Rhône Vintage Report

The beginning of November is a good time to assess the previous vintage and have a first impression on the latest wines. Without doubt 2011 should be classified as a very successful vintage, it was slotted between 2010, one of the best vintage of the past 20 years, and 2012 which looks like being another stunner, especially in the South. Many people judge the quality of a vintage by its longevity and, while it’s a bit early to know what the 2012’s will be, 2010 is, for most wines, ideal for keeping a decade or more. I always like to add that a great wine is only great if it’s drank near or at its peak and often so called ‘vin de garde’ are consumed far too early. The 2011 style will often give a lot of early pleasure but still holds a fairly large window of “drinkability”. In short and with some exceptions as usual, the south has produced softer wines compared to the last couple of vintages; very ripe and with low acidity. In the extreme some of the less interesting wines are lacking tannins and acidity. This is due to the fact that the Grenache needed a long time to reach full ripeness and by then was fairly high in alcohol and with insufficient acidity. So in general the cuvées with a blend of Mourvèdre & Syrah are a little more balanced, but there are exceptions: some producers like Marcoux have produced superb wines with a majority of Grenache. The simpler appellations are very attractive, with juicy, sweet and ready wines and the prices haven’t changed and remain extremely good value; but it must be noted that could change with the 2012 vintage as production is down sometimes more than 30%! The wines from the north are definitely lighter than 2010 and of course 2009; I love the lighter style, very suited to the Syrah in the north. It adds precision and finesse and also gives more importance to the quality of the producer. In 2009 and 2010 almost everyone has produced good or very good wines, 2011 will be great from some but others have produced weak and insipid wines. The whites both from the north and the south continue to impress and the quality is such that the Rhône Valley can now be qualified as a great white wine region.

Christian Honorez November 2012

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A few words on 2013 first This year was very different compared to previous visits as I happened to arrive on the very last days of the 2013 harvest. One of the latest of the last 25 years, 2013 had been challenging even for the more seasoned producers. The harvest lasted nearly one full month and even if it’s a bit early to be sure, the result so far seems nothing short of a miracle. The late ripening varieties have just made it past the post and the initial feel is of good fruit, freshness and less alcohol; but the real problem is the quantity or rather the lack of it. The lucky ones have only a 10% reduction on already low 2012 yields, but some producers (mainly those with a lot of Grenache vineyards) have suffered losses of up to 50%. For these unlucky ones, the 2013 vintage will surely be atypical with blends composed of much more Mourvèdre and Syrah than usual. However overall the Rhône has managed to avoid the worst of the difficult conditions and 2013 will surely be considered a good vintage, but quite unique compared to recent history. 2012 The South After the often wrongly criticised 2011 vintage, a lot was expected of 2012 and my visit confirmed my previous positive impressions. After a very cold winter, which saw many old Grenache vines die, the spring was also cold and quite wet generating some “Coulure” on the Grenache. The summer was warm and dry with a very hot peak in August; the autumn brought some light showers that helped to ensure optimal ripeness. Many 2012s are blessed with a beautiful fruit character and freshness, with lower alcohol levels and fine tannins. Not as powerful as 2010, yet most wines have a similar balance and lower tannins so they should be more approachable in their youth (many 2010s are now closed and will need time to open again). The 2012s are a little like 2004 and 2006 with a touch of 2010. The first two vintages were a little less acclaimed in their time but proved to deliver fantastic bottles; the whites are possibly even more impressive and the ever improving winemaking is definitely showing; the Rhône should finally be considered as a great white producing region and that not only from the northern part. Another good sign of quality is that many producers have made their cuvée “prestige”, which are very successful, helped by a less “pumped up” vintage. There are still a few wines with alcohol levels just above 15% but nowhere near or above 16% like many were in 2009/2010 and 2011. 

