The hill of Hermitage in the Northern Rhône has always been a source of inspiration for Australian winemakers. The spiritual home of syrah saw Penfolds adding its name to Grange, presumably to give credibility to the early vintages. Conversely, the white grape varieties of Hermitage – marsanne and roussanne – have been largely, although not completely, ignored.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, white Hermitage was more coveted than the local syrah, thanks to their potential to create powerful and long lived wines. It was not uncommon for red Hermitage to be shipped over to Bordeaux to give more muscle to their local reds, most notably in the 1795 Château Lafite, while the whites were treasured. How times have changed.
Here in Australia, marsanne and viognier have historically been the most highly prized of the white grape varieties from the Northern Rhône, no doubt thanks to the work of Tahbilk and Yalumba respectively. Tahbilk in particular has bravely created wines that are built for the cellar, which has helped marsanne’s reputation. At the same time, roussanne has remained largely ignored.
Genetically, roussanne and marsanne have a mother-daughter relationship, although which variety came first remains a mystery. When it comes to vines in the ground, though, both are relatively rare, with roussanne creating richer, quite full-bodied and textural wines. Aromatically they are often quite tropical but more savoury than sweet with quince, peach skin and blossom fruits in their youth, growing more into the nutty and butterscotch spectrum with time. It’s the texture, though, that really stands out for the variety, underpinned by a balanced acidity that can help these wines age well in the best examples.
The work by Rick Kinzbrunner at Giaconda in crafting roussanne has illustrated its significant potential in Australia. A recent tasting of the 2009 vintage showed a wine still in the prime of its life, with at least another two to four years ahead of it before a gradual decline. So why are there still fewer than a hundred winemakers nationwide working with the variety?
That might be because it’s not the easiest grape – for a number of reasons. It is a late ripener so a long growing season is essential. Combined with susceptibility to wind damage, powdery mildew and botrytis, this is a grape best suited to warm, dry conditions. Potentially what turns grape-growers off most, though, is its low and erratic yield so only the most dedicated fans are going to invest the time and energy to get this variety right.
It is a shame because the greatest roussannes carry fantastic richness, power and subtlety, not unlike the finest chardonnay, yet with a distinctly exotic side. Arguably its greatest expression is the Château de Beaucastel Vieilles Vignes Roussanne from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, which demonstrates that under the right conditions, this grape can create wines of the highest quality. Luckily, we have a handful of local growers and enthusiasts also putting in the hard yards.
Sarah Gough at Box Grove Vineyard at Tabilk in Central Victoria is one example. With fruit off its estate vineyard Box Grove has become a Northern Rhône and roussanne specialist, with a sparkling, skin-contact and more traditionally styled versions of roussanne.
The Warner Vineyard in Beechworth has been a long treasured source of the grape for the likes of Giaconda and Jamsheed. Giaconda’s Kinzbrunner is on a personal journey with roussanne. While the well-known Aeolia is no more, it has been replaced by a skin-contact, amphora style made with Warner Vineyard fruit. But that is just the start according to Kinzbrunner. “[Next] year we will have one from Giaconda estate vineyard from some shiraz vines grafted to roussanne, so it’s an evolving project. This is on what should be a really excellent site for roussanne.” Considering his history and role in the evolution of Australian chardonnay, roussanne could have no better ally. Is this the moment that it finally gets a much needed shot in the arm?
Roussanne has also spread its wings elsewhere. The Yarra has long been a stronghold thanks to TarraWarra, Yarra Yering, Yering Station and Yeringberg, all of which craft blends in a more lightly framed style. But for single varietals, many of the best wines are also coming from warmer regions, with McLaren Vale and the Barossa Valley showing the greatest potential, thanks to the ability of this variety to retain its acidity even under warm and dry conditions.
Traditionally roussanne has been a blender, whether with marsanne as found in Hermitage or with grenache blanc and others in the Southern Rhône. As can be seen from the wines of Yeringberg, for example, it is well suited to blending. The question is whether it was blended as insurance for challenging vintages, in a similar way to Bordeaux, or is it actually a grape variety that needs a blending partner to show its best? The quality of wines coming out of Australia suggests the former, as there is plenty of evidence that this variety has what it takes to stand alone and thrive.
2019 Giaconda Amphora Roussanne, Beechworth, A$85
Fermented and aged in clay amphora for nine months. Shy but immediately complex with apricot, honeycomb, peach skin and pithy fruit. The palate is firm and powerful, skin phenolics measured and, most importantly, beautifully blanched to provide the perfect vehicle for a long, rounded but energetic finish.
2021 Jamsheed Roussanne, Beechworth (A$36, 2019 current vintage)
A very complete Australian roussanne with concentrated and complex guava and nectarine aromas beautifully supported by French oak ferment and maturation. Richly textural, there is great understated power on the palate with finely detailed fruit before a long, strong finish providing good ageing potential.
2020 Michael Hall Greenock Roussanne, Barossa Valley, A$45
A beautifully made wine. There is reserved typicity: honeysuckle and apricot wound up in a comforting blanket of high-quality French oak, with savoury nutty barrel ferment. The palate is mouthfilling and complex, ripe and creamy for roussanne, but kept in check by gentle acidity that gives a little zip to a long finish.
2020 Yalumba Samuel’s Collection Roussanne, Eden Valley, A$28
Bright pale gold in colour, this is well pitched with subtly fragrant citrus fruits (juice, flesh and rind) with a dusting of acacia florals. Mid-weight with generous fruit, it has a creamy texture kept in focus by fine acidity. Great value.