First the boring part, a definition. While we frequently think of grapes like marsanne and viognier as “Rhône varieties”, they appear as a loose group, not only through most parts of the Rhône Valley but also around the Mediterranean from Spain to the Italian border. Nevertheless, the fact that almost all may appear in Châteauneuf-du-Pape gives some legitimacy to the title.

The five white grapes in Châteauneuf are bourboulenc, clairette, picpoul, roussanne and grenache blanc. Additionally, marsanne is present in the northern Rhône, and in the Languedoc-Roussillon. All, with the. possible exception of grenache blanc, have a local south-of-France origin. All may appear in single varietal wines but, with the exception of marsanne and roussanne in the northern Rhone, there is a tendency for the varieties to increase in number in blends as you head south and eventually arrive at the coast.

Given Australia’s early reliance on French grape varieties, I find it curious that, with the exception of marsanne and possibly clairette (blanquette), so few of these whites managed to gain a foothold. A possible clue came when I looked at the composition of the wines we selected in our tasting; the great majority of the French wines were blends while the Australians were mostly from single varieties. If you don’t know the vine’s potential in its native soil, you’re unlikely to plant the grape, make the wine and then blend it with others. Every grape variety listed in the French wines we reviewed has been available in Australia for many years. Will the blends overtake the singles in Australia numerically and even in quality in future? Only time will tell.

Marsanne wines had a strong showing, as expected.
Marsanne wines had a strong showing, as expected.

The panel for this tasting consisted of three regulars: writer and educator Peter Bourne; wine judge and writer Toni Paterson MW; and me, winemaking consultant Nick Bulleid MW. Three frequent tasters joined us: the head sommelier at Café Sydney, Simon Curcovic, manager and sommelier at Fix St, James Stuart Knox and sommelier at Bibo, Louella Matthews. As it turned out, it was great to have had three somms with us.

We tasted the wines roughly in varietal brackets, as far as the blends would allow, but for the sake of easy navigation, I’ve arranged them below by country, rating and then alphabetically. I should add that we decided not to taste single varietal viogniers as they’ve been the subject of previous tastings.

The wines from recent vintages, both Australian and French, were alike in their mostly generous flavours and moderate levels of acidity. A major difference appeared in the wines with more bottle-age, the Australians maintaining freshness while many of the French showed more rapid development. A few at only two or three years of age had become too broad and a couple had simply oxidised.

What impressed us throughout was the wide variety of weights, flavours and textures. All, young or older, would make great accompaniments to food, particularly dishes with similarly generous flavours. There’s a lot of under-explored wines and varieties here to discover.

Australia

There was no intention to get a broad regional representation in selecting the wines to taste, so I was pleased to see a reasonably even spread of regions. That would not have been the case with, say cabernet sauvignon. Warm regions tended to predominate, but there was good coverage from cooler ones, too.

Marsanne gave its usual strong performance, but roussanne has emerged from a history of relatively neutral wines to richer, more flavoursome examples. Maturation in old oak, often after barrel fermentation and occasionally fermentation on skins seem to have played a role. The lesser-known grapes also made surprisingly positive appearances as single varietals.

2014 Tahbilk 1927 Vines Marsanne Limited Release, Nagambie Lakes (A$45) gained high points from most of us, with Knox leading the chorus. “Developing aromatic notes of sourdough toast and fresh honeycomb. Palate so bright and fresh. Lemon meringue pie, sea succulents and white flowers all carry great intensity yet sit high and lively. Acid and phenolic components retain amazing freshness. Age has smoothed it but it still has ample life to go.” There’s little I can add, other than the combination of intensity and finesse is extraordinary.

2018 Rutherglen Estate Renaissance VRM, Rutherglen (A$35) is a brilliant example of this blend. It starts with ripe peach, and hints of pastry and oak. These add savoury characters to the sweet fruit flavours. Beautiful balance and length complete the wine. Bourne loved it. “A plush bouquet of almond meal, custard apple and guava with a touch of lemon myrtle spice. The palate is slinky and fine with a good volume of flavour to carry the finish.”