I could recommend most of the wines, but if pushed I would pick the Lirac from Domaine de Marcoux, now fully in the Armenier sisters’ control. Sweet and silky with gorgeous fruit and just enough structure to keep for 6 to 8 years, although it will be difficult not to enjoy earlier! Also showing very well is the Gigondas from Domaine Santa Duc. Yves Gras has added some finesse to his wines, mainly by shortening the cuvaisons; he is also using larger oak vats rather than barriques and the wines seem to be a little less rustic in their youth than during last decade. I also must mention Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Origines from Domaine Grand Veneur, although this is not new as it has been one of my favourites for many years and still delivers fantastic value. If it’s an everyday wine you are looking for, don’t go further than Denis Alary’s Cairanne. Prices have hardly moved for the past few years, despite 3 consecutive years of low production. The estate is now fully organic and although he easily sells all of his wines, Denis is still trying to improve the quality every year. The wines have now brighter fruit and more energy; they are definitely more modern whilst still respecting their origin. Finally a special mention to Le Clos du Caillou for producing so many cuvées and delivering across the entire range. The reds always have a lot of warmth and can be very soft, but 2012 is particularly successful with a slightly reduced level of alcohol and good freshness. The whites are also definitely on a par with the highly rated reds. The North Like the South, the wines have a great harmony and balance. As in 2011 there are not many blockbusters, but I consider that as a blessing as Northern Rhône Syrah needs to retain its freshness and elegance. The Côte Rôties have plenty of the trademark violet aromas and black olives flavours and will be very attractive even at an early stage. The trend of balance and elegance carries on further south through St Joseph, Cornas and Hermitage. Elegance doesn’t mean weakness as 2012 has plenty enough ripeness and although the tannins are lighter than in vintages like 2009 and 2010, they are very precise and powerful enough to underline each Terroir. Our old favourites Pierre Gaillard and François Villard continue their work towards wines with less intervention and a gentler use of the oak. Judging the vinification and oaking was particularly important in 2012 to achieve the perfect balance. Maxime Graillot and Thomas Schmittel at Equis/Domaine des Lises have raised the profile of their wines by using a large oak vat for some of their vinifications. Very little new oak there, but the usual precise and bright fruit is now helped by an extra dimension brought by the more elaborate vinification. The 2012 whites happily follow two very successful vintages; beautifully rich but not overripe, Viognier is showing plenty of lovely white and yellow fruit characters but also some tension. The Roussanne and Marsanne have extra notes of salinity and mineral tones adding complexity. I was particularly impressed by François Villard St Peray, an appellation that I found difficult to like in the past.

Christian Honorez November 2013 

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One of the latest and most drawn out vintages of the last 25 years, 2013 was very challenging for even the more seasoned producers; however the end results, as far as the quality is concerned, are very pleasing. The later ripening varieties may have only just made it past the post, yet there is a lot of bright ripe fruit, appetising freshness and generally lower alcohol levels than in recent vintages. The real problem, though, is the quantity or rather the lack of it. The less badly affected estates witnessed approximately 10% reduction in yields (compared to the already small 2012 crop), but some producers (mainly those with a predominance of Grenache in their vineyards) have suffered losses of up to 50%. For these unlucky ones, the style of the 2013 vintage is somewhat atypical with blends comprising much more Mourvèdre and Syrah than usual. The North 2013 wasn’t an easy vintage, with a cooler spring and average summer leading to a late harvest. However the cool nights encouraged a gentle ripening and kept freshness in the wines, both red and white. Very low yields also helped the grapes to fully ripen, as did the warmth of September. Overall, the wines have a great balance and finesse – almost Burgundian in style with great underlying acidity. Alcohol levels are moderate, but well balanced with the structure of the wines. 

Although 2013 will not produce many blockbusters, it is certainly a great vintage in the Northern Rhône with subtle and perfumed reds and fresh and aromatic whites. The cheaper reds will be extremely pleasing whilst young, but they also have a good ageing potential. The best wines will benefit from some cellaring, although they are already very appealing. The problem is that there will not be enough for everyone, with yields between 25% and 33% below average. It’s not easy to recommend just a few, but if we really had to we would certainly highlight François Villard Côte Rôtie ‘Gallet Blanc’, Pierre Gaillard Côte Rôtie ‘Esprit de Blonde’ and the wines from Stéphane Ogier that we will offer next year. The South Considering the difficulties of the vintage, there are many successful wines in 2013. The most vigilant and patient growers were able to ensure that their fruit ripened sufficiently well in the late warmth of an Indian summer and before the autumn weather closed in. Significant selection of fruit (triage) was also necessary in order to safeguard the maximum potential quality. The best 2013s offer plenty of vibrant fruit with a marked freshness. The finest white wines are particularly attractive with racy precision allied to a refined mid-palate texture. Whilst the reds may lack the weight and richness of fruit associated with the very top vintages, there are many wines that combine aromatic purity with elegance and a welcome, telling spine of acidity. The tannins, for the most part, are ripe and restrained. 2013 is not a particularly powerful vintage with the majority of alcohols ending up within the 13.5% to 14.5% range. Somewhat atypical in styling, with many blends containing significantly less Grenache than is the norm here, the vintage has delivered many wines that will offer early enjoyment thanks to their easy charm and accessibility. They exhibit less richness of fruit than 2012 but as much freshness and elegance. Maybe 2013 can be considered a bit like 2000, another vintage that exhibited restraint over stature? The good acidity will also enable the top wines to age well if required. Widespread coulure caused by inclement weather conditions at flowering, drastically reduced the crop of both red and white Grenache. Being a region of blends rather than single-variety wines, the Southern Rhône has fared pretty well considering the challenging nature of the growing season. By adapting the make-up of cuvées and tempering vinification techniques, the best vignerons have crafted wines that may not be described as strictly ‘classic’ in profile, but they do merit recommendation for their clean, fresh relaxed character.

