2005 will go down as one of France’s greatest vintage of all time. It is very rare that such quality is produced in such a uniform way in all the great wine producing regions of France.
The Rhône Valley has enjoyed an unprecedented run of superb vintages with the exception of 2002. The 2005 vintage was, in the words of Daniel Brunier of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, “simply a great vintage.” Comparisons are made with the great 1978, 1995 and 1998 vintages.
While the 2003 vintage was very much a year of incredible heat, 2005 is more a vintage that is a result of drought – an extremely dry year with an overall rainfall deficit of 30%. Yields were down by 20% on the classically styled 2004 and the wines are incredibly finely balanced. Great structure, delicious ripe fruit with perfect phenolic maturity and superbly supporting tannins.
The 2006 growing season started with one of the coldest winters in the last 25 years, which was followed by a rainy spring, which continued into the early days of July. Both June and July, however, saw a steep rise in temperature and at one stage there were concerns that the harvest would be well in advance, even mirroring the incredibly hot summer of 2003. These concerns were allayed, however, in August, when the weather cooled down, allowing the sugar levels and phenolic ripeness to develop on a much more even basis. Even though some light rains appeared in early September, the grapes were picked in a very healthy condition and another superb vintage was born.
After the rich and powerful wines of the 2005 vintage, the 2006 vintage is one that possesses its own very different characteristics. Don’t jump to the wrong conclusions, however, as the wines from this vintage are beautifully rounded with bags of flavour, but also contain a finely tuned precision and are blessed with real elegance and finesse.
Comparisons have been fairly varied with the previous vintages. Some say it is between 2004 and 2005; others, between 1998 and 2001. Whichever stance you take, 2006 is an excellent vintage and in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, in particular, the wines are quite superb.
We visited the Rhône Valley week commencing 13 October 2008 to take our first look at the already acclaimed wines of the 2007 vintage. In a vintage that failed to meet the heights in Bordeaux, we were wary of what lay in wait; how could it be that the Rhône Valley had once again performed so spectacularly?
This region has to be the most overlooked in France. Whilst Bordeaux does produce some magnificent wines, they are really only at the very ‘top end’ and you have to pay through the nose for them. As for Burgundy, we have all tasted so much uninspiring, insipid and dull wines in our quest to find a sensational Pinot Noir.
The Rhône Valley, however, apart from the wet 2002 vintage has experienced ten years of either good to excellent vintages. The sunshine of the south and the varietals of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre tend to produce some excellent drinking every year - and they age well. At dinner with Daniel Brunier, owner of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, on 14th October 2008, he served a Vieux Télégraphe Blanc 1998 en magnum, which tasted like a young Côte d’Or Burgundy, whilst the Vieux Télégraphe Rouge 1993, not a great year by any stretch of the imagination, was drinking superbly 15 years on.
So what of the 2007 vintage? Simple; a great vintage. For those who are familiar with the 1998 and 2005 vintages in the Rhône Valley read 2007, except with more grip. “One of the best vintages in the last 20 years”, said Daniel Brunier. Every winemaker tends to see their wines from each vintage as their children – all gooey eyed and drooling! But you have the impression that this year something really special has been produced.
Why so? After seven years of water deficit, the clouds opened in May and June, quenching the thirst of the vines. The intense humidity brought back the dangers of mildew, almost relegated to near oblivion in recent years. Thankfully, the Mistral blew hard and dried the vineyards quickly.
Further south in the Luberon, the rain arrived a little earlier, in April, and no rainfall followed until after the vintage in October. The springtime rains ensured that a more balanced vintage would ensue – the vines were very thirsty. The summer was dry but somewhat cooler than usual, with the Mistral continuing to blow hard throughout July, providing a dream ripening scenario. By 20th August the potential was already evident with an excellent sugar/acid ratio in the grapes.
The white varieties were harvested in late August whilst the reds were left until 10th September before harvest commenced. Central to the 2007 theme is the success of the Grenache – very ripe, solid and complex, yet with a contrasting minerality.
As Robert Parker reported:
“Throughout the southern Rhône, 2007 is the greatest vintage I have tasted in my thirty years working in that region... As for Châteauneuf du Pape, that appellation has had an unprecedented succession of superlative vintages. Forgetting the huge washout in 2002, every vintage between 1998 and 2007 has had both high quality and something different to offer stylistically. Where does 2007 fit? Think of 2007 as a hypothetical blend of an opulent, powerful, sumptuous year such as 1990, and a cooler drought vintage such as 2001. The cool weather and the remarkable three weeks of Mistral in September that concentrated the grapes without any spikes of high heat appears to have given the 2007s an aromatic dimension and freshness that I have rarely witnessed. Combine that with wines that are substantial, powerful, and relatively high in alcohol, with super depth of fruit! These are very aromatic wines of great concentration, freshness, laser-like focus, and amazing purity as well as depth. It is the vintage of my lifetime, and I don't say that lightly. These 2007s will also be very long-lived given their extraordinary balance.”
The Rhône Valley, apart from the wet 2002 vintage, had experienced ten years of either good to excellent vintages. The sunshine of the south and the varietals of Syrah, Grenache and Mourvèdre tend to produce some excellent drinking every year - and they age well. In 2010, yet again, the Rhone Valley had experienced something quite special, with extremely low yields delivering wines of immense intenstity.
