A Guide to Pairing: Côtes du Rhône Blanc

In the Southern Rhône, three red grapes dominate the landscape; Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre.  In the North, three white grapes do the same; Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.

Now that’s not to say the north only makes white wines, and the south only makes reds, but as a very generalized statement, the north is more known for their white blends and the south for the red blends.

For this installment of A Guide to Pairing, we’ll focus on the white wines of the Rhône and their food pairings.

A bit about Côtes du Rhône Blanc:

  • While single varietal bottlings exist, French AOC rules would not allow it to be in print on the label for this region, so you either need to know what appellation bottles single varietal wines or blends.  It’s generally safe to assume you have any one of – or any mixture of – the three primary white grapes in your bottle: Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne
  • The reds from the northern region are Syrah that is actually blended with any or all of the three white grapes, sometimes up to 20% of the wine – so even a red wine from the north – while not our focus here today – may have some food references from this article due to the white grapes’ flavor influence
  • Traditionally, folks seek out French whites in hopes of finding a wine that’s the opposite of the California oaked white stylings, the Northern Rhône however, produces whites that reach medium to full body and showcase oak influence, and are considered wines for fans of California-styled Chardonnays
  • Aside from the “big three” other white varieties of a more obscure nature are critical to village and regional blends, and include lesser-known whites (and verbal mouthfuls) such as Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, Picardin, Picpoul Blanc, and Ugni Blanc

That said, let’s talk food (think like a chef):

We’ll start by saying what seems to be a recurring theme in this series; it’s always best to know what’s in the bottle before attempting a pairing.  That can mean you’re either very familiar with the laws of Southern France and the subsequent wine regions/villages and labeling requirements (safe to assume 1% of the wine drinking population at best), or you’re totally flying blind and just love wine and a bit of an adventure (99%+ of wine drinkers).  If you’re the latter, you kinda win.  Two is better than one (in this case), so buy two bottles, try one for yourself to get your bearings, and move on from there.

As we mentioned earlier, there are single varietal expressions from this region in the white wine department, but the majority are blends, so it’s safe to assume, unless you know otherwise, you have a blend of the big three: Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne.  But what does each have to offer?

Viognier traditionally brings perfumed peach, mango, honeysuckle, and tangerine alongside rose petal, but can also carry vanilla, nutmeg, and clove.  Marsanne is known to offer an oily, honeyed texture alongside roasted nuts, spice, pears, peaches, and honeydew melon.  Roussanne has floral notes with beeswax, apricot, lemon, chamomile, and pear.  As you can see from the three, floral tones, honey, citrus, spices, stone fruits, and pome fruits all align, so while totally different grapes, and each offering something unique, the core of these blended are quite similar, and a useful backbone for beginning to think about the flavors (and in some cases, texture too) of this regional wine blend.

Compare AND contrast:

Comparable flavors are a strong place for Rhône white blends, largely due to the ability to pair nicely with anything incorporating apples, pears, lemon, or tangerines (well, any other type of orange honestly).  Dishes with hard spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, all spice, clove, and nutmeg) and/or vanilla also comparatively pair in the flavor department.  Stone fruits like peach and mango also work very well in dishes paired with this style of wine.

As with most wines, contrasting pairings are where it’s at.  Right off, if you use Marsanne in your blend, you do so to add weight and texture (that honey, oily texture it’s famous for), and a white with the weight and texture of a Rhône is excellent for playing against highly acidic sauces and marinades.  You’ll want to think fish or shellfish in acidic sauces…ceviche!  That’s right, while other whites are great for sashimi or sushi, white Rhône is the ceviche wine.  Acidic sauces, like lemon or orange-based sauces, over chicken are another great pairing with this style of wine.  Veal in a red sauce is another great option for white Rhône wines due to the peaked acidity in the tomatoes, and many variations of Pork preparations are excellent accompanied by a white Rhône.

Veggies are another great place to pair white Rhône wines – especially with cheese or a bit of dairy at play.  Creamed spinach, asparagus in a mild cheese sauce, broccoli and cheddar soup, and savory buttered [insert any vegetable] will always work.

Speaking of cheese and dairy, white Rhône wines are cheese’s best friend.  Feta, goat cheese, gouda (smoked or unsmoked), Mahon, Jack (dry, Monterey), Neufchatel (cream cheese), cheddar, Chaumes, Double Gloucester, Manchego, Triple Cream Brie, and Camembert – just to name a few.  Got a cheese plate with a solid sheep, goat, and cow spread?  Get some white Rhône.

Get weird:

Fire up the BBQ!  Adding the grilled, smoked flavors of a good ‘ol charcoal or wood fired grill to pork, chicken, or fish is EXCELLENT for white Rhône wines.  It’s literally the last thing you’d think of; to open a white when firing up the grill, but if you plan on some epic BBQ chicken (or pork or fish), get that Rhône chilled and breathing, stat.

So there you have it, our guide for pairing Côtes du Rhône Blanc.

How about you though? For our other guests, please feel free to share your pairing suggestions for Côtes du Rhône Blanc in the comments below.

Cheers!

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