Christian Honorez & Neil Sommerfelt MW November 2014

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“A vintage giving a lot of early pleasure with lovely, softly textured and low alcohol wines. The best terroirs and winemakers have made a real difference”

2014 is another challenging vintage where the best producers’ diligence and hard work has made all the difference. After a warm Spring, the Summer was rather cool and wet – a tendency that carried on all the way until the harvest. The resulting wines have good acidity, lower alcohol and tannins and are showing much charm and genuine character, but will generally be less long lived than the previous vintage. The whites are most appealing, often with a marked exotic fruit note. The North Fortunately many Northern Rhône vineyards are on steep slopes, which were of great benefit to the producers in 2014. The cool and showery weather hampered the ripening of the grapes and the wet spell during the harvest was very challenging for the vineyards on the lower slopes. The whites were less affected and will be great for early drinking. The reds are subtle, delicate and precise with ample fruit. They will be fantastic for early drinking, with the best wines lasting a decade. The South After 2013, where the Grenache suffered from “coulure” and when yields were desperately low, 2014 was the complete contrary. The vines had excess vigour and the flowering passed off very well giving a large number of bunches, especially for the Grenache. As always, the best wines were produced from hard working producers who worked throughout the summer doubling their vineyard capabilities: crop thinning and leaf plucking. The results are very impressive and hugely different; some producers couldn’t manage to ripen their grapes to a sufficient level and despite sorting during harvest they elected to sell off those cuvées that exhibited any unripe fruit. The best wines are showing good ripeness with some producers even deciding to produce their premium cuvées.

Christian Honorez, Director November 2015

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“A top quality vintage: Rhône lovers will enjoy the ripeness, concentration and telling freshness that has yielded so many wines of fine balance with statuesque tannins. Producers are thrilled that nature has been kind, enabling them to fill their cellars with good volumes of top wines.”

2015 In the 30 odd years since I departed my “home” region of France and during my many twice-yearly visits to the Rhône Valley, I have rarely seen so many smiles and happy faces. After some difficult, challenging vintages, with low quantities and demanding climatic conditions, 2015 has delivered good quantities of very high calibre wines. Quantity doesn’t always chime with quality but in 2015, happily, it does; what is more, it looks like 2016 has also produced a decent crop of top wines. The producers’ upbeat mood is therefore fully justified, with their cellars full of some of the best wines produced in many a year. The North The berries had excellent ripeness, whilst not being overripe. 2015 is not a vintage marked by excessive heat. The majority of wines offer excellent concentration, whilst also exhibiting marked finesse and balancing acidity, giving an instant and appetising appeal to the wines. The more affordable wines are fruit-focused and juicy with tannins that are already integrated. They are already very attractive, but will also age beautifully. The real gems, though, are those finest cuvées that marry intensity, complexity and balanced fruit/structure, ensuring great ageing potential. The white wines can also lay claim to a share of the “star-billing” thanks to the fruit having coped admirably during the warm summer months. Most wines rank amongst the very best that I have tasted for many years. The South Following a couple of tricky vintages, the weather in 2015 was much more clement and settled. It may have been pretty hot during the dry summer months, but the arrival of timely rain showers in early September refreshed the grapes, tempering the rate of maturity and allowed the growers to wait until optimum ripening before excessive sugar accumulation. The resulting wines are clearly of marked ripeness, yet they retain excellent balance due to a welcome seam of refreshing acidity and their well-sculpted tannins. The white wines, too, are a great success, helped also by good acidity levels balancing the wonderful ripeness.