The year got off to an inauspicious start with wet and windy weather in spring time, which led to coulure (where the flowers fail to develop into grapes). The Grenache suffered particularly with yields down between 30-40%. There is always a silver lining however, and the concentration of the remaining Grenache grapes was quite astonishing. A hot summer, and an especially hot July, with cool nights which helped to preserve the acidities and freshness in the fruit, produced grapes that where in perfect condition by harvest time. The resulting wines are sophisticated, intense with prefect balance although quantities are very small.
2010 was another vintage that has joined the top table and deserves its place in any great wine cellar.
We have almost come to expect the Rhône Valley to enjoy perfect growing seasons given the run of good to exceptional vintages over the past ten years or so. Apart from the disastrous 2002 vintage when many vineyards were left underwater, and the difficult 2008 vintage, this area of France has been blessed with excellent weather, with long, hot summers producing vintage after vintage of very fine wines.
So it was somewhat of a surprise to the vignerons to experience a more unusual weather pattern during the 2011 growing season. The season started with an exceptionally hot and dry spring, almost as if summer had arrived early. The vines developed very quickly and already everyone was talking about the earliest harvest on record.
By June, however, it had become cooler, cloudier with a larger than expected level of rainfall, and whilst July saw the return of hotter sunnier days, it was interspersed with more rain. Mildew was now a fear and the vineyards needed very careful management. The rain was not too problematic, as it replenished the vines after the very hot Spring and the Mistral blew as normal to keep the grapes in a healthy state.
The vintage was made in the Indian summer that followed with beautiful weather from mid August until the end of October. (September was 3°C hotter than in 2011). The Grenache was in beautiful condition with lots of fleshy fruit and the Mourvedre benefitted from the hot days before harvest.
The wines of 2011 are characterised by their beautiful ripe fruits - prunes, blackberries and cherries but the true definition of this vintage is “finesse”. The wines that are included in our offer are flawless and whilst very different from both the 2009 and 2010 vintages, 2011 completes a trilogy of great vintages.
Whilst most wine regions of France struggled in 2012 due to the unusual weather, the Rhone Valley was spared – indeed blessed! Not for the first time it must be said. We have almost come to expect this wine region to enjoy perfect growing seasons, given the run of good to exceptional vintages over the past ten years or so. Apart from the disastrous 2002 vintage when many vineyards were left underwater, and the difficult 2008 vintage, this area of France has enjoyed excellent weather, with long, hot summers producing vintage after vintage of very fine wines.
Following a particularly harsh winter, the Northern Rhone experienced a very wet and disruptive Spring. The growers were faced with a continual battle against mildew – it was an inauspicious start to the year. However at the beginning of July a long and sustained period of fine, hot weather ensured that the growers would have some excellent fruit come harvest time. A little rain at the beginning of September was followed by another fine spell and the grapes were picked in dry and sunny conditions, with volumes reasonable. The resulting reds are juicy with good depth.
In the South the vignerons have experienced another excellent year. The dry and sunny weather that continued throughout the summer ensured the grapes were very ripe. Such was the heat, the drought conditions actually started to take its toll on the vines. This stress was relieved by the early September rains that refreshed the vines and by harvest time the grapes had reached ideal physiological ripeness. A very small crop, 30% down on average, has produced wines full of multi – layered fruit, and possessing great finesse.
Once again the Rhone Valley had delivered another super vintage. It is the most underrated of the classic French wine regions and produces reliable high quality wines that should sit in any great cellar.
Whilst the 2013 vintage can be described as a normal-rainfall, relatively cool vintage, it does bear looking a little closer. Autumn and winter 2012-2013 were in fact fairly dry however this shortage of rain was offset by heavy rain in very late winter and early spring. Summer was very dry except for July, when rainfall was three times the average. Over 12 months, this adds up to a “normal” year’s rain however it was very uneven.
The very wet July stands out and has provided an influence on the character of the wine. From experience, we know that this factor heavily influences the structure of a vintage, with supple tannins and a very distinctive finesse (remember 1996, 2001, 2011). As for temperatures, they were mild in autumn, fairly cool in winter and spring, and then normal during summer. The important point prompting us to say that the vintage was “cool”, is the fairly low temperatures when the growth cycle was beginning; these largely explain the lag observed at the start, and which continued until harvesting, which took place at the same dates as back in the ‘80s.
There was also the exceptional phenomenon that occurred during the flowering period (middle third of June) and had dramatic consequences for the crop, namely the very high temperatures that hit the southern Rhône Valley, when the vines were less advanced than usual. They suddenly showed a growth surge, to the detriment of the flowering. The outcome, coupled with other factors such as the harsh winter and a large temperature range in June, was heavily reduced fruit set in the Grenache vines, in some instances up to 90%. By September, the growers were still waiting for the grapes to ripen, very slowly, in a vintage that was already heading for one of the lowest yields in the past 20 years.
The up-side of a difficult Grenache vintage is twofold. First the many other varietals that are grown in the Rhône have had their chance to shine and in this respect the 2013 has produced some very interesting wines that make for a rather unique vintage. Secondly the high alcohol that the Grenache brings is more subdued this vintage – no bad thing! The wines are very well balanced and possess a beautiful freshness combined with good definition, and impressive backbone. Daniel Brunier likens the 2013 to 1981 and 2001, both of which produced beautiful wines, finely chiselled with good ageing potential.
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