2018 Tahbilk Estate Roussanne Marsanne Viognier, Nagambie Lakes (A$29) appealed strongly to Knox. “Nose shows apricot kernels, white nectarines and lemon balm”, he started. “A solid core of concentrated stone fruits with underlying broken stones and honeycomb wax. Rolls deep and long. Rich and inviting yet with enough structure to finish clean. Very pretty.” I agreed, finding the wine very fragrant, with fresh citrus aromas leading to a nicely poised, mid-weight palate.

Despite a reliance on French grapes in Australia, only a few white varieties remain.
The Champagnes showed great body and texture.

2019 Yangarra Roussanne, McLaren Vale (A$35) pleased Curcovic, who found, “A plush nose, with moderate intensity of just-ripe orchard and stone fruits underscored by citrus. Fresh floral notes, too, white flowers, honeysuckle, orange blossoms. A lovely integrated oatmeal, almond meal complexity, with sweet baking spices. Excellent presence, balanced acidity carrying flavour length with good mid-palate weight and intensity.” I found rich, sweet fruits with a hint of mango, the flavours tempered by savoury notes from old oak and texture that dries the finish. This would be at its best with food.

2018 Langmeil Three Gardens Viognier Marsanne Roussanne, Barossa Valley (A$20) had all-round support. “Lemons, lemon pith and citrus oil,” began Curcovic. “Bergamot and chamomile complexity. The balance on the palate is much more profound and better than the nose suggested. Hints of celery, celery salt-like mineral and mandarin, dried honeysuckle and honey. Great wine with flinty complexity.” I thought the aromas were lifted by an orange blossom perfume and hints of barrel, which also add a savoury note to the generous flavours. Fresh acidity holds all in check.

2018 Tellurian Marsanne, Heathcote (A$29) impressed us all. Curcovic took the lead, telling us, “Elevated intensity of aromas showing bright white nectarine, honeysuckle, apple blossom, candied ginger peel and lemon peel. The palate is very bright, with excellent intensity, great acidity and length.” Lemon was the main driver for me, while a little savoury reduction adds further interest. Alcohol provides body and generosity. It’s a delicious package.

2016 Castagna Beechworth Roussanne, Beechworth (A$48) gained top marks from Curcovic. “Moderate intensity of aromas with mandarin, orange, ripe yellow pears, yellow peach overlayed with oatmeal and almond  notes. Delightful palate following with excellent intensity, almost bitter like grapefruit and blood orange. Marzipan and dried florals. Excellent length and complexity.” I liked the oak’s contribution. It’s a rich mouthful.

2019 Rutherglen Estate Shelley’s Block MVR, Rutherglen (A$19) also gained Bourne’s admiration. “Rich aromas of Rose’s lime cordial, toffee apple and ripe quince,” he began. “The palate is rich and round with a slinky texture and a chalky/saline finish.” I found ripe stone fruits, too, with subtle oak adding complexity, light texture and filling the palate further.

2020 Yangarra Blanc, McLaren Vale (A$27) combines five varieties from the southern Rhône, a couple familiar, the others less so, and it works well. Matthews thought, “The nose so pure, with pretty peach blossom and river pebbles, which is completely juxtaposed to the palate. This has riper nectarine skin notes, granitic undertones, almond meal with symphonic alcohol, acid and body.” The ensemble has purity and freshness, yielding a gentle balance and light texture. Beautifully done.

2017 Yeringberg Marsanne Roussanne, Yarra Valley (A$65) has a subtle nose of white peach and lemon zest. The palate is all about its lovely line and balance. Overall, it is round and soft, with a light brush of talc to finish. “Lemon curd, lanolin and a touch of honey aromatics,” Knox began. “Bright, fresh palate, lemon and lime driving the fruit with a saline minerality underneath. Fine-boned acid and a phenolic fuzz for texture carries it long and deep.”

