The vineyards of Clos Bellane. ©Skurnik Wines/Clos Bellane

Why Drink White Rhône Blends? It’s a Matter of Percentages.

In Lieu of a Baseball Season, Let's Play Moneyball with Wine

6 min read

Analogies grease the wheels of understanding, especially when you can use them effectively on an obtuse subject matter like wine. Take for instance, baseball, a sport that appeals to lovers of analysis and minutiae. (Sound familiar?). On the one hand, wine people love to get into technical data, but if we are not careful, our diatribe about Kimmeridgean soils can be as dull as watching a pitcher shake off five different signs, then step off the rubber to adjust his hat. However, I sometimes find myself referring to a baseball stat when describing why certain regions and wine styles are worth a closer look. Like an armchair General Manager, you might hear me touting white Rhône blends — particularly those from the relatively budget-friendly Southern Rhône — as though a space on my wine rack was a space in the dugout.

In baseball, a player’s on-base percentage accounts for the number of times per at-bat that a player gets on base. That’s it. We are not looking at the glory of home-run hitters, or even batting average. We are simply looking at whether the player keeps the inning alive by getting to a base. A walk is as good as a single.

The 2003 book Moneyball — and the subsequent film starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill (2011) — depicted how the cash-strapped General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, embraced on-base percentage to build a winning roster on the cheap. In a pivotal scene, Beane chastises his talent scouts for only placing merit in big hitters with youth. What he proposes instead — with the help of his fictionalized statistician, Peter Brand — is seeking value in the players who just “get on base.”

Now, shift that concept to wine: which bottles reliably move your meal, your summer’s evening on the patio, your quiet Netflix date under lockdown, to the next stage? From a first glass to a second glass? When its your dollars you’re spending — and you love classical French white wines like I do — you want to know which regions “get on base” for you, especially when that average correlates to a decent value. It’s as simple as that.

(Now, before this slips into “rounding the bases” territory and I sound like an adolescent boy who just took an interest in girls, let’s move on).

In the Southern Rhône River Valley of France, white wines are heavily eclipsed by red wines, both in terms of volume and prestige. Yet I find the whites more beguiling, more compelling, more fun. They have a few tricks up their sleeve, in part because these are wines designed for their textural qualities first. Forget “crispness,” “zing” or “liveliness,” the typical descriptors for the darlings of summer (“leads the league in stolen bases,” anyone?). Forget the “power” and “gravitas” of certain Chardonnay (“leads the league in home runs,” anyone?). The realm of Southern Rhône whites is sumptuousness.

Much of this stems from the grapes grown there: Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, Clairette, Grenache Blanc and Bourboulenc comprise the majority of the blends, and each winery has its own preferred percentages to create the desired profile. The Southern Rhône possesses a very warm climate, with high winds and low rainfall throughout the growing season. This can lead to high alcohol, but in the hands of the right winemaker, balance can be achieved by adjusting the percentages of grapes, or the proportion of wine from high-altitude parcels.

Below are five white wines from the Southern Rhône that I have recently tasted. All of them are worth getting, and four of them were very good if not outstanding. That’s an on-base percentage of .800 — enough to make Billy Beane and Peter Brand draft a few bottles.

Caption: The vineyards of Clos Bellane. ©Skurnik Wines/Clos Bellane (top)

2016 Clos Bellane Côtes du Rhône Villages Valréas Blanc

Côtes du Rhône Villages Valreas AOC
Grapes: Marsanne (65%), Viognier (30%), Roussanne (5%)
Alcohol: 13%
Opinion: ★★★★ 3/4 (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Impeccable
Value: Exceptional

Importer: Skurnik Wines

An Essential Winemaker of France.

Review: From a high-elevation site (440 meters) in the Valréas village of the Côtes du Rhône, this unique wine surely draws its impressive, sumptuous texture from the pure limestone soils of the vineyards at Clos Bellane.

Aromas recall peaches, kiwi skin, lemon peel, marzipan and yellow flowers. What a beautiful texture: round and with great typicity of Southern Rhône white wines. Slightly peppery, lavishly floral and filled with energy and verve. The long and pleasant finish is predicated on sprightly green fruit.

