A weekly commentary from the Upper Rhône Valley focusing on all things "septrionale" by James Pieper...
If you haven’t had a chance to try one of the white wines from the appellation Saint Pèray, you should.
Nestled between the southern end of the Saint Joseph appellation in Guilherand-Granges and the rustic Cornas growing area, Saint Péray is one of the little white wine treasures that you’ll find in the upper Rhône Valley.
Despite syrah being the varietal most planted in the area, which is used in the famous Hermitage and Côte Rôtie further north, Saint Péray breaks from the mold – or should I say « noble rot». The 70-hectare (170-acre) growing area is planted with only white varietals marsanne and roussanne, the former especially known to be difficult to cultivate due to its susceptibility to disease.
Before the pheloxora outbreak that nearly destroyed all vines in the region at the the end of the nineteenth century, Saint Péray wines, especially the sparkling version first produced in the 1820s, were widely celebrated throughout Europe. Russian Czars, Pope Pius VII, french writers and even romance-period composer Richard Wagner adored the « pétillant » version made from marsanne. Wagner is said to have ordered a pallet of the bubbly A.O.C. to keep him in a trance when writing the opera Parsifal.
But as the sparkling wines were once a hit in the courts and salons of Europe, the latest still wines "Saint-Pérollais" deserve a second look.
Normally blended with 50 per cent marsanne and 50 per cent roussanne, Saint Péray wines are well crafted but unfortunately ignored by wine enthusiasts despite their uniqueness and historical importance. And even fewer wine authorities appreciate the small amount of local producers’ single-varietals– especially roussanne.
As roussane is arguably the most difficult wine to produce in the entire region, only two producers – both independent – even bother to produce it as a stand-alone wine. One of the producers, Stéphane Chaboud, from the renowned Chaboud family of winemakers in the small Ardèchois village, shared with me his 2007 roussanne.
The fruitier cousin to marsanne, roussanne wines are known for a more round flavor loaded with accents of pear, apple and honey, while marsanne tends to have more citrus aromas. To me, roussanne resembles more of a riesling, although it would be hazardous to confuse a roussanne with the Rhine workhorse’s tendancy to be more sweet. This well-structured white has a hint of oak, but it does not get in the way of the pear and a slight silkiness that differentiates itself from the more acidic marsanne.
As further background, roussanne grapes are harvested from vines planted on the southeastern slopes of the right bank of the Rhône - one of the most difficult wine-growing terrains in the world. The clay and chalk-like soil where vines are planted is never irrigated, a prohibited agricultural method by winemakers in France.
A bottle of the independent winemaker’s roussanne is a must-have in any cellar. You can drink it right away as it normally keeps for a few years.
Pairing with food
Chaboud says that this 2007 roussanne goes well with fish or crustaceans, especially when the dish is served in a sauce. My recommendation is for fish that is rather oily, such as halibut with sauce made with coconut milk. Salmon world work well too, and less difficult to prepare. You could also serve the roussanne, like all other Saint-Péray wines, as an apératif with hors d’ouvres that should include seafood.
Price: under €10
Chaboud’s roussanne, as well as his marsanne and blend is exceptionally good value. All of his wines, including most of his famous sparkling wines, cost under 10 euros in the Metropole. The roussanne is scarcely available online, and rarely found in stores. So if you happen to be in the region, it is well worth the visit. And while driving en route in the Rhône Valley, it seems appropriate to include in your iPod player Wagner’s Parsifal.