2018 Collector Lamp Lit Marsanne, Canberra District (A$32) starts with a lemon verbena aroma and hints of citrus. The palate surprised me, offering more breadth and texture than I’d expected, with moderate acidity to balance. Matthews thought it, “Herbal, slightly medicinal on the nose. This follows through on the palate, with spiced ginger, white peaches and juicy plum. Warm finish.” It’s an intriguing take on the variety.

2019 Giaconda Amphora Roussanne, Beechworth (A$74) had its style confirmed by the golden yellow colour. The wine is highly complex, with rich yellow peach aromas and flavours mingling with savoury notes. Alcohol brings sweetness and body, and there’s enough tannin texture to dry the finish. Knox contributed, “peach-skin fuzz”. Matthews thought it, “A more savoury style. Angostura bitters, ginger, apricot skin and grippy texture. Polarising, but the most interesting wines are.”

2018 John Duval Plexus White, Barossa Valley (A$30) appealed strongly to Paterson, who wrote, “Bright and fresh with strong lime-leaf aromas and buttery oak. The palate is energetic, layered and gently textured with composed citrus flavours. It finishes dry and clean.” I noted some reduction that I thought muted the fruit’s freshness, but Knox replied that it had “a good interplay with the lemon/lime”.

2020 Wizardry Grenache Blanc, Heathcote (A$23) intrigued me. It initially appeared a bit neutral, with a faint but very fresh citrus aroma. The wine really came alive in the mouth, however, with lively lemon flavour, a beautiful line and, while not intense, had very good length. Matthews thought it: “A pretty, clean and pristine wine with balanced, juicy nectarine notes. Vibrant acidity and grippy texture.” Curcovic added, “It’s all about the palate.”

2016 Yangarra Roux Beauté Roussanne, McLaren Vale (A$62) has a mid-straw yellow colour, which presages the wine’s style, a skin-fermented white. Knox noted, “Hints of lanolin and lemon zest on nose. Very bright and lively on entry, phenolic and acid framework keeping it very youthful at four years old. Ample weight of grapefruit and guava to balance that structure and it rolls long into the finish.” Ripe fruits, oak texture and a little warmth from alcohol combine in a complete, full-bodied wine.

There are many wine varieties that are under-explored.
There are many wine varieties that are under-explored.

2018 Domenica Roussanne Marsanne, Beechworth (A$48) was deliberately made as a “voluptuous wine” and it shows. Opulent peach tart aromas move to a full flavoured palate, with a distinct phenolic grip that keeps the abundance in check. Paterson wrote, “A golden wine with delicious clotted cream, caramelised apple and bees wax aromas. There is an attractive cracked wheat vein running through the palate. Generous, layered and sweet-fruited.”

2017 La Petite Mort Barrel Ferment Marsanne, Granite Belt (A$35) is aptly named, being quite exciting. Matthews thought it, “A wine that keeps on giving. On the nose, freshly buttered toast with a lick of honey. On the palate, apricot skin, marzipan, vanillin combining with a fresh acidity to draw out the length.” There’s a good interplay between preserved lemon and the more pastry-like, savoury flavours from barrel.

2019 Shadowfax Minnow Roussanne, Geelong (A$24) appealed greatly to Paterson, who wrote, “A gorgeous nose with ripe lime aromas plus a little clotted cream. Hints of lemon verbena add freshness. The palate is tight and composed. A wine with good flavour though also pleasing restraint. I enjoyed the composure and detail of this wine.” It’s medium-bodied, but broadens through the mouth with texture and savoury notes to accompany the ripe flavours.

2018 Mount Mary Marli Russell RP1, Yarra Valley (A$37) has a fresh nose showing intense white peach and citrus. It’s quite taut and undeveloped in the mouth, with a good drive of acidity and citrus lingering well. Bourne also noted, “Rockmelon and guava with a whiff of toffee. The mouth fills with bold flavours of lemon pith and tropical fruit, any tendency to excess curbed by some skin-derived tannins.”

