We crisp-white-wine lovers have a confession to make: Every fall we go underground. We nod in solidarity with our red-wine drinking buddies as they tout the joys of Cabernet and Syrah in front of a crackling fire—and we sip our Sauvignon Blanc in private.
But enough already with that. Recent tastings have made it clear that all that evasive bobbing and weaving is entirely unnecessary. All it takes is white wine with a little more meat on its bones—richness, weight—to be perfectly in tune with the season. And with the West Coast’s most recent crop of vibrant Rhône whites (Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne and family), we don’t even have to sacrifice crispness. Anthony Yount, winemaker for Paso Robles’ Rhône virtuoso Denner Vineyards, doubles as a crazy-good wine writer in describing why he loves his Viognier in the fall: “Because it offers a mix of both fruity and brothy aromatics that pairs so well with the heartier foods we tend to eat as the weather cools down. The wine’s natural acidity also gives it great balance and the ability to stand up to spicy, rich and intense foods.”
The truth is, even Sauvignon Blanc can be at peace with both the weather and the foods—just find one with a generous splash of Sémillon in it, à la white Bordeaux. Sémillon is a variety with natural weight, a beeswax quality that coats the palate and warms the soul. And it’s traveling alone more and more these days, as in Component Wine Company’s 2018, made by Michael Kennedy, who champions wines that often disappear into blends. Kennedy, former head sommelier for Blue by chef Eric Ripert as well as the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman (and who makes wine now in Bordeaux as well as in Napa Valley), compares standalone Sauv Blanc with Sémillon. “Sauvignon Blanc is great in the summer because it’s light, fresh and crisp,” he says. “But its sister grape, Sémillon, is lower in alcohol and a bit weightier. I like to say it’s the difference between freshwater (Sauv Blanc) and saltwater (Sémillon). When I was a sommelier, I used to pair Sémillon with mid-weight fish courses and it’s perfect with fall flavors like butternut squash and pumpkin—it doesn’t clash like citrus-focused SB.”
So for all those roast chickens in the oven, butternut squash pasta dishes with sage crisped in butter and crackling fires, here are 13 Rhônes and Sémillons (alone and in blends) that will satisfy even our red-wine-drinking friends.
Calera 2017 Viognier Mt. Harlan
From the limestone-rich soils of Mt. Harlan, about 25 miles east of Monterey Bay, this Calera white captures the vibrant, fresh side of Viognier. Whiffs of jasmine float from the glass, followed by delicately honeyed stone fruit and green citrus. Apricot and peach flavors meld on a gently mouth-filling palate, brightened through the finish with zesty lime peel for a pleasant tinge of bitterness with minerality and lovely tension.
Chappellet Grower Collection 2019 Cold Creek Vineyard Viognier Carneros
Here’s a rich but vibrant white from Napa’s Chappellet, known better for its mountain reds. Ripe apricot envelopes the nose, with honeysuckle and creamy lemon joining forces. Peach follows on the palate in a riot of stone fruit and tropicals, with mango and subtle spices taking turns and a pleasant bitter almond skin character adding bitterness and texture on the finish, balancing the ripe fruit.
Denner Vineyards 2018 Viognier Willow Creek District, Paso Robles
A bright, beautifully textured white from Rhône expert Denner. Delicate honeysuckle loops around white nectarine aromas, edged with just a hint of spice. Juicy melon, lemon-lime and apricot pop on an intense palate that builds through an endless finish.
Rôtie Cellars 2019 Northern White Walla Walla Valley
This blend of 65 percent Marsanne and 35 percent Roussanne is one of two Rhône whites from Washington’s Rôtie Cellars (the other being “Southern White,” as you might expect, a blend of 65 percent Viognier, 20 percent Roussanne and 15 percent Marsanne). This 2019 “Northern”—although it leads with orange blossom, stone fruit and Meyer lemon aromas—is vibrant and dry, with underlying chalky earth. Bright, intense citrus flavors drive the palate, layered with white peach, resiny herbs and lime zest that creates a refreshingly tart, lingering finish.