Christian Honorez, Director November 2016

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“After an exceptional 2015 vintage it’s difficult to believe that 2016 could match up to let alone deliver wines of superior quality. It was quite different in the North with fresher, fragrant whites and more subtle and elegant reds. But for once the South is where sublime wines were produced with some of the most impressive wines I have ever tasted! And to make things better they are not overly rich or heavy, but rather exceptionally balanced. Volumes are reasonable, especially compared to 2017 where quantities are very often 50% down on average”

 Christian Honorez Director

The North Following the superlative 2015 vintage it would be easy to downgrade 2016 wines. Of course, they do not have the intensity and ripeness of last year’s wines but they make up for it with beautiful fruit and great balance. One does not always look for muscle and structure in the North and many beautiful wines are produced in balanced vintages like 2016. Do not get me wrong, 2016 isn’t a weak and lean vintage, far from it, but the best wines are those capturing the essence of the Syrah grown in that part of France; perfumed, elegant and savoury. Moreover, of course a slightly cooler year benefitted the whites that are incredibly perfumed, rich but not overly ripe. The South It was difficult not to notice the broad smiles and the joy after the 2016 vintage. Two magnificent vintages producing decent yields will certainly help the producer’s cash flow, especially after a few challenging vintages and the prospect of notably reduced volumes in 2017. The whites are rich, perfumed with enough freshness to carry the ripeness through. Many of them will evolve beautifully for several years, but of course, the ‘piece de resistance’ are the magnificent reds. Ripe, juicy, with just enough structure, elegant tannins and a good dose of freshness; I cannot remember having tasted so many great wines from a single vintage. The easiest ones are so appealing that I wanted to decant them into a bottle to drink the same day, despite knowing that they will last and improve for many years. Some wines are a touch more austere and will require 2 or 3 years cellaring, but for many of us the problem will be to resist the charm and appeal of these young wines. I will certainly buy as much as possible to enjoy over the next 10+ years.

Christian Honorez, Director November 2017

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2017 “After two exceptional vintages it’s difficult to believe that 2017 could match up to let alone deliver wines of similar quality. The styles though are different, with richer and often riper fruit in the North the wines are fuller than 2016 without the high concentration and balance of 2015. The South is another story, with once again a large deficit in volume, particularly for the Grenache. The season was quite warm and dry resulting in very low yields, sometimes up to 50% down. The North A relatively hot and dry vintage often resulting richer whites across the board, with the best producers managing to retain enough freshness and acidity for conveyance, for the majority these will be best consumed in youth. The reds are more of a mixed crew with some wines approaching the maturity and intensity of the 2015s, whilst others are more forward with softer tannins providing an earlier drinking window. The best producers harvested their whites early to keep the freshness but the reds much later to intensify the concentration and gain in complexity, especially for the tannin structure. The South The year started awkwardly with large amounts of “coulure” for the Grenache with the rest of the season not much easier, with a very dry summer reducing the crop further. The result is still very impressive and not too far from the highly lauded 2016 vintage. The wines are often very concentrated and, even if the acidity is a little low, the result is very impressive. Given the quality of 2017 it could have been considered as the vintage of the decade, but 2016 is still present in our minds and will be difficult to replace from the top of the pedestal. Many wines are very close in quality to the previous two vintages and I don’t think that we will see 3 successive star vintages like these for a while, furthermore 2018 is looking promising too although much more uneven between producers and appellations. The less precocious appellations fared best especially on soils less exposed to dry weather. In short, 2017 is another superb vintage if it was not for the very low volume produced.

Christian Honorez, Director November 2018

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2018 A year defined by a very wet spring but a warm and dry summer with very different results. The whites have generally less alcohol and are successful across the region while the reds, more affected by the climate, express a multitude of styles. Once again the yields were low and a few producers hardly made any wine! The North The region wasn’t as badly affected by the rain and being located on steep hills many of the best vineyards have great drainage potential. There was a little mildew but quite limited compared to the South and the yields are correct. The whites are fresher than 2017, rich, aromatic but with good tension. The reds are concentrated but balanced with enough structure to guarantee ageing. Their ripeness makes them charming and very appealing already but, thanks to the concentration due to the relatively low yields, they are not light and the best examples will age very well. Overall it’s an extremely good vintage with a few exceptional wines. The South The year was complicated: the rain started late March and didn’t stop until June. Working in the vineyards was very difficult; treating against the diseases like mildew was a real challenge that many organic but also conventional producers lost resulting in very low yields. Some vineyards and appellations were more affected, especially when there is a large clay content in the soil. Fortunately the summer was dry, quite hot, and the healthier vines produced nicely ripened fruit. The wines are generally charming and very appealing now without a huge concentration of tannins but they have good balance and enough structure to age, especially for the better vineyards and the east of the region, less affected by the weather. Knowing about the difficulties encountered by the producers I was pleasantly surprised by the high quality of the wines, many showing delicate and charming styles with early potential. They are not as rich and powerful as the 2015, 2016 and some of the 2017 vintages but will be more satisfying to many drinkers, especially when consumed young as it so often happens.

Christian Honorez, Director February 2020

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