2020 Tahbilk Marsanne 2020, Nagambie Lakes (A$19) is delightfully fresh, with an almost riesling-like blossom fragrance, lemon and a tropical hint. The palate shows a little more weight, however, although there’s still a nice drive of acidity. Paterson agreed, saying: “It’s incredibly fresh and vibrant with lemon zest. Tight, bright and fruity. The tension between the acidity and sugar is perfect. It Is quite fruity and simple but it has great flavour and lovely balance.” It finishes with a light grip and good length.

2019 Tournon Mathilda White Viognier Marsanne, Heathcote (A$20) is highly perfumed, with viognier driving its orange blossom fragrance. The palate is very expressive, with viognier’s exuberance well-contained by crisp acidity and light texture adding further restraint. Paterson thought it, “A bright, freshly minted wine. Great fruity intensity plus a slight, attractive skinsy character. Excellent grip and attack on the palate. Love this!”

2019 Torbreck The Steading Blanc, Barossa Valley (A$38) combines marsanne, roussanne and viognier. It shows subtle citrus and sweet fruits on the nose, which I found quite reserved. There’s more flavour than the aromas suggest and distinct texture that dries the finish. Curcovic found, “A bright and vibrant nose with great depth of flavour. Melon, peach, nectarine and quince. Oak spice is both sweet and savoury and is very complex. Although showing a little now, has sufficient fruit depth too. Palate length, complexity and poise are excellent.”

2019 Spinifex Clairette (A$24) started a bit demure for me, but soon opened up to show stonefruit and lemon combining with savoury notes. Bourne had no doubts, however. “Enticing aromas of wild honey, ripe peach, guava and honeydew melon”, he said. “Power-packed flavours of the same ilk fill the mouth with an intriguing texture (rich and round). A lift of alcohol spurs the finish.”

France

The best of these wines were excellent and many were great value, in particular the Côtes du Rhône Blancs. However, several had aged too quickly, as I wrote above, suggesting that caution is needed when you’re making a selection. The panel unanimously thought that most wines would be better enjoyed with food. In contrast, it surprised me that some of the wines from Provence were youthful and lively with refreshing, crisp acidity. It’s a shame that prices seem to increase the closer you get to the coast. Overall there was a great range of flavours and textures.

2019 Délas Frères Côtes du Rhône Saint-Esprit Blanc, Rhône (A$22) impressed us all. Paterson led the discussion, describing, “A beautifully complex wine with great class and appeal. Accents of clotted cream, pear skin and fresh apricot. The palate is fabulously textural and rich and although weighty, is also fresh. An impressive wine with great length, complexity and composure.” Apricot figured in my notes, too. I loved the wine’s generous stone fruit flavours and, while there’s distinct warmth, the fruit flavours accelerate towards the finish and linger beautifully.

2018 Domaine Tempier Bandol Blanc, Provence (A$75) had full marks on Paterson’s page. “A well-balanced and composed wine with an excellent flavour flow through the palate”, was her summation. “Bright, balanced and delicious. Accents of lemon curd and baked cream add interest. I enjoy the juiciness on the finish.” The wine’s fragrance stood out for me, with lemon and garden herbs. It’s delicate, crisp and beautifully poised. It’s based predominantly on clairette, which is showing unusual finesse.

2018 Famille Perrin Réserve Blanc, Rhône (A$28) gained a big thumbs up from all of us. Matthews thought it “shy on the nose but comes alive on the palate”. She went on: “Grippy granite lines there, with grapefruit oil and lemon skin notes. Some cheeky sulfides interplay with a mineral derived acidity which drives the wine nicely.” I found more aromatics, but agreed on the citrus and beautiful acidity. While only medium bodied, there’s a good drive towards the finish.

