Rockin’ Rhône Valley Wines

Rockin' Rhône Valley Wines

Over the past decade and a half, good vintages have become routine in the South of France. Counting backward, it’s possible to click them off with almost metronomic regularity: 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998.

Although not all of these years were created equal, all merited consumer interest on release, and many of the wines from these vintages continue to drink well. Consult the annotated vintage chart for details about vintage styles, which parts of the valley fared best and when to drink the wines.

Many of the 2010s—particularly the top cuvées—have yet to be formally reviewed in blind tastings, but based on extensive visits and tastings with the winemakers, it’s clear that 2009 and 2010 are the best back-to-back vintages in memory.

Each year has a unique style and has strengths in different areas, so despite both vintages being enormously successful, it’s worth getting to know them in detail prior to making big purchases.

Sun or Soil?

In the Northern Rhône, where Syrah is the lone red grape variety, the differences in style between the two years are dramatic. As Michel Chapoutier told me last year as we tasted through barrel samples of his 2010s, 2009 is a year that shows the season’s warmth and ripeness, while in 2010, the differences of terroir are more dramatic.

It’s an apt description that matches my impressions now that the majority of the 2010s are in bottle. If you are a fan of the Syrah grape, you will love the dark fruit and plush tannins of the 2009s from the Northern Rhône. If you are a fan of Northern Rhône terroirs, you will love the precision of the 2010s.

“I prefer a bit 2010, maybe because most people talk about 2009,” says Jean Gonon, who manages Domaine Pierre Gonon in Mauves (Saint-Joseph) with his brother, Pierre. “In fact, 2009 is marked by the climate more than the site,” he says.

At the nearby Domaine Coursodon, also in Mauves, vigneron Jérôme Coursodon concurs with this assessment, describing 2009 as “enormous and very concentrated,” but going on to say, “For me, the elegance of 2010 is better—it has no dried fruit aromas.”

As both of these producers boast vineyards having prime expositions and shallow soils of decomposed granite, it’s perhaps no surprise that they favor a vintage that showcases terroir over heat, but the story is slightly different in Crozes-Hermitage.

Crozes-Hermitage encompasses several different terroirs, but the majority of the appellation is not so well situated, being largely flat and possessing fairly deep soils. As a result, the 2009s from Crozes-Hermitage are almost uniformly attractive, with deeper-than-usual fruit because of the year’s small yields and intense heat.

As Carole Devaux, general manager of the Cave de Clairmont cooperative, says, “2009 is great, but quite tannic. Everyone has made good wines.”

At Domaine Alain Graillot, also located on the flat portion of the appellation, Alain’s son, Maxime, even prefers his 2011s to the 2010s, calling the latter vintage “concentrated, but a bit rustic.”

Elsewhere in the Northern Rhône, winemakers’ impressions of the 2009s and 2010s are similar, with preferences largely depending on their own winemaking styles.

Lionel Faury, who now handles the winemaking at his family’s Domaine Faury in Chavanay (Saint-Joseph), prefers 2010. “The 2009s are good to taste now, but I’m not sure they’ll last years and years,” he says.

It’s a sentiment mirrored by Jean-Michel Stephan, a producer of natural wines whose vineyards are in nearby Côte Rôtie. “I don’t like hot years,” he says. “I make wines for long aging, and if a wine is too good young…” his voice trails off.

Perhaps because of this, Stephan prefers to show me his 2008s instead of his 2009s.

His neighbor on the Côte Blonde and president of the local growers’ syndicat, David Duclaux, is more enthusiastic about 2009, calling it “a keeping vintage, with strong tannins.” Still, to me, his 2010s showed an extra measure of silky elegance.

But at Domaine Alain Voge in Cornas, partner and general manager Albéric Mazoyer cracks a broad grin when we taste his 2009 Les Chailles. “It’s ’09,” he says by way of explanation, as we admire its intensity and rich texture. Here, the 2009s are on at least the same level as the 2010s.

QUICK TAKES: Northern Rhône Reds

The bulk of the vineyards on the Hermitage hill face south, imparting ample warmth and power to the wines. That intensity is tempered by floral and mineral complexity in the best examples, but only rarely can the wines truly be described as elegant. Most examples of Hermitage are rather muscular and age well as a result, often requiring time in the cellar before they show their best.

Cornas is intense and occasionally sauvage, born of the interactions between sunlight, steep granite slopes and the Syrah grape. The wines are concentrated and often firmly tannic in style, with meaty notes, cassis or blackberry fruit and occasional hints of espresso and black olive. “It’s not an easy wine,” says Guillaume Gilles, a young vintner with holdings in the Chaillot lieu-dit. “But it’s made to go far.”

