A Tale of Two Rhônes

A Tale of Two Rhônes

When I first sat down to write this month’s column, I figured I would write about the continuing upward spiral of prices for the top Bordeaux, while the vast majority of Bordeaux vineyards languish and slip further into poverty. It’s a depressing topic, with parallels to other segments of the wine world and beyond, reaching into politics and economics.

Then I took my (nearly) annual trip to France’s Rhône Valley, and found something much more upbeat to write about.

After a difficult vintage in 2008, the weather in the past two years has been kind to the Rhône’s vignerons. In 2009, the only challenges were the dry weather and warm temperatures—not normally things to complain about. But in some places, the summer’s heat has resulted in jammy wines, and in others, the tannins can be a bit harsh or the wines overly alcoholic.

These problems are more evident in the south than in the north, according to Guy Sarton du Jonchay of Vidal-Fleury, who sources wines from both regions. “In the south,” says Sarton du Jonchay, “I’m not really comfortable with ’09.”

Although it’s true that some ’09s from the southern Rhône are overly alcoholic, and some do have coarse tannins, the best winemakers were careful to avoid overextraction in the presence of high alcohol levels. The resulting wines are lush and fruit-forward, with creamy textures and just slightly warm finishes. Michel Gassier, proprietor of Château de Nages in the southern region of Costières de Nîmes, suggests the 2009 vintage “is classic in style, harkening back to ’05 in its tannic structure.”

There are fewer of those rugged tannins in the northern Rhône in 2009, with many of the wines I tasted on this trip having ripe, even creamy, textures. At this point, they seem to lack some classic traits: “The ripeness of the fruit hides the granite,” asserts Michel Chapoutier, as we taste through barrel samples of his 2009 Hermitages. The implicit suggestion is that as the fruit fades, some 15 years or so down the line, the wines’ pedigreed roots will become more apparent.

Jerôme Coursodon, who with his father runs the family domaine in Saint-Joseph, describes 2009 as “a very good vintage, with good concentration and soft tannins…if it had a bit more acidity, it would be great.” The wines that retain a sense of freshness and minerality are indeed excellent; Coursodon’s L’Olivaie being one such example.

The jammy fruit exhibited by many of the 2009s will appeal to fans of New World wines, but classicists may want to opt instead for the 2010s from both north and south. The wines are less marked by ripeness, allowing the various terroirs to shine through. Alcohol levels are generally equal to or lower than the same wines in 2009, in some cases up to a full half percent, yet the wines aren’t underripe at all, just less extreme.

In 2010, a cool, rainy spring delayed flowering and led to poor fruit set; generally speaking, yields are down from 25–50%. But the resulting water reserves in the soil and a cool but sunny finish to the growing season led to concentrated wines with balanced acids and silky tannins. From his domaine above Malleval in Saint-Joseph, Pierre Gaillard describes 2010 as “a very nice vintage, [with] slow maturity which I think gives the best results.”

In Cornas, tasting from the old foudres at Domaine A. Clape, it’s apparent that components of the 2010s are more complex, focused and precise than the already delicious 2009s, a part of which have just been bottled. “It’s better than ’09, we think; it’s more balanced,” explains Olivier Clape, the youngest-generation vigneron at this historic family domaine.

Paralleling the red wines, among northern Rhône whites the 2010s are unquestionably fresher and more balanced than the often opulent, sometimes fat 2009s. That’s especially true of both reds and whites in the south, where Sarton du Jonchay calls 2010 “one of the best vintages I’ve worked with.”

As the magazine’s reviewer for Rhône wines, I’m envisioning a great next year of blind tastings, with excellent wines from north and south, red and white. But don’t feel you have to wait for a positive review—these are rare vintages that will have many more hits than misses. As the introspective Jean-Louis Chave explains: “both [vintages] are beautiful but for different reasons.”

Rockin' RhĂ´ne Valley Wines

Published on August 19, 2011
Topics: Editor ColumnsRhĂ´ne Valley