I think of Roussanne as the “Ethan Coen” of wine varietals. Just as you never really get to experience the celebrated filmmaker without his lanky brother Joel at his side, Roussanne also has a shadow of sorts: Marsanne, that other Rhone Valley grape that ends in “-anne,” is pretty regularly blended with Roussanne in France and elsewhere. We cinema buffs are all left to wonder what a movie directed by just Ethan would look like (without all of the “fleshy richness” and “ripe pear” that Joel tends to impart to the films). As for the wine fans… well, you get the metaphor, more or less.
California producers have proven much more willing to experiment with single-varietal Roussanne (and Marsanne as well) than have their French counterparts. When the Winos recently received a selection of bottles from the good people at Lionhert Wines that included not just one but two Rousannes, we decided to throw in a bottle from the folks at Cult Vines, gather the troops at Sasha and Noah’s place, and call it a tasting. Here’s our rundown of the night we spent finally getting to know Roussanne on its own terms.
The logical place to kick things off, we thought, was the 2007 Lionheart Wines “McGinley Vineyard” Roussanne (Santa Barbara County). Jessica picked up some lemon bakery notes right off the bat: specifically, “lemon pound cake,” and “lemon poppyseed muffins.” Dylan smelled pear, while I smelled some mandarin orange character. Noah got “baking soda” — that’s a new one — and Myla picked up some “chalky, herbal notes” (herbal tea is a not-too-infrequent descriptor for Roussanne, it turns out, so that was keen of her).
The palate proved a bit of a surprise: tart but woody, it somehow managed to be lemony without being acidic, as well as plush without being fruit-forward. Jessica called it “minerally,” while Dylan thought it was “super oaky,” and pointed out a sharp bite towards the back end. Everyone appreciated the solid, medium-bodied mouthfeel, but some of the flavors just didn’t land right (Noah thought it tasted like “limey wood”). Myla really liked it, and said she’d pair it with “spicy cheeses” on a warm picnic. Dylan disagreed, calling it “too sour,” and commented that he needs his Rhone-style whites to show more fruit. Always a critic, that Dylan.
Next we tried a bottle from the same vintage and the same vineyard, the 2007 Cult Vines “McGinley Vineyard” Roussanne (Santa Ynez Valley). Quite a different nose on this one: Jessica initially got grassiness, Sasha got clover, and I picked up a sandalwood character. Jessica then said she got cinnamon and vanilla, while Noah got pepper, and Dylan got “lobster dipped in butter.” I thought I smelled a certain “hair salon” character, like slightly singed hair, but Myla disagreed and said it was more like “perm” smell.
On the palate, Jessica echoed Dylan’s “lobster” note, and complained that the mouthfeel was was less pronounced and “more rounded” than the previous bottle. Dylan, meanwhile, was pretty elated — he loves buttery wines, and this one hit the spot, despite what he called its “stinging, limey finish.” Noah complimented the woody character, and Sasha appreciated some notes of “Portuguese sweet bread.” I thought I even picked up a little bit of spiced rum in there somewhere. The tart finish was very long, and mellowed out from initial lemon/lime character into more of a Peccorino Romano thing. The wine was well-received, but wasn’t intriguing enough to our tasters to justify the $47 price tag. Dylan was the one exception — he said he’d buy more, if he could only afford it. (Gary Vaynerchuk hawked this wine recently, and while he agreed with us about the dynamism of the nose, he thought the “strongman” palate was impressive enough to make it a good value play.)
With two single-varietal Roussannes under our belts, we figured we couldn’t justify keeping Joel Coen out in the rain any longer, so we opened up the 2007 Lionheart “Angel’s Share” Marsanne/Roussanne (Russian River Valley). This one smelled niiice: I got vanilla cake, some guava, and a touch of honey. Jessica picked up some apple character, and Myla — in what would’ve made a hilarious rhyme if her name was only “Maya” — got papaya.
If the Angel’s Share aspired to emulate its moniker and be angelic, it certainly got the “flighty” character correct. The palate was light and breezy, with perhaps a touch of residual sugar adding a delicate element. To some of our tasters, though, there wasn’t much else: Jessica said that while it was inoffensive, it was also uninteresting, and Myla said it tasted “generic,” almost like a slightly-sweet supermarket wine. Several Winos liked it — Sasha called it “light and floral” and thought it was very pleasant — but none of us got the “peaches, pineapples, golden apricots, honeysuckle flowers, vanilla custard and cinnamon” that Wine Enthusiast observed when they gave the bottle a 92 earlier this year. Quel dommage.
Clearly it was red time, and we hastily doled out our allocation of 2006 Lionheart Wines Syrah (Santa Barbara County), which impressed everyone with its expressive bouquet. “This is a great S.B.C. nose,” I jotted down, as I picked up notes of dark berries, brambles, pepper and root beer candies. Noah got a touch of orange peel, and Andrew said he could smell roughly a cord of seasoned firewood. There was also a nice black coffee thing wafting through the crowded nose. Good stuff.
Sometimes we pick up notes of cola on the bouquets of Santa Barbara Syrah, and while we hadn’t gotten any on this one, the palate was full of it. Big notes of sweet, juicy RC Cola ran rampant on the tongue, and the spiciness we’d picked up on the nose was almost entirely absent. The front-palate was big and ripe, but just when you were waiting for that spice to kick up towards the end, what appeared instead was kind of a cloying Jolly Rancher character. Noah liked the flavors — he applauded the big raspberry notes — but agreed that there wasn’t much in the way of structure, at least not for a new-world Syrah.
Undaunted, we reached for our last bottle, the 2006 Lionheart Wines Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley). As with the rest of the Lionheart lineup, the nose scored big points. Andrew picked up some delicious notes of pine forest and blueberry. Noah got blackcurrant, and Sasha detected some chewy chocolate caramel candies. We all took a moment to enjoy the alliteration, and then we dove into the palate…
…which tasted a lot like it smelled, with the two big notes of pine forest and blueberry vying for top billing. Additionally, we picked up a lot of those classic Cabernet flavors: round dark berries, toffee, and bitter black licorice. The body wasn’t terribly full, and a couple of Winos commented that it felt a bit light for a Napa Cab, but the excellent flavor profile made those flaws easy to overlook. Sasha picked up notes of root beer float, and someone else complimented the light, tingly tannins. The finish, I found, was quite long, and kicked up flavors of spice and mulchy chocolate. This may not have been the most typical Napa Cab we’ve ever tried, but it was certainly a good wine.
Sourced from all over the state, the Lionheart sample pack was a diverse one, the only apparent universal trait being that the bouquets all smelled really good. For us, the most interesting thing about the lineup was having the opportunity to taste multiple bottles of the elusive Roussanne grape, despite the fact that they didn’t prove to be our favorites of the evening. Single-varietal wines are so helpful in allowing beginning drinkers to identify the characteristics they prefer (it’s easier, after all, to remember that you like the taste of Sauvignon Blanc than it is to remember that you like “Loire-style whites”), and it’s encouraging that California producers are willing to step outside of the comfortable Chardonnay cocoon and embrace varietals a little more obscure in nature. After all, you can’t just watch summer blockbusters all the time… there’s a place in the world for the Coen brothers, too.
The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.
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