Côte Rôtie
Famously divided into two parts, Côte Rôtie is united as the northernmost bastion of Syrah in France. The schist of the Côte Brune yields more powerful wines than the gneiss and granite of the Côte Blonde, which also includes a higher proportion of Viognier. Together, they give a wine that’s “violets, raspberry and white pepper” when young, says vigneron David Duclaux, aging to “smoked meat and licorice.”

With more than 50 producers and several distinctive terroirs, the wines of Crozes-Hermitage are among the most variable of the Northern Rhône appellations. Yet, the red wines are always among the region’s fruitiest. “In Crozes, you can taste more the fruit of the Syrah than in other appellations of the Northern Rhône,” says Devaux, whose Cave de Clairmont includes 13 different growers.

Because the vineyards of Saint-Joseph are strung out along close to 40 miles, with dozens of producers, these are wines that vary in quality and style as much as those of Crozes-Hermitage. From the south end, near Tournon and Mauves, the wines have a bit of Hermitage heft to them, while from the north end, near Chavanay and Malleval, they bear more of a resemblance to Côte Rôtie.

Heading south

South of Cornas, there’s a brief break in the vinous landscape, just enough space for Montélimar and its famed nougat before the vines begin again. The main red grape variety suddenly changes from Syrah to Grenache, and the wines become more voluptuous and less angular—softer and warmer, just like the climate.

The vines here in the Southern Rhône are adapted to the scorching sun and dry north wind, but in drought years, even they suffer the effects of water stress. At times, the vines shut down and stop ripening the fruit, what the French call blocage de la maturité. The result can be somewhat dry, astringent tannins, dried fruit flavors and rising alcohol levels.

This was a danger in both 2009 and 2010, but more so in 2009. In 2010, cool nights and a few days of well-timed rain largely prevented the vines from shutting down and preserved natural acidity in the grapes.

Marianne Fues, proprietor of Domaine de Coste Chaude in Visan, characterizes 2010 as “quite a nice and easy year, compared to 2009,” but says it’s “perhaps not as good as 2007— because for us that was a top year—but a bit like that.”

At Domaine de Mourchon in Séguret, Hugo Levingston, who manages the vineyards for his father-in-law, says 2009 is his clear favorite of the two. “There’s a pattern of rich, opulent vintages alternating with more classic years,” he says.

For a different opinion, all one has to do is visit another producer.

“Perhaps there is a touch more balance in 2010,” says Christophe Jaume, who with his brother, Sébastien, has taken over the day-to-day operations of the family company, Alain Jaume et Fils. “I always like the ’09,” he says, but continues, “you find a bit more freshness in 2010.”

“It’s a very good, fresh and balanced vintage,” says Louis Barruol as he pours us tastes of his 2010 Château de Saint-Cosme Gigondas. “Compared to ’05, there’s more fruit, less structure. [The year] 1990 was a bit like this—ripe and fresh. It’s more balanced than ’07.”

Better than 2007 is high praise indeed, but I agree. The 2010s from the Southern Rhône have an extra level of vivacity that sets them apart, while the tannins remain wonderfully fine and supple.

“I think it’s the best we have done for a long time,” says Marc Perrin, at his family’s Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. He describes 2010 as “very aromatic, very intense, but not heavy,” comparing it to 1985 or 1978 in quality and style.

Later that day, I hear similar sentiments from Sophie Armenier at Domaine de Marcoux. “I think it’s the best I ever made,” she says, as we taste her terrific 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Vieilles Vignes.

The following day, I hear more comparisons to 1978 at Domaine du Grand Tinel, where the Jeune family graciously opens a bottle from that vintage. Following a look at the new releases, it prompts winemaking consultant Philippe Cambie to proclaim: “The best quality of Châteauneuf-du-Pape is that it is very good young and very good old.”

The same may be said of many reds from the Southern Rhône. They have sufficient forward fruit and soft-enough tannins to be approachable upon release, yet enough concentration to age well.

This extended window of drinkability is an insurance policy of sorts. For consumers who lack patience, there’s no harm in trying many of the wines young, and for those who overbuy, there’s no need to worry the wines will be over the hill when they’re finally broached.

Having two great vintages to choose from is another form of insurance, making now the ideal time to stock up on these delicious wines.

QUICK TAKES: Southern Rhône Reds

From the surface, the large stones covering the earth in much of Lirac look identical to those found across the Rhône in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. The wines can be deceptively similar as well. “A lot of Châteauneuf-du-Pape producers are coming in Lirac because they recognize we have the terroir,” says Fabrice Delorme of Domaine de la Mordorée. “It’s a very underrated appellation.”