2019 Mas de Libian Cave Vinum Blanc IGP Ardèche, Rhône (A$48) gained strong support from Knox. “The nose lifts up with lime juice and honeycomb notes,” he started. “Seamless and slippery without any edges but there’s ample going on to carry it long. Honey and lemon drops, sea spray and oregano notes all sit subtly on the palate. Remarkable flow.” I liked the interplay between sweet fruits and savoury notes from oak. It finishes quite dry, but the fruit carries. Paterson thought it “well-composed”.

2018 Cave de Tain Première Note Marsanne IGP Collines Rhodaniennes, Rhône (A$23) already has a mid-straw colour presaging the developed bouquet. This sits nicely alongside ripe stone fruits and hints of funky complexity. Knox noted, “Burnt honey, gunsmoke and lemon meringue pie notes. Powerful palate, lots of flavour intensity, showing honeydew melon, guava and lime juice. Savoury elements of crushed river stones and struck flint provide contrast. Seamless and flowing into a long finish.” It had wide support – a bargain, too!

Some of the French wines had lost a little freshness.
Some of the French wines had lost a little freshness.

2018 Clos Ste Magdeleine Cassis Blanc, Provence (A$60) combines four varieties with marsanne predominating. Bourne wrote, “Aromas of verbena, wild honey and ripe melon with an apple-fresh palate and a zingy finish. A delicious, energetic and completely satisfying white wine.” I liked its fresh, white peach aroma and understated flavours. Good acid balance supports the freshness and the light brush of talc is also complementary.

2019 La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Luberon Blanc, Rhône (A$19) opened with fresh stone fruits and tropical hints. The wine has good balance and line, with a subtle interplay between sweet fruits and a touch of the savoury. Bourne found, “Aromas of honeysuckle, malt and warm brioche backed by ripe apricot and custard apple. The palate is clean, fresh and gently persistent.” Paterson was impressed, adding, “fabulous phenolics”. There’s great value here, as with all the wines from this producer.

2017 Domaine de Terrebrune Bandol Blanc, Provence (A$67) is based on clairette, with several other southern French varieties. Curcovic found, “Crunchy, very fleshy green apple, pear. Celery and walnut, too. The palate is long and complex, warm but well-rounded.” Those aromas are so fascinating. I found citrus and a perfume suggesting lychee, too. There’s a good line of acidity in sympathy with the lively fruit.

2018 Domaine Yves Cuilleron Les Vignes d’à Côté Marsanne, Rhône (A$35) shows considerable richness, with barley sugar, golden syrup and glacé pineapple aromas. The wine turns more savoury in the mouth, with pastry, lemon curd and obvious texture. Paterson agreed: “A full-flavoured, delicious wine with gorgeous buttery and baked cheesecake notes; though there are also hints of tonic water which adds freshness. The palate is full, somewhat bracing, intense and bright and lingering spice. I like the attack on the palate. It’s a compelling wine which changes and evolves in the glass”.

2019 Pierre Gaillard Saint-Joseph Blanc (A$60) shows a mid-gold colour. Rich orange, savoury notes and suggestions of dried fruits create a very forthright nose. The palate follows, with marmalade and quince paste, while alcohol supports the finish, as it often does in Rhône whites. Matthews thought it, “an aged style with dense apricot, Angostura bitters, buttermilk and almond meal notes. Softer, rounder and easy to drink.” I agreed with her “aged” comment - we had been tasting blind, of course - which suggests the wine is not for ageing. It needs flavoursome food. Duck à l’orange, perhaps?

2019 Domaine Font de Michelle Châteauneuf-du-Pape (A$65) found strong support in Knox. “Lemongrass, lime zest and nori notes”, he told us. “Good front palate concentration of grapefruit and pears. Some savoury hints roll in with bread and stone notes. Fine acid line and good length.” Freshness is a strong feature, here, which the green tinge to the pale yellow suggests and the fine white nectarine aroma confirms. Its flavours are delicate, but body and presence increase towards the finish. It comes from an impressive producer.