2017 Ogier Clos de L’Oratoire des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc

Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC
Grapes: Roussanne (25%), Grenache Blanc (25%), Clairette (25%), Bourboulenc (25%)
Alcohol: 13.5%
Opinion: ★★★★ 1/2 (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Versatile
Value: A Little Pricey

Importer: Folio Fine Wine Partners

Review: Yes, Châteauneuf-du-Pape can be white, though it is very rare. While Clos de L’Oratoire des Papes has changed hands and has been with Ogier since 1999, the throw-back label hasn’t changed since 1926. (Why would it? It is one of the best labels ever).

Clos de L’Oratoire des Papes’ white wine is lightly perfumed and lavishly textured. The subdued aromas — suggesting lemon verbena, orange peel and vanilla bean — seemed to want to be stuffed back into the bottle and aged another five years. Perhaps the wine is too young now. While it shows great versatility for food pairings with its leaping acidity and supple structure, I found its finish a little closed-off and one dimensional. Maybe a few more years will do the trick. Also note that, while I was touting the value of Southern Rhône white earlier, white Châteauneuf-du-Pape, including this one, can get a little pricey.

2016 Domaine La Rémèjeanne “Les Arbousier” Côtes du Rhône Blanc

Côtes du Rhône AOC
Grapes: Roussanne (25%), Clairette (25%), Viognier (25%), Marsanne (13%), Bourboulenc (12%)
Alcohol: 13.5%
Opinion: ★★★★ 3/4 (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Versatile
Value: As expected

Importer: Skurnik Wines

Review: Another high-altitude gem from the Côtes du Rhône. With elevation comes increased freshness in the wine, which serves as a great counterpoint to the fleshy texture and overall weight yielded by these grapes, particularly Roussanne and Clairette.

“Les Arbousier” is a prime example of the textural acrobatics that you can find in white Rhône blends: all at once supple and round, yet sharp and precise. Aromas are suggestive of fresh apricot and dried pineapple, tangerine, tarragon and hazelnut. It put me in the mood for a pineapple upside-down cake for some reason. Bracing acidity with a long, mineral finish.

2016 Château Pesquié Quintessence Ventoux

Ventoux AOC
Grapes: Roussanne (80%) and Clairette (20%)
Alcohol: 12.5%
Opinion: ★★★★ 3/4 (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Versatile
Value: As expected


Note: This wine was featured in a previous article.

Importer: European Cellars

Tasting notes: This wine has such a mellow and mild nose, it is deceiving. But on the palate it bursts with energy and flavor, recalling quince, pineapple, ginger, violets and a note that reminded me of the tart-meets-sour tang you get from yogurt. Just enough acidity to keep the wine active and alert on the palate, but this is not a wine to challenge your tooth enamel. Texturally full and comforting. Turn off the mind, pour another glass: we’ve found the ideal summer sipper.

2016 Château de Montfaucon “Comtesse Madeleine” Lirac Blanc

Lirac AOC
Grapes: Marsanne (40%), Clairette (35%), Grenache Blanc (20%), Picpoul (5%)
Alcohol: 13%
Rating: ★★★★ 1/4 (out of five)
Food-friendliness: Selective
Value: As expected

Importer: Cru Selections and Kindred Vines

Review: Lirac lies across the river from Châteauneuf-du-Pape, and like its outsized brother, white wines are rare.

This effort from Château de Montfaucon is soft and a bit forgettable, but at least refreshing. Round and full as one would expect from a Marsanne-led blend, this wine conveyed the simplest expression of the five, suggesting mild pineapple, golden apple, and white flowers. On the palate, the oaky tones veer into coconut-like territory. The mild acidity halts the wines momentum a bit, but serve it with a chill, some warm sunshine and grilled shrimp and you won’t have any complaints.


Note: Wines featured in this article were provided by the U.S. press agency for Rhône Valley Wines as well as select importers upon the editor’s request. Learn more about our editorial policy.

A collection of white Rhône wines. ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
Pullquote: "Which bottles reliably move your meal, your summer's evening on the patio, your quiet Netflix date under lockdown, to the next stage? From a first glass to a second glass?"
2016 Clos Bellane Côtes du Rhône Villages Valréas Blanc ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
2017 "Clos de L'Oratoire des Papes" Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
2016 Domaine La Rémèjeanne "Les Arbousier" Côtes du Rhône Blanc ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle
2016 Château de Montfaucon "Comtesse Madeleine" Lirac Blanc ©Kevin Day/Opening a Bottle

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