The oldest and most renowned of the Southern Rhône appellations, Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a complicated patchwork of different lieux-dits and terroirs. There are the famous smooth, rounded stones (galets roulés) of La Crau and Coudoulet, but also the sandy soils of Pignan and Le Rayas and the white, fractured limestone ofGrand Devès, La Gardine and Pradel. Many estates are now bottling single-parcel wines, putting terroir in the glass.

Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Villages
Given the huge vineyard expanses covered by these appellations, it’s exceedingly difficult to generalize about the wines. Many are deliberately made in a charming, early-drinking style, but others, particularly from villages like Cairanne and Séguret, are more serious and age worthy. Then there are some that fall just outside prestigious appellations, yet come close in style and quality to their neighbors.

Oral tradition holds that some sort of deal was cut with Châteauneuf-du-Pape when Gigondas became its own appellation in 1971. Allegedly as a result, there are no rosé wines in Châteauneuf and no whites in Gigondas. Rumor has it that may change sometime in the future, but for now, Gigondas remains a prime source of often age-worthy reds. “Gigondas is always structured,” says Yves Gras, proprietor of Domaine Santa Duc.

This small village has risen quickly through the ranks of the Southern Rhône’s appellation system. It became eligible to add its name to the label of its Côte du Rhône Villages wines in 1996 and became its own appellation starting with the 2009 vintage. Production is mainly red table wines that boast considerable power on their own, but a small amount of vin doux naturel—a sweet, modestly fortified red wine—is also produced.

Red Grapes of the Southern Rhône

Almost all Southern Rhône red wines are blends of several varieties. Some even contain a small amount of white grapes.

The workhorse grape of the region, making up 50% or more of most wines. It is often high in sugar (and hence, alcohol) before its tannins acquire their classically silky character.

Less perfumed than when grown in the cooler climate of the north, Syrah adds color and structure to many blends.

A late ripener, used to add color and acidity to the blend.

Deeply colored but often tannic. Naturally high in acidity.

Popular for rosés. Spicy and aromatic, with soft tannins.

Counoise, Muscardin, Picpoul Noir, Terret Noir, Vaccarèse
These rare, late-ripening varieties are sometimes used in blends to add fragrance and acidity.

Recent Rhône Valley Vintages

The Rhône Valley has been blessed by good weather over the past decade. Here’s a brief summary of the most recent vintages’ characteristics and advice on when most of the wines will be at their best.

Many of the grapes had reached good sugar levels prior to some autumn rains, so even if the wines are not intensely concentrated, they’re charming and fruity. Mostly for near-term drinking.

A terrific year for whites, reds and rosés in nearly all parts of the region. There’s ample concentration, balanced by good natural acidity. Some wines are drinkable now, but top wines will improve from 5–20 years.

A year of intense, powerful wines, with the warmth sometimes slightly too evident. Generally approachable now and relatively early maturing, but some northern wines may age terrifically well. Reds are better than whites.

An average year, marked by relatively cool temperatures and some rain. Few wines will cellar well past 2018, but many are pleasant now, with modest alcohol levels and refreshing acidity.

An elegant year in the north, with graceful, mediumbodied wines that are drinking well now. A blockbuster vintage for southern reds, with great concentration and high levels of ripeness.

A charming, early-drinking year in the north, with many wines now at their peak. Southern wines are well balanced, with top wines capable of aging another 10 years.

The wines were concentrated and a bit tough on release, but many of the wines are starting to shed those tannins and enter their primes.

Some excellent whites from Hermitage, which should age magnificently. Northern reds are more mixed. Southern reds are well balanced and now generally drinking well.

An irregular year because of the excessive heat. Some extremely concentrated wines built for the ages, while others looked impressive young but have developed too much dried-fruit character.

Pretty much a washout. Although some pleasant wines were made (particularly among the whites), most should have been consumed by now.

A classic, long-lived and well-balanced vintage in both north and south. Most wines are drinking well now, with some lesser wines past peak.

A decent year in the north, just not up to the standards set by 1999 or 2001. Southern wines are more uniformly successful, but relatively open knit and generally not for further aging.

This was the year in the north, at least until 2009. Despite huge concentration and ample ripeness, the wines retain their sense of place. Southern wines are a bit restrained compared to 1998 or 2000, but many are still aging well.

Variable in the north, but a full-bodied, superripe vintage in the south, with layers of opulent fruit on release. Some wines are already past peak, others just hitting their stride.

Published on September 5, 2012
Topics: French WinesWine RecommendationsWine Trends