White wines comprise just 6 percent of the Rhone’s production. For now.
The Rhône Valley’s red wines currently make up a huge market share, but winemakers in some southern Rhône appellations are opting to tear out red grape vines in favor of a once-declining, scarcely-planted white grape: Clairette. Why are southern Rhône winemakers falling head over heels for this variety, and why is it the next big thing in Rhône whites?
“It’s a fantastic grape,” Cécile Dusserre, winemaker of Domaine Montvac, says as she pours a Clairette-based cuvée in her Vacqueyras vineyards. “I love Clairette. It’s the backbone of the wine.” While the southern Rhône is one of the world’s top winemaking regions — it’s home to the famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape, after all — it certainly has its viticultural challenges. In a hot, dry, sunny region, winemakers must seek out ways to reduce alcohol levels and preserve acidity, particularly for white wines. Grapes that can withstand the region’s soaring temperatures and scorching sun while adding freshness to the wine are prized. This is where Clairette comes in.
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A grape with recorded history that goes back to the 1500s, Clairette, or Clairette Blanche, once had the reputation of a blending grape well-suited to hot, dry climates like the southern Rhône Valley and Languedoc. However, it declined in popularity in the second half of the 20th century because it oxidizes easily, which hadn’t previously been an issue for wine drinkers accustomed to more oxidized styles of wine. In its place, winemakers increased plantings of other white grapes like Grenache Blanc, Bourbelenc, Marsanne, Roussanne, and more. More often, winemakers would turn away from white grapes altogether, putting their efforts into the southern Rhône’s signature red varieties. Lately, however, winemakers have refocused on white wines, opening the best-white-grape debate once again.
“Our winery, and Vacqueyras in general, is planting more white grapes,” Marie-Thérèse Combe, winemaker of Domaine la Fourmone, says. “I think the terroir is perfect for it.”
Improved winemaking techniques and a greater understanding of Clairette have helped vintners to see the grape’s potential over other white grapes. By pruning to reduce yields and harvesting earlier, winemakers allow Clairette to hold more acidity until it is harvested and showcase juicy apple, peach, and herbal notes. Interestingly, however, acidity isn’t what makes Clairette valuable.
“Clairette has freshness but not very much acidity,” says Rodolphe de Pins, winemaker at Château de Montfaucon and co-president of the Lirac AOC. While Clairette is known for making wines with higher alcohol and lower acidity, it has a distinct bitterness, something that, in this case, is a good thing. Bitter notes can help substitute for acidity, lifting up a wine that might otherwise be flabby. De Pins also notes that the grape is well suited to the southern Rhône and Lirac in particular because it resists drought.
More Clairette being planted in the southern Rhône Valley means higher-quality, more refreshing southern Rhône whites overall. Blends will be more balanced, the body and alcohol less overpowering, placing southern Rhône white wines back on a competitive, international stage.
While few vintners attempt to make varietal Clairette wine just yet, with the exception of Tablas Creek Vineyard in California, it’s quite possible that more will appear as new plantings mature in the next three to five years. For now, try Clairette as a blend in these two well-balanced white wines.
Juicy and waxy, the blended “Mélodine” contains 40 percent Clairette. The nose is aromatic, orange-fruited, and entirely seductive, with plenty of tartness on the palate.
Primarily Clairette with some Bourbelenc, this cuvée has tons of complexity, with textured yellow apple, peach, and orange blossom notes, along with daffodil, earth, and bitter herbs.