With its traditional blending partner, Marsanne, Roussanne is a key ingredient in the white wine blends of the northern Rhône, notably Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph, and in the sparkling wines of Saint-Peray. Further south in the Rhône Valley, it is used in small quantities in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, where it is one of 13 grape varieties permitted for use in both red and white wines. In Italy, Roussanne is sometimes used to make Montecarlo Bianco, but rarely appears elsewhere in the country.
In its native France it shines in Savoie as Bergeron (in Chignin), but Roussanne is most commonly found in the south, where it benefits from the warm temperatures and long sunlight hours it needs to achieve full maturity. In cooler climates, the variety can struggle to ripen and has a reputation for being a difficult variety to grow. It is also susceptible to rot, powdery mildew and wind damage.
Fortunately, Roussanne is a much more forgiving variety in the winery where it can be blended and manipulated into complex and prestigious wines. Château Beaucastel’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc Vieilles Vignes is perhaps the most notable 100% Roussanne wine, although California cult producer, Sine Qua Non, produces the world's most expensive Roussanne wines from its Central Coast base.
The history of Roussanne in California is an interesting one; until 1998 wines labelled as Roussanne were, as it transpired, Viognier. This was not an intentionally misleading practice, but the result of confusion around the variety of cuttings taken from the Rhône Valley. DNA testing finally revealed the true identity of Viognier, but the example highlights the similarity between the two grapes. Both have a rich, often oily, texture and can display spiced apricot flavours.
Roussanne, on its own, is characterised by herbal, tea-like, aromas. On the palate it typically shows pears and honey with notable intensity. The acidity can be high if picked under-ripe, but if left on the vine too long alcohol levels can breach 14%. When blended with Marsanne, it provides aromatic intensity to complement its richer counterpart's structure and body.
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