The Great Grape Alphabet
In continuation of our wine journey here are six varieties beginning with R. This alphabetical and blissful voyage through the ampelographic wonderland is supported by diverse examples from our wine portfolio.
Ribolla Gialla (also known as Ribolla, in Slovenian: Rumena rebula, in Croatian: Jarbola) is grown most prominently in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of northeast Italy and also found in Slovenia where it is known as Rebula. In Friuli, the grape thrives in the regions around Rosazzo and Gorizia. In Slovenia, the grape is grown prominently in the Brda region. The borders are notional; the grape expresses a similar character in both countries.
The grape is believed to have originated in Greece and made its way to the Friuli-Venezia Giulia by way of Slovenia. The first written documentation of the grape was in a 1289 notarial contract on vineyard land in the Friuli region. During the 14th century, Giovanna Boccaccio listed indulgence of Ribolla wines as one of the sins of gluttony (Gravner has a lot to answer for!) in his diatribe on the subject. When Leopold III, Duke of Austria, established reign over Trieste, one of his stipulations was that the city supply him each year with 100 urns of the region's best Ribolla wine. By 1402, the reputation of the wine made from the grape was high enough for the city of Udine to feel compelled to enact a law which prohibited the adulteration of any wine made from Ribolla. In the 18th century, the Italian writer Antonio Musnig rated Ribolla wine as the finest white wine in the Friuli. In the 21st the English writer, Andrew Jefford, echoed those sentiments. In the intervening period the fortunes of Ribolla had waned (post phylloxera) until the late 20th century when a group of determined artisan vignerons led by Josko Gravner and Radikon demonstrated through their wines that Ribolla had the potential to be a noble variety.
Radikon and Gravner pioneered the amber/skin contact style of wine. The skin of the Ribolla is tighter than some other varieties and the grape gives less juice which comes out in the style of the wine which is low in aromatics and acidity and high in phenolic content. Dario Princic's version has a copper-bronze colour derived from this contact with skins (around 25 days). Aromas of red pears and dried fruits, fine, dry palate with almost salty-fruit flavours. Two versions of Rebula come from Nando in Slovenia from organic vineyards planted on ponka soils, marly soils full of lime. The Blue Label, fermented in tank, spends a couple of days on the grape skins. This is a golden wine with a good balance between fleshy fruit and leesy spice. The Black Label, released in the better vintages, expresses the full power and complexity of the grape. Although not heavy, it is richly layered with notes of roasted butternut squash and lime pickle and a finish where the tannins add another dimension.
Megan and Ryan Glaab also make a skin contact version in their winery in Healdsburg in California. “Our fascination with Ribolla Gialla took us to Friuli-Venezia Giulia in north-eastern Italy. Visiting one of our favorite producers, Sasha Radikon told us that there was one guy in the US with Ribolla planted. George Vare has about 2.5 acres planted at the base of Mount Veeder in the Oak Knoll district of Napa Valley. We contacted George and were lucky enough to score a single ton from his now coveted vineyard.” The wine undergoes six months extended skin maceration and is a luminescent sunny gold in the glass with aromas of clove and anise spiced honey and crisp yellow apple. The rich palate and chewy tannins are reminiscent of biting into a meltingly soft persimmon.
Quick definition: The grape that loves maceration.
Our spare Ribeyrenc
Ribeyrenc, also Rybeyrenc, though grape encyclopaediae will have it under the more prosaic-sounding Aspiran noir, is a variety that was traditionally grown between Minervois and Clermont l’Hérault, but all but died out with phylloxera and the big frost of 1956. All was not lost, however, as Thierry Navarre’s grandfather had some vines. The cultivar is well adapted to the Mediterranean climate, and intriguingly, it ripens late being picked towards the end of September, usually a recipe for high alcohol, but in this case always a light abv of around 11.5-12%.
Once upon a time the vineyards of the Languedoc essentially comprised one third Ribeyrenc, one third Oeillade and one third Picpoul. Although we think of them as natives, Carignan and Grenache Noir arrived from Spain in the 19th century, and were planted after phylloxera.
There are only three vignerons with Ribeyrenc in the whole of the Languedoc, namely Patricia Domergue at Clos Centeilles, François Henri in St. Georges d’Orques and Thierry. Thierry owns just 1.75 ha and makes around 2,000 bottles a year! Talking of rare birds and hens’ teeth, Thierry also has some Ribeyrenc Blanc that features in a blend with Clairette.
