- •Contact us
- •About us
- •Advertise with the FT
- •Terms & conditions
© The Financial Times Ltd 2013 FT and 'Financial Times' are trademarks of The Financial Times Ltd.
January 6, 2012 9:48 pm
Buy Rhône before the Chinese do! We already have strong indications that Chinese fine wine lovers are turning their well-heeled attentions from bordeaux to smart burgundy. Wine lovers in search of great French wine whose prices have not (yet) been inflated by demand from Asia are currently able to choose from two great vintages in the northern Rhône.
According to Jean-Louis Chave, viticultural guardian of the rock of Hermitage and the most interesting steep combes of the Saint-Joseph appellation, the lauded 2009 vintage in the northern Rhône was dominated by the sun, whereas the 2010 wines are dominated by the soil. This is as good a summation as any of the character of these two current vintages.
While the 2009s are unusually plump and ripe – particularly attractive attributes in a region whose Syrah vines sometimes struggle to ripen fully – the 2010s are devoid of puppy fat and are better at expressing terroir. The juiciness of wines grown on sand, the freshness of those from limestone, and the majestic concentration of those from vines whose roots try to penetrate granite are all evident in the 2010s. (This generalisation can also be applied to a certain extent to 2009 and 2010 in Burgundy and Bordeaux.)
In the dry summer of 2009 some northern Rhône vines, especially the younger ones with shallow roots, failed to ripen their tannins properly so that some of the wines can be a bit drying on the finish. The summer of 2010 was much cooler, especially at night, and yields much lower, so that the ripening process seems to have been slower, steadier and more complete. After a cold winter, spring 2010 was usefully wet, but the flowering in June was unusually extended in changeable weather so that an exceptionally low proportion of grapes was formed on each bunch. It was this coulure above all that resulted in much lower yields than usual, but because of this the crop was not thinned in summer and, while average yields were low, some younger vines were left overloaded with berries and undercharged with flavour, colour and tannins.
Overall, however, the northern Rhône 2010s are delightful – ripe, but fresh and silky. After a reasonably but not uncommonly dry summer, early September rains usefully propelled vines towards full ripeness and an easy harvest in late September and, in many cases, early October. Purist Jean-Marc Jamet describes 2010 as “really perfect”. Certainly the bunches, with their reduced number of berries, were loose enough to stave off any rot or disease and such grapes as were picked were very healthy.
This, 2010, is the best vintage I can remember for the increasingly exciting whites of the northern Rhône. Condrieus, the archetypal Viogniers of the wine world, have real structure and attack, and white wines based on Roussanne and especially Marsanne grapes from such appellations as Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Péray are now so well made that they can offer interesting alternatives to white burgundy. The greatest, and certainly most age-worthy, whites of the northern Rhône – indeed of south-eastern France, are the whites produced on the hill of Hermitage by the likes of Chave and, in a truly flamboyant style, by Chapoutier. But they are made in such small quantities that the top bottlings can cost more than £1,000 a dozen.
If lovers of wines such as Hermitage and Côte Rôtie have two excellent but differently styled vintages to choose from, there is a wider gap in quality between the 2009s and 2010s of the southern Rhône. In my usual extensive blind tastings of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras 2009s this time last year, I found many wines with uncomfortably drying tannins on the finish, suggesting that the phenomenon of incomplete phenolic ripeness was even more widespread than in the northern Rhône in 2009.
The same exercise this year, however, showed much riper tannins in the 2010 southern Rhône wines and also, thanks to the unusually cool summer nights, much more freshness and acidity. This was just as well, since alcohol levels of the 2010s, especially the Châteauneufs, seem to be even higher than in 2009. Of the reds for which an alcoholic strength has been supplied by their producers (only a minority are bottled and labelled), a small handful of the regular “tradition” bottlings cite 14% whereas the average is 15% with many citing 15.5%. A mind-boggling 16.5% is cited for several of the special cuvées, the premium bottlings that some argue rob the regular ones of their finest ingredients.
The 2010 growing season in the southern Rhône was very similar to that in the northern Rhône. Although a useful amount of rain had fallen in winter and spring, July and August were drier than almost any recent year other than 2007. Growers keen to avoid the dry tannins of 2009 tended to keep the grapes on the vine until the phenolics, of which tannins are some of the most important, were fully ripe. But the combination of the dry summer and coulure severely restricted yields, which averaged only 27 hectolitres/hectare throughout Châteauneuf and were a mere 18 hl/ha at Clos des Papes according to Vincent Avril.
For Avril, 2010 is like a blend of the richness of 1990, the elegance of 2005 and the power of 2007 – which sounds almost impossible to me but, yet again, his wines tasted from foudre and not finally blended, were exemplary – despite their exceptional potency. Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel agrees about the first resemblance. While the 2009s remind him of the 1989s, he reckons the 2010s are like the 1990s. (By coincidence I was served a Château de Fonsalette Syrah from the southern Rhône blind from these two vintages recently and the 1990 was showing much better than the 1989.)
A number of UK merchants are currently offering 2010 Rhône wines en primeur, hoping to encourage orders before their flurry of 2010 Burgundy tastings next week. The 2009 Rhônes, now in bottle, are still widely available.
For full notes on the tastings see Purple pages of JancisRobinson.com
Guigal, La Mouline
J.L. Chave (red and white)
Clos des Papes
Cuvée du Vatican, Réserve Sixtine
Ch Fargueirol, Prestige
Ch Pegäu, Da Capo
Tardieu Laurent, Vieilles Vignes
Dom Tour St-Michel, La Tour du Lion
Most of the grandest 2010 Rhône wines are yet to be bottled, but one of the best-value wines already available in bottle is Clos du Caillou’s white Côtes du Rhône currently offered by H2Vin at £75 a dozen in bond. See 650 tasting notes on Purple pages of JancisRobinson.com
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2013. You may share using our article tools.
Please don't cut articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.