There’s no place like Rhône

Photo: the crest of the hill of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, April 2007.

2015. 2016. 2017. 2018. If you love the wines of the Rhône Valley, your life is good right now.

Never before have we seen a string of top quality vintages such as this.

The Northern and Southern Rhône regions are notorious for variable weather. Why? Because it’s hot in the south, sucking air in from the north, making for dramatic weather swings. And hot air plus cold air produces evaporation, air movement, and potential chaos in the weather patterns. Think about what happens around here in the summertime. One day it’s perfect, the next day it’s a thunderstorm. It’s not too different in the Rhône.

But every once in a while the weather gods are kind, and for the last four vintages in the Rhône, this has been the case. Most of these vintages have been warmer than usual (a common thing in this modern age) but sometimes that added warmth can be a positive.

Rhône Map from Wine Folly.
Learn more about the Rhône on their site,
and purchase this map for your own collection!

A (very) quick Rhône primer for you. The Rhône is divided into the Northern Rhone and the Southern Rhone. They couldn’t be more different, and they need to be approached is separate ways.

The Northern Rhôneis about steep hillsides, hard farming, wind, wider temperature variances, and the Syrah and Viognier grapes. You’ll come across some exceptions of course, but for red Northern Rhônes, you’re talking the meaty, spicy, medium to full-bodied power that a great Syrah brings. For whites from the Northern Rhône (rare and expensive), you’re talking about the peach and apricot tsunami that is Viognier. The Northern Rhône gets cooler faster, resulting in structured wines that appreciate some age. The wind doesn’t stop, meaning thicker skinned grapes with more tannin. Vineyard acreage is small, so the rule of supply and demand makes Northern Rhône wines more expensive.

The Southern Rhôneis about rolling hills, fields of lavender and rosemary, gentle and sophisticated people, Roman ruins, and the Grenache Noir grape. 95% of the wines from the Southern Rhône are red (the whites are dominated by the ordinarily forgettable Grenache Blanc grape), so Grenache is the name of the game but blending is an art in these parts so expect some Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignane, and other grapes to be part of the mix. The best-known sub-region of the South, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, allows over a dozen varieties to be mixed together for the final product. Over a quarter million acres cover the Southern Rhône, making for incredible bargains and great bang for the buck. The hot air leads to riper grapes (and Grenache is prone to higher sugar levels anyhow) making for higher alcohol wines in general.

Go to any good wine shop right now and you’ll find wines from the 2015 and 2016 vintages from both regions. The 2017 basic Southern Rhônes are arriving now as well, and the bigger/better wines from both regions for 2017 and 2018 will be arriving in the next two years.

My advice: buy them all.

When vintage quality is this high, it’s time to experiment with different producers. It’s a time to test drive some other models, seeing what they bring to the table. When vintage quality is lower, stick with those producers you know and love. This is a good general rule for the world of wine drinking, and a fine exercise is to jot down those producers you’ll follow through the hard years (I’ll write an article about this at some point this year).

Here’s a quick rundown with links to more information.

2015 Vintage
This is the vintage of a lifetime in the Northern Rhône. No messing around here. Producer after producer, especially the most experienced winemakers, are showering praise on this year. The wines need some time, so be patient, but seek them out for the cellar. In the Southern Rhône, the wines are rich and powerful. An awesome year overall.

2016 Vintage
A standout year in the Southern Rhône, with parallels to the legendary 1990. That means balanced wines with expressive aromas and age-worthiness. It was a warm vintage but the acidity stayed in check. In the Northern Rhône, an April hailstorm led to reduced yields, but this storm was more like nature doing the work of pruning back the vines. The harvest was late, making for wonderfully ripe and complete wines. 

2017 Vintage
A mild and dry winter led to early drought conditions, lowering fruit set and thus lowering yields (exacerbated by a sudden temperature drop in April). Tough spring conditions occurred throughout France, making it the lowest yielding wine season in fifty years. But in July the sun shone bright, and the fruit that did stay on the vine ripened quickly. The rest of the season was spectacular, and though the harvest was early and quick the quality of the fruit was top grade. 2017 was generally panned in much of France, but both sections of the Rhône Valley excelled though crops were small. Interestingly, it was a tougher season for Grenache so expect less of it in the Southern Rhônes in 2017 (leading to slightly lower alcohol levels). A fascinating vintage of high quality and distinctive styles.

2018 Vintage
A strange situation: the 2018 harvest in the north was ahead of harvest in the south. Hot and dry conditions but with perfect berries and a bumper crop. A dream harvest for producers overall. The early reports are yet another top grade vintage with fine acidity and rich texture. The string continues! This has never happened before!

Some good articles on the recent Rhône vintages for further study:

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