Roussanne? Viognier? What's in a name?

Note – Look out for a stunning new varietal Roussanne from Rick Kinzbrunner of Beechworth in Victoria, he of Giaconda Chardonnay fame. It's to be called Aeolia and will be equally robustly priced (40 or more Australian dollars a bottle) but it's awfully good – a downunder riposte to my Ch de Beaucastel recommendation of 3 February.

You can now visit the website and even buy the wine direct (an operation cutting out the middleperson completely, pioneered by Kinzbrunner) on

My friend and fellow British Airways wine taster Michael Broadbent of Christie's was telling me the other day about a trip he'd made to Rioja. During a visit to the venerable Lopez de Heredia bodega, the cellarmaster had reached into a particularly dusty corner of the cellar and produced an ancient bottle of wine that turned out to be delicious.

But Michael found the whole experience hugely unsatisfactory. The cellarmaster didn't know what the wine was or when it was made. It was nectar, but nectar without a name. And if, like Michael, your life of wine-tasting is religiously recorded in a series of little red notebooks, then to be transcribed – by his wife Daphne – into his magisterial Great Vintage Wine Book (still the best reference for tasters of fine wine), then not being able to fill in the left-hand box which identifies the wine tasted frustrates the tasting experience entirely.

I tell this story because of the wonderfully entertaining saga that has been unfolding in California which hinges on the naming of wines and vines.

One day in the 1980s Randall Grahm, California cépagiste and the most quotable man in the world of wine, came back to his Bonny Doon winery from a trip to the southern Rhône Valley, opened his suitcase and found some vine cuttings in it, as some determined, but arguably antisocial, growers of difficult-to-obtain grape varieties are wont to do wherever plant quarantines are in force. He believed these cuttings to be Roussanne, planted them at Bonny Doon in the Santa Cruz Mountains and blended the result with some Marsanne (that had gone through the official California vine source program at Davis) to produce a quite delicious, scented, full-bodied white wine he called Le Sophiste.

In 1994 these Roussanne vines succumbed to the dreaded Pierce's disease (now apparently moving inexorably north through California's vineyards with potentially catastrophic consequences). Grahm took cuttings and planted them in the Chequera vineyard in Paso Robles. The wine they produced was not so exciting here and was labelled simply Bonny Doon Roussanne.

Rich Kunde of Sonoma Grapevines, one of California's most important vine nurseries (and an extremely useful early barometer of varietal fashion), had also acquired some cuttings from Randall Grahm's original Roussanne vineyards. Grahm says he gave them to Kunde in exchange for some other plant material. Since Grahm is a tireless searcher after varietal novelty, the only guy to take California Malvasia Bianca seriously for example, this seems highly likely. Grahm also claims he specifically asked Kunde not to propagate these cuttings, presumably so as to avoid awkward questions about their provenance.

Whatever the true circumstances of the transfer of plant material from Bonny Doon to Sonoma Grapevines, Kunde nurtured and multiplied the cuttings and sold them on to various growers all over California. One of them was Chuck Wagner Jr of the famous Caymus Vineyards in the Napa Valley, who in 1994 bought thousands of them for his Mer Soleil white wine vineyard in Monterey.

Wagner is a friend of John Alban of Alban Vineyards in Edna Valley, who made his name by planting vines by the name of Viognier, then almost unheard of in the state, in the late 1980s (although Joseph Phelps was the original California pioneer). On a visit to the Monterey vineyard in 1998 Alban took a look at Chuck's young Roussanne vines and told him, them's not Roussanne, they're Viognier.

It was at this point that all hell, or rather farce, broke loose. Wagner sued Sonoma Grapevines for millions of dollars in view of his supposed future lost earnings of the high end wine he planned to make with the Roussanne. Meetings with lawyers took place and expensively extended themselves and the result is that now Kunde is sueing Grahm.

The great joke here is that approximately one wine drinker in several hundred, if not thousands, could describe the characteristics of Roussanne. If anything, Viognier is a far better known and more glamorous variety which, I would have thought, could be sold at a higher price than Roussanne.

Viognier, now planted all over the world but especially in the Languedoc-Roussillon and increasingly in California and Australia, makes extremely rich, headily scented wines (if yields are kept low) that make a sort of easy-to-love cross between Chardonnay and Gewürztraminer. Lychees and dried apricots often come to mind in good, concentrated versions; fake air-freshener scents in the more basic.

Varietal Roussanne is a much rarer beast; it is more typically an ingredient in a southern French blend. Chateau de Beaucastel in Chateauneuf-du-Pape has long favoured it and pioneered it as a varietal in a stunning oaked version from some particularly old vines. Roussanne is also scented, with something more akin to lime and blossom than richer fruits, but usually has much less body than Viognier. Blending it with the much plumper Marsanne, as has long been common in Hermitage, gives it ballast.

Roussanne, Viognier and Marsanne all come from the Rhône Valley, but until the late 1980s Viognier was grown almost exclusively around the village of Condrieu in the northern Rhône. Roussanne is grown in the northern but especially southern Rhône and Provence. Grahm says his cuttings came from the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region where Roussanne but not Viognier is an official white wine ingredient.

Other California growers who bought the mislabelled Roussanne from Kunde are more relaxed, and will simply rename future vintages of the wine, presumably including the one that won local 'best of class' in the California State Fair.

Australians will allow themselves a wry smile at this. They know of wines which in the bad old days of generic rather varietal naming, routinely won both Burgundy and Claret classes in the same show. Chile has its own little naming confusion with a significant proportion of what has been labelled Merlot turning out to be an old Bordeaux variety that people know even less about than Roussanne: Carmenère. The authorities are insisting that part of the cult wine Chateau Valandraud's 2000 vintage is sold as a simple Vin de Table rather than St-Emilion because plastic sheeting (not officially sanctioned by appellation controlée laws) was used to protect the vineyards from excessive rain. This humbly named special bottling may command an even higher price than regular Valandraud.

These tales are not about wilful passing off. Most of them are humbling reminders of just how frail our tasting abilities can be. Surely, more than anything, they should serve to remind us that it is what's in the bottle that's important, not what's on the label. Though perhaps we should all have smelt a rat when Grahm labelled that original wine Sophiste: 'one who reasons with clever but fallacious arguments'.