Ribeyrenc Noir prefers to be grown in the hills, rather than on the plain. This version derives from vines on south-east facing slopes on slate (brown schist). Yields are a measly 17 hl/ha, farming is organic with herbal preparations. Triage is done in the vineyard and the winery. Thierry does not destem as the skin of the grapes is so thin and fragile. The grapes gently fall into the small cement vats where they ferment. Ageing in cement vats for 6 months. No oak.
The wine itself is enchantingly demure. The colour is pale red, the nose has some light perfume (violets and peonies), the palate is very mellow, with some fresh cherry fruit and the merest whisper of garrigue and white pepper.
Quick definition: Unicorn blood.
Rkatsiteli means “red stem”, and is the sturdy workhorse of white grapes in Georgia. Cultivated throughout its native Kakheti, and in Kartli Rkatsiteli is disease resistant, and ripens reliably. It is responsible for high-volume, good value whites, but also for high quality examples, especially in skin-fermented qvevri wines.
Rkatsiteli’s cylindrical, medium-sized bunches contain medium-sized, oval berries; when dry-farmed, the grapes acquire a pinkish-yellow hue. Late-budding (the end of April) and late-maturing (early October, after Mtsvane Kakhuri), for vitis vinifera, Rkatsiteli is relatively resistant to downy mildew when grown in Kakheti; it is less resistant in the western, more humid regions. A hardy vine, it can withstand most winter frosts.
Rkatsiteli is produced through both traditional and European vinification methods, and is the principal grape in most Kakhetian white wines. Because Rkatsiteli has relatively muted aromatics, it is often blended with 15-20 % Mtsvane Kakhuri, to add high-toned aromatics and to soften the resulting wine. When vinified without skins, Rkatsiteli offers subtle floral aromas with notes of citrus, quince, and apple, whereas in qvevri the wine typically is more powerful, moderately tannic, with crisp acidity; the oxidative handling elicits flavours of honey, dried orange peel, spices, apricot and other stone fruits.
John Okro’s Rkatsiteli comes from a vineyard at nearly 1000m above sea level in Signagi, Kakheti in Eastern Georgia. It spends six months on skins with 50% of brown, mature stems before racking and spends 18 months in qvevri before bottling. Soft, burnished gold, the wine is aromatic and truly unique, with notes of piquant spices and paprika emerging over the browned pineapple and honeyed walnut aromas often associated with Rkatsiteli. The palate is savoury yet tart, medium bodied, and quite delightful with high-toned cranberry, starfruit, and a tropical acidity.
The version from Niki Antadze is also from a vineyard at altitude (around 750 metres) and is made in qvevri, but without skin contact. A beautiful wine redolent of passionfruit and pink grapefruit on the nose but with a pronounced peachy quality in the mouth. A touch wild too.
Finally, Gela Patalishvili & John Wurdeman make a variety of Rkatsitelis at Pheasant’s Tears. Rkatsiteli Bodbiskhevi comprises 80% destemmed grapes and spends thirty days on skins. Golden amber in the glass with a nose of wild honey, but dry, and unexpectedly, full-bodied in the mouth with background notes of walnut and apricot. Rkatsiteli will stand up well with roasted chicken or more exotic fowl like duck or quail. As the great wine connoisseur, Dolph Lundgren, says PT Rkatsisteli is “the strangest, toughest, most ass-kickin’, car blowin’ up wines of all.
Quick definition: Rkat got your tongue?
Robola is a white Greek wine grape variety that is grown primarily on the Ionian island of Cephalonia. Historically the vine was thought to be the same variety as the Friuli wine grape Ribolla and to have been brought to northeast Italy by Venetian merchants trading with Cephalonia in the 13th century. However, DNA profiling in the 21st century has cast doubt on that theory and today Robola is classified by the Vitis International Variety Catalogue (VIVC) as a separate variety.
On Cephalonia, Robola vines are often ungrafted in the limestone soils of the island. The vine early ripening and can produce high acid wines with significant phenolic levels.
Vino di Sasso is produced using organic grapes of the local Robola of Kefalonia variety grown within the Robola appellation zone. This unique variety gives top quality white wines with good acidity and delicate aromas of freshly cut fruit. The appellation zone has a special limestone terroir, and its microclimate is influenced by the imposing heights of Mount Ainos. Together, these features make for unique vineyards that give distinctive wines of exceptional quality. To signify the special character of this wine Sclavos called it Vino di Sasso (wine from the stone), first given to it by Lord Napier, a former British High Commissioner. This version is pretty electrifying. From organically farmed vineyards at 800 m altitude the wine has pristine purity (if that’s not a tautology) and the kind of tingling acidity that works beautifully with white fish such as lemon sole.
