3/21/2010: D1:PC: Winemaker Lise Ciolino, left, talks about the Monteggiore wines with Khalil Meggett, Gina lee, Monica Ferguson and Stephen Lee during their Zephyr Adventures tour on Monday, February 22, 2010.

Refreshingly Rhone

Syrah specialist Lise Ciolino didn't think she wanted to make a white wine.

She loved the aromatics of viognier, marsanne and roussanne — three classic Rhone varietals — but knew she'd have to rein them in.

Though she'd planted a bit of viognier on her own property and plans to co-ferment or blend that viognier into her syrah, she'd been wary about making a varietal viognier white wine.

"There are things I like and things I don't like about viognier," said Ciolino, who makes wine under her own label, Montemaggiore, from an estate winery in Healdsburg. "From a varietal perspective, I love the aromatics in proportion, but it can be over the top, it can get really too big, can be really alcoholic."

So she blended viognier with marsanne and roussanne, sourcing all the fruit from Saralee Kunde's vineyard in the Russian River Valley, prime ground for these varietals which, like syrah, all trace their heritage back to the Rhone region of France.

Knowing what she did about the grapes' headstrong nature, she named the wine 3 Divas.

In France, they are often blended, too, but appear on their own as well. Ciolino felt that to get the wonderful honeysuckle aromatics people love about viognier, the fruit has to get fairly ripe, which in California's warmer wine-growing areas can lead to higher sugars and alcohol levels.

"The marsanne and roussanne add so much more body and complexity and interest," she said. "They bring the over-the-top aromatics down to the realm of pleasant and interesting and fun."

Ciolino received viognier grapes in early October and the others about three weeks later. The marsanne and roussanne were more similar in flavor than the viognier, she found.

"The marsanne was a little more nutty, the roussanne was a little bit more pear, while both had a bit of honey, the classic characteristics," she said. "The viognier had its orange blossom, honeysuckle, very tropical fruit notes, it was fun to blend."

The resulting 3 Divas is 36 percent viognier, 32 percent marsanne and 32 percent roussanne, whole-cluster pressed into stainless-steel tanks and later aged in neutral French oak barrels that had previously been used for chardonnay. Each varietal was fermented separately.

Another summer white wine grape from the Rhone region is grenache blanc, a varietal known for its crisp acidity. Not many people grow it in California; Somerston Vineyards in St. Helena, with a mere 2.7 acres, has one of the largest plantings of the varietal in the state.

It is the source of the grapes behind Highflyer Wines, whose 2008 Grenache Blanc is a tremendously refreshing wine for summer, with vibrant melon and nectarine notes and invitingly crisp acidity.

Highflyer's winemaker Craig Becker likes the grenache blanc so much at Somerston Vineyards he's currently shifting four more acres of viognier to grenache blanc so he can make a lot more than the 700 or so cases he makes now.

Peter Wellington in Sonoma Valley has never grown grenache blanc but has loved Rhone varietals since the 1970s, when he was first introduced to them as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.

"The Rhone was not considered a fine wine region until (wine critic Robert) Parker gave it a fair bit of touting in the '80s. It had fallen into the category of a neglected area," Wellington said.

When Wellington bought property near Glen Ellen in 1986 and established Wellington Vineyards, he grew syrah, grenache and viognier, but also planted and makes a varietal marsanne and a varietal roussanne from a scant acre of each.

"We started pretty early with syrah when no one was making it, same with marsanne and roussanne," Wellington said. "We do have some viognier on the property, and have used it primarily for blending. Viognier has a unique set of challenges and I really don't think it's as versatile a wine. It's so aromatic it's hard to do food matches with it."

Echoing some of Ciolino's concerns, Wellington says viognier can pose sizeable viticultural and winemaking challenges.

"In our climate it tends to get really high sugars and be really high alcohol. It's harder to make a balanced wine from it," he said. "Marsanne and roussanne are very nice because they tend to be fairly unctuous, full-bodied wines and so they fit the palate profile of chardonnay, but I think they're more interesting aromatically."

He finds this to be particularly true with his roussanne, which has a deliciously memorable floral character. Wellington uses very little oak on his roussanne and marsanne in an effort to let those floral notes effortlessly shine through.

"Most people love them," he says of these wines. "They're surprised."

Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com or visit wineabout.blogs. pressdemocrat.com.

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