Folded Hills 2018 Reserve Roussanne Ballard Canyon
The light-gold color of this Santa Barbara white from Folded Hills presages richness and weight on the palate. The wine delivers that, though, with an excellent balance of freshness. Aromatic stone fruit gives way to layers of lemon and wet-stone minerality against a foil of honeysuckle. A pleasant beeswax character lends heft and mouth-feel, delivering a compote of pear, apricot and peach through a long finish. This is a Rhône for Chardonnay lovers.
Gramercy Cellars 2019 Viognier Columbia Valley
Washington’s Gramercy Cellars has produced a vibrant, textural 2019 Viognier. Opening notes of mandarin are wrapped with hints of jasmine and aromas akin to a breeze floating over a rock quarry. Vivid fruit flavors include apple, pear, bright lemon and juicy melon edged with savory herbs and delivered with beautiful tension across the palate.
Mark Ryan Winery 2019 Viognier Yakima Valley
Since 1999, Mark Ryan McNeilly has made a name for himself with his wines’ actual names (Long Haul, Dead Horse (gotta be a story there), The Dissident, Lost Soul, Wild Eyed …) and for the exciting quality of those Washington wines. This 2019 white—uncharacteristically named just “Viognier”—opens with intriguing savory saffron and sea breeze aromas, layered with pear. A fruit-forward, juicy palate adds peach, mango, orange zest and subtle oak spice, with a great balance between richness and brightness.
L’Ecole No. 41 2019 Stillwater Creek Vineyard Sémillon Columbia Valley
This single-vineyard Washington white from the state’s pioneering L’Ecole winery is the deal of the season. Long and intense, it opens with lovely honeysuckle wafting over round citrus, stone fruit, green fig and crushed rock aromas. The mouth-filling, beautifully textured palate layers in juicy pear, orange peel and tropical notes that linger through a generous finish.
Component Wine Company 2018 Yount Mill Vineyard Sémillon Napa Valley
A mere 181 cases of this lean but expressive Component white were made—splitting time between concrete egg fermentation and neutral French oak. Beautiful floral aromas offer a high-toned balance for underlying minerality and green citrus on the nose. A vibrant, textural, dry palate follows, full of under-ripe stone fruit (that’s a good thing), melon, green fig and finished off with lime zest.
DeLille Cellars 2019 Chaleur Blanc Columbia Valley
Washington winemaking leader DeLille offers a uniquely rich but vibrant take on a white Bordeaux blend with this 2019. Beautiful mineral notes underlie creamy citrus, fig and melon, wrapped in jasmine. A complex palate is both mouth-filling and vibrant, layered with pear, melon, fig, honeyed white peach and a subtle herbal quality.
Tablas Creek Vineyard 2018 Esprit Blanc de Tablas Adelaida District, Paso Robles
The top white blend from Tablas Creek offers a chance to taste varieties that are almost unicorn rarities in the US—the wine includes 66 percent Roussanne, 21 percent Grenache Blanc, 8 percent Picpoul Blanc, 3 percent Picardan and 2 percent Clairette Blanche. (The winery is owned in partnership with the Perrin family of Château de Beaucastel and has propagated all of Châteauneuf-du-Pape’s varieties in this country.) This Esprit is complex and luscious, opening with spicy white blossoms, apricot and orange aromas over savory herbs and river stone. Honeyed (but not cloying) compote of stone fruit follows, layered with juicy pear and spritzed with lemon.
Alta Colina 2018 Claudia Cuvée Marsanne Adelaida District, Paso Robles
Showing a little more restraint than its Viognier Rhône cohort generally does, this Marsanne from Alta Colina is dry and elegant, even with substantial weight in the mouth. Honeyed stone fruit, orange blossoms and Meyer lemon give way to peach punched up with lemon zest as the vibrant finish lingers.
Darioush 2012 Late Harvest Shahpar Napa Valley
I’m throwing a curve ball here, with Darioush’s late harvest Sauvignon Blanc–Sémillon dessert wine that gives Sauternes a run for its money. Only made in vintages that produce noble rot—the botrytis that gives the great sweet Bordeaux its earthy, honeyed quality—this Napa Valley version opens with apricots sautéed in honey, layered with dried florals in a sachet packet wrapped in orange blossoms. Stone fruits steeped with vanilla beans and spices follow, peach giving way to almond and creamy citrus, with a bright balance to its sweetness.