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Roussanne in the Vineyard

November 13, 2013

Roussanne, with its honeyed richness and excellent longevity, forms the backbone of many southern Rhône whites and has found a welcoming home in Paso Robles. 93 of California’s 324 acres of Roussanne are found here in San Luis Obispo County, the largest concentration in the state. The varietal takes its name from “roux”, the French word for “russet” – an apt description of the grapes’ reddish gold skins at harvest.

Roussanne around the World

Research suggests that Roussanne was developed in the Rhône Valley. The varietal has not ventured far from its origin; most of the world’s Roussanne is grown in the Rhône, where there are now more than 3000 acres, up from a low of 175 acres in the 1960’s.  Roussanne is one of six white grapes permitted in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. In the Northern Rhône, Roussanne is frequently blended with Marsanne in the appellations of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, and Saint Joseph. Roussanne is also found in the Savoie region of France (where it is known as Bergeron), and in limited quantities in Australia, Italy and Washington State.

Roussanne in California
After some early, largely unsuccessful experiments with Roussanne (the last of which were pulled out in the 1920s), early Rhone Rangers reintroduced Roussanne into the United States in the 1980s. To this day, most of the acreage planted in California was sourced from early plantings at Tablas Creek and Alban Vineyards.

Roussanne in the Vineyard
Roussanne has a well-deserved reputation as a difficult varietal to grow. Roussanne grapes are susceptible to powdery mildew and rot, and the vine is a shy and erratic producer even under ideal conditions. Of the family of white Rhône grapes, Roussanne is generally the latest-ripening. The vines are very responsive to sunlight, and grape bunches on the western side of the vine tend to ripen more quickly than bunches on the eastern side. To combat this tendency, we thin the crop and canopy to expose bunches to sunlight and harvest the grapes in multiple passes.

Roussanne in the Cellar
In contrast to the challenge it presents in the vineyard, Roussanne is flexible and forgiving in the cellar. It can be successfully fermented in large or small oak, or in stainless steel. It can be harvested at lower sugars but still have good body, or can be left to greater ripeness without losing its acidity. It has the body to take to new oak, or stainless steel can emphasize its minerality. And unlike most white wines, Roussanne ages very well; many Roussanne wines can be enjoyed up to 15 years or more after bottling.

Flavors and Aromas
Wines made from Roussanne are rich and complex, with distinct honey, floral and apricot flavors. They have a characteristic oily texture and a full body that is more reminiscent of red wines than whites. Roussanne can make powerful varietal wines, lend structure to wines led by Viognier or Marsanne, and can thrive as the lead grape in a blend, typically buttressed by higher-acid grapes like Grenache Blanc or Picpoul.

Jason Haas
Tablas Creek Vineyard