All of the wines would work well with generously flavoured food.
All of the wines would work well with generously flavoured food.

Top Australian Whites

★★★★★
96 2014 Tahbilk 1927 Vines Marsanne Limited Release, Nagambie Lakes, A$45
95 2018 Rutherglen Estate Renaissance VRM, Rutherglen, A$35
95 2018 Tahbilk Estate Roussanne Marsanne Viognier, Nagambie Lakes, A$29
95 2019 Yangarra Roussanne, McLaren Vale, A$35

★★★★
94 2018 Langmeil Three Gardens Viognier Marsanne Roussanne, Barossa Valley, $A20
94 2018 Tellurian Marsanne, Heathcote, A$29
93 2016 Castagna Beechworth Roussanne, Beechworth, A$48
93 2019 Rutherglen Estate Shelly's Block MVR, Rutherglen, A$19
92 2020 Yangarra Blanc, McLaren Vale, A$27
92 2017 Yeringberg Marsanne Roussanne, Yarra Valley, A$65
91 2018 Collector Lamp Lit Marsanne, Canberra District, A$32
91 2019 Giaconda Amphora Roussanne, Beechworth, A$74
91 2018 John Duval Plexus White, Barossa Valley, A$30
91 2020 Wizardry Grenache Blanc, Heathcote, A$23
91 2016 Yangarra Roux Beauté Roussanne, McLaren Vale, A$62
90 2018 Domenica Roussanne Marsanne, Beechworth, A$48
90 2017 La Petite Mort Barrel Ferment Marsanne, Granite Belt, A$35
90 2019 Shadowfax Minnow Roussanne, Geelong, A$24

★★★
89 2018 Mount Mary Marli Russell RP1, Yarra Valley, A$37
89 2020 Tahbilk Marsanne, Nagambie Lakes, A$19
89 2019 Tournon Mathilda White Viognier Marsanne, Heathcote, A$20
89 2019 Torbreck The Steading Blanc, Barossa Valley, A$38
88 2019 Spinifex Clairette , Barossa Valley, A$24

Top French Whites

★★★★★
95 2019 Délas Frères Côtes du Rhône Saint-Esprit Blanc, Rhône, A$22

★★★★
94 2018 Domaine Tempier Bandol Blanc, Provence, A$75
94 2018 Famille Perrin Réserve Blanc, Rhône, A$28
93 2019 Mas de Libian Cave Vinum Blanc IGP Ardèche, Rhône, A$48
92 2018 Cave de Tain Première Note Marsanne, IGP Collines Rhodaniennes, A$23
92 2018 Clos Ste Magdeleine Cassis Blanc, Provence, A$60
92 2019 La Vieille Ferme Côtes du Luberon Blanc, Rhône, A$19  
91 2017 Domaine de Terrebrune Bandol Blanc, Provence, A$67
91 2018 Domaine Yves Cuilleron Les Vignes d’à Côté Marsanne, Rhône, A$35
91 2018 Domaine Yves Cuilleron Les Vignes d’à Côté Roussanne, Rhône, A$40
91 2018 Yves Cuilleron Saint-Joseph Blanc Lyseras, Saint-Joseph, A$60
90 2017 Chapoutier Côtes du Rhône Belleruche Blanc, Rhône, A$18
90 2018 Domaine La Suffrene Bandol Blanc, Provence, A$48

★★★
89 2015 Clos de Fées Grenache Blanc Vieilles Vignes, IGP Côtes Catalanes, A$57
89 2017 E Guigal Saint-Joseph Cuvee Lieu-Dit Blanc, Saint-Joseph, A$92
89 2018 La Roche Paradis Saint Joseph Blanc Les Vessettes, Rhône, A$68
88 2019 Pierre Gaillard Saint-Joseph Blanc, Saint-Joseph, A$60
88 2019 Domaine Font de Michelle Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Rhône, A$65