N Rhone blending question

So I’ve just found out that viognier isn’t the only variety that is blended with syrah. Marsanne and roussane can also be blended. My question, since I am unfamiliar with these wines and in general N Rhone, why and what do these grape variety bring to the table? I have read viognier is blended for aromatics, but have no idea about the others. Also is there any discernable difference?

This is a really interesting question.

My feeling has always been that the notion of Viognier being included for aromatics is something of a red herring, which has led some winemakers attempting to emulate northern Rhône styles in the new world astray. And the blending of Marsanne and Roussane with Syrah in Hermitage, both much less extravagantly aromatic than Viognier, would seem to suggest that other factors are in play. Two suggested answers, not mutually exclusive:

  1. to bring body and volume to the wine — white varieties will typically ripen better in cooler years, and including them in the blend brings extra degrees of alcohol and concomitant texture. It was not so uncommon to find white varieties blended with red for this reason in Burgundy, and as I understand it there is still Pinot Gris to be found among old vines in Charmes-Chambertin.

  2. co-extraction — while Syrah is abundantly endowed with tannin and color, my understanding is that the variety lacks some of the precursors necessary to ‘fix’ color and structure; those precursors are present in Viognier, Roussane and Marsanne. So a blend of red and white grapes, fermented together, can produce a more durable, stable red wine than red grapes fermented alone in this case. There are some parallels in Chianti and elsewhere I believe. This is an idea derived from reading rather than practical experience, and if it is mistaken I am open to correction, but it makes sense. Note that if co-extraction is important, then vinifiying Syrah and Viognier separately and then blending them, as some do, is mainfestly misguided.

William I never thought of #2 being done. I assumed blending after fermentation, hmmm. As to your use of the word concomitant… had to look that baby up.

I would also add that the addition of Vioginer, Marsanne and Roussanne can help soften tannins and add texture.

While it’s common enough to co-ferment Viognier from the Cote Blonde and lieux-dits closer to Condrieu, wines made from the Northern slope of Cote Rotie such as Cote Brune are usually 100% Syrah.

It’s pretty rare for producers in Hermitage to co-ferment. Can’t think of anyone off the top of my head that does it intentionally.

First, marsanne and roussanne are permitted only in Hermitage, St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. Only viognier is allowed in Cote Rotie, and Cornas must be 100% syrah.

According to Livingstone-Learmonth’s book on the Northern Rhone, in practice no producers in Hermitage include more than 5% marsanne (that’s Sorrel’s proportion), and few use it at all. L-L doesn’t mention anyone using roussane, or anyone other than Sorrel using marsanne. L-L speculates that the white grapes are allowed in the red (a) because the white reds were interspersed in the vineyards so it makes it easier for growers to pick just once and (b) perhaps because marsanne would add body to syrah. I don’t know if anyone is including whites in St. Joseph and Crozes.

I’ve heard of viognier helping fix the color of syrah if co-fermented, but I can’t find anything suggesting there is a similar effect with marsanne or roussanne.

I thought d’Arenberg down in Australia is doing this too with some bottling, maybe it was their Magpie bottling or something? Presumably they did some research before doing this?


I’m reading L-L original 1978 Rhone book right now, and its a blast seeing his opinions on the ancient vintages. I realize its academic, since they’re long gone and/or I would not buy them in any case, but is neat.

What do you mean by fixing the color? Being too dark in color considered a detriment somehow? So if said winery were to co-ferment would that be a normal practice or done to enhance/mask due to vintage?

The co-fermenting with viognier fixes some pigments in syrah so the wine is darker than it would be if it were pure syrah, as I understand it. New oak barrels will do that with nebbiolo, I know. Hence, modern-styled Barolo is generally much darker than traditionally made wines.

Thx John, I assumed it being the other way.

Viognier is allowed only in Côte-Rôtie (up to 20%), while Marsanne and Roussanne may be added to red Hermitage (max.15%), to Crozes-Hermitage and St.Joseph (10%) - but not to Cornas (where no white grapes are legal at all).

The reason might on one hand be a pragmatic one … historically there were always some Marsanne and Roussanne vines grown between the Syrah, and it simply would be too complicated to sort them out, and on the other hand the white grapes soften the strong Hermitage and makes it earlier accessable (and also more fragrant).

To my knowledge less than a handful of producers have white grapes in their red Hermitage nowadays.

Sorrel !