favorite examples are from Brian Carter Cellars in Woodinville, Zefina in the Horse Heaven Hills, and Isenhower in Walla Walla.

Brian Carter’s 2006 Oriana White Blend ($24) mixes roussanne, viognier and (uncharacteristically) riesling. It’s a very pretty, sensuous wine, scented with citrus blossom, lemon wax and tea. Citrus and stone fruits fill the mid-palate.

The 2007 Snapdragon ($20) from Isenhower is 72 percent roussanne and 28 percent viognier. It’s been done in a creamy, leesy style showing plenty of spice, mint and fresh green herb. The fruits that come into play are more acidic — tangerine, orange and citrus.

From Zefina, part of the Corus Brands portfolio, comes the 2006 Serience White ($20). Just 40 percent roussanne and 60 percent viognier, it’s a rich gold, and it has gold in its flavors also — ripe apple, peach and mango fruit.

Though I’ve tasted only a small number of unblended roussannes from Washington, the percentage of good ones is quite high. The current release from McCrea Cellars is the 2006 Ciel du Cheval Vineyard Roussanne ($25), a refreshing wine with light citrus fruit and a leesy, textural, wet stone quality.

Oregon’s Andrew Rich makes a brilliant roussanne from Columbia Valley grapes. His 2006 Roussanne ($21) is an aromatic, luscious wine with intriguing scents of beeswax, honey and caramel, melded to tropical fruits and details of baking spices.

Doyenne’s 2006 Roussanne ($32), like McCrea’s, is all from the Ciel du Cheval vineyard on Red Mountain. It races across the palate with a wash of acid, rock and tart fruit flavors of white peach, citrus rind and a hint of unripe pineapple.

Also noteworthy is the Novelty Hill 2006 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Roussanne ($22), the winery’s first. Broadly appealing flavors of melon, white peach and pineapple are round and full, supported with sweet, spicy barrel flavors.

Walla Walla’s Morrison Lane has a 2004 Roussanne ($22) — their first, I believe — that clocks in at a hefty 15.3 percent alcohol. Dean Morrison agrees that’s a little high, but, he adds, “I didn’t have the heart to water them down.” The wine is warm, sharp and spicy with lots of biting citrus rind flavors.

For an inexpensive comparable from the south of France, look for the Verget du Sud 2006 Roussanne ($16), light, spicy and just a bit yeasty. It’s distributed by Grape Expectations.

Sadly, my tasting notes for the immaculate wines of Rulo do not turn up a single reference to roussanne. This small Walla Walla producer makes such a brilliant array of white wines from viognier, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc that I can’t help but believe that a Rulo roussanne would be outstanding.

Rulo’s wines are made in very limited quantities, and sold mostly direct from the winery and a few specialty shops. Call the winery directly (509-525-7856, or 509-525-RULO) for ordering information. Currently available and highly recommended are the 2006 Viognier ($18), 2006 Chardonnays ($20), 2007 Sauvignon Blanc ($15), 2007 Syrah Rosé ($15), 2006 Syrca Red ($18) and 2005 Syrah ($24).

Paul Gregutt is the author of “Washington Wines and Wineries: The Essential Guide.” His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com.