Quick definition: The Chablis of Cephalonia.
Legend has it that Romorantin was introduced to the Loire by King Francis the 1st. (1494–1547). The commune of Romorantin-Lanthenay is not far from the grape's stronghold in the Cheverny AOC, suggesting that the grape's name reflects a geographical connection - the king was from the region.
Romorantin was once quite widely grown in the Loire, but has now retreated to the Cour-Cheverny AOC, a small enclave of the Cheverny AOC which lies south of Blois.
A Romorantin vineyard at Domaine Henry Marionnet claims to be the oldest in France. It was planted in 1850 and somehow survived the phylloxera epidemic that devastated European vineyards in the late 19th century. Provignage is the name given to the technique used originally to propagate the vines (and to the wine itself). The wine is living history and brings to mind apples, pears and white flowers, but also dried fruits, minerals and honey. The combined length, richness and complexity is fabulous – it is difficult to imagine this originates in the Loire.
The Courtois version may lack the venerable vine age but is equally impressively-structured. As with all the Courtois wines it is close to nature, a nature respected by thoughtful farming. The wine itself is made naturally with a long native yeast fermentation and an élevage of eighteen months in used barrels. The nose is beautifully flowery with notes of Mediterranean flowers, laurel leaves, acacia and fresh almond, whilst the palate has tremendous tension and minerality.
Romorantin additionally features in blends in Courtois Racines Blanc (alongside several other native grapes), and in Pierre-Olivier Bonhomme’s Touraine Tesnière Blanc with Menu Pineau. This wine is brilliant and lithe with acidity pinging to all corners of the mouth.
Quick definition: All roads lead to Romorantin.
Roussanne is a white-wine grape named after its skin colour (when ripe), a reddish-gold pigment that equates to the French word roux (meaning "russet", or reddish-brown). The variety is thought to have originated in the northern Rhone Valley, where the majority of modern day plantings are found.
With its traditional blending partner, Marsanne, Roussanne is a key ingredient in the white wine blends of the northern Rhone, notably Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph, and in the sparkling wines of Saint-Peray. Further south in the Rhone Valley, it is used in small quantities in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, where it is one of 13 grape varieties permitted for use in both red and white wines.
In its native France, Roussanne is most commonly found in the south, where it benefits from the warm temperatures and long sunlight hours it needs to achieve full maturity. In cooler climates, the variety can struggle to ripen and has a reputation for being a difficult variety to grow.
Fortunately, Roussanne is a much more forgiving variety in the winery where it can be blended and manipulated into complex and prestigious wines. Chateau Beaucastel’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc Vieilles Vignes is perhaps the most notable 100-percent Roussanne wine.
Roussanne, on its own, is characterized by herbal, tea-like, aromas. On the palate it typically shows pears and honey with notable intensity. The acidity can be high if picked under-ripe, but if left on the vine too long alcohol levels can breach 14 percent. When blended with Marsanne, it provides aromatic intensity to complement its richer counterpart's structure and body.
The Romaneaux-Destezet Blanc is a blend of 70% Viognier and 30% Roussanne, from yields of 20hl/ha. Grapes are hand-harvested and undergo a very long maceration at a low temperature—without destemming the fruit. The wine is fermented in wooden tanks and aged on fine lees in second-hand oak casks for eight months. The wine is bottled without filtration. Golden straw in the glass with lovely scents of white flowers, tropical fruit, wet stones and notes of oak. The palate is supple with loads of pear and fig flavours that are backed by elegant mineral notes. Moderate acidity, apple jam and a warm note of oak lingers on the finish.
Dard & Ribo make a variety of Saint-Josephs from pure Roussanne. They manage to bridge the gap between being golden, honeyed, spicy yet defiantly mineral. There is a straight St Jo Blanc, which is a delight, a more concentrated version called Les Champs, which in exceptional vintages become Le Pitrou. The white Crozes is a blend of Roussanne and Marsanne planted on a mix of glacial alluvial deposits, rolled stones and red clay. It is nicely understated.
Roussanne is also present in whites from Ollieux-Romanis, Mourgues du Gres, Mas de Libian and Château de Pibarnon.
Quick definition: White Rhône ranger.
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