THE WHITE WINES OF THE RHONE VALLEY are among the world's greatest yet they are little appreciated in this country. The American enophile may be familiar with the inky charms of Hermitage or Ch.ateauneuf-du-Pape, but whites from the same region don't arouse the same passion, usually because they go untried. This is due in part to the reputation and appeal of white burgundies, and some California chardonnays, which dominate the tip of the white wine market and tend to exclude others similarly priced.
White rhones are not cheap, but considering their distinction and their charms, they can be real bargains. Some require more age to show well than Americans are prepared to grant; some are difficult to find. But the main reason for their obscurity is that they make demands upon the drinker,
which should not be an unpleasant prospect. These
wines tend to be more flowery, although that is a woefully inadequate description
of the richness and texture of
the better whites, like Condrieu or a white Hermitage.
Voluptuous is probably a better word. The whites of the
Rhone are also supremely characterful, produced from grapes with (for us) exotic names and grown on elemented, sun-baked slopes.
Condrieu lies just south of the red-wine-producing slopes of Cote Rotie, the northernmost of the most important Rhone vineyards. The grape used in Condrieu and the two other communes, Verin and St. Michel, is the viognier, grown on terraced hillsides. Production is limited. The viognier produces a fragrant white wine compared variously to violets and hawthorn blossoms. A couple of years in bottle are required for Condrieu to bloom, but a lot ge is not recommended. A good '81 Chateau Grillet sells here for about $30. The wine is fruity, but dry, with a long and luscious finish. I have heard it described as a connoisseur's wine only; if you get the opportunity to make such an acquistion, do so.
Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, farther south, devote about 20 percent of production to white wines made from marsanne and roussanne grapes; they are capable of age and tend to improve over a decade. They have a more traditional "flinty" taste usually associated with grand crus chablis, supposedly picked up from the stony soil, but are also quite fragrant. The excellent '80 Hermitage costs about $15; look for wines from the negotiants Chave, Jaboulet or Guigal.
Crozes-Hermitage is a slightly heavier wine and needs a few minutes' exposure to air after being opened for the bouquet to develop. The wine writer and enophile Gerald Asher claims to have found suggestions of macadamia nut and honey in white Hermitage, and almonds and glazed fruits in Crozes-Hermitage. You may well find your own manna in these complex wines.
Ch.ateauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhone produces an even smaller percentage of white wine from roussanne and some grenache blanc for added finesse. An '81 Beaucastel costs about $15; an '80 Les Cailloux is only $9. Although not the best example available, it is an economical introduction to the remarkable whites of one of France's most ancient and renowned viticultural domains.