1997 and 1996 Rhone Valley Wines

By most accounts, and as far as I can tell from my limited early tastings in early December, the Rhone Valley 1998 vintage will surpass the two previous years in quality. This is especially the case in the South, which was one of the truly blessed areas of France this year. Like the '95s, these wines should have stuffing and aging potential. In comparison, the two vintages now at hand, 1997 and 1996, are average-to-good years in which late harvesters were more often than not rewarded for their patience with more substantial wines. The better wines from these two years will make satisfying early drinking while we wait for the '95s and '98s to mature. After this lukewarm endorsement, I hasten to point out that on my tour of the Rhone Valley at the beginning of December I also found a number of excellent to outstanding wines at the best addresses.

Although many growers, particularly those in the North, rate these two vintages roughly even in quality, in style they are completely different. Nineteen ninety-six generally featured atypically high acidity for the region, while '97 was often a bit acid-deficient. Put another way, '96 is Burgundian in style, while '97 shows a distinctly southern flavor.

Recap of 1996. In 1996, grape sugars remained stubbornly high through a mostly cool, sunny September that featured a dry wind from the north. Grape sugars rose grudgingly. Because yields in the northern Rhone tended to be high in '96, many '96s possess only modest concentration and texture. Late harvesters generally made wines with riper tannins and more middle-palate texture. But there are also many wines with too little flesh and extract to balance their brisk acids, especially in the South. That said, the unusually elegant and fresh '96 Northern Rhones should develop slowly in bottle, and I suspect there will be numerous pleasant surprises among the wines that have better balance at the outset, even if most of them never show the typical ripeness and richness for which this region's wines are prized.

A look at 1997. In contrast, 1997 featured very warm weather through much of September and into October, following a hot, dry spell in August that blocked the maturity of the vines in many locations. (The flowering had been less regular than that of '96, and the first half of the summer was cool and wet.) Due to the slowdown in vine activity in the heat of August, vines in many spots did not generate the high sugars that might otherwise have been expected. Many growers reported that their less favored plots, such as those on the plateau above Cote-Rotie, were less affected by the extreme heat and thus ripened their fruit more successfully. Several growers told me that at a certain point they had to pick quickly, as grape acids, largely burned off in August, were plummeting to dangerously low levels. But others said that late harvesting brought more positive results: somewhat higher sugars and more thoroughly ripe skins, without a precipitous drop in acid levels. (As in '96, grape skins were generally healthy throughout the Rhone Valley.) A few growers in the Northern Rhone reported that grape sugars were exceptionally high. The '97s are supple and often rich wines, generally best suited for consumption over the short to medium term.

Warm weather through the harvest period at the time of fermentation resulted in some tumultuous fermentations. In numerous cellars, especially in Cote-Rotie, the malolactics took place especially early, in some instances occurring at the same time as the primary fermentations. Acidification was allowed through much of the Rhone Valley in '97, but most of the growers I normally visit are totally opposed to the idea, even at the risk of bottling wines with freakishly high pHs. Still, it is likely that the heat of August, together with the quicker malos, nurtured the rather exotic aromas that many '97s show.

In the north, 1997 also produced a crop of rich, fat white wines; the best of them appear to have just enough acidity for balance. They could not be more different in style from the cooler '96s, the most concentrated of which offer unusually complex aromas and should have real staying power. I also tasted some remarkably unctuous white Hermitages. In Chateauneuf du Pape, more than one grower told me that '97 slightly favored the region's white wines over the reds.

The northern portion of the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation suffered from a hailstorm on June 10, which reduced yields significantly at estates like Ch. de Beaucastel and Mont-Redon. Here, too, the grapes were harvested under warm, clement conditions and tend to be low in acidity. But even the late pickers who benefitted from high grape sugars were apt to get little of the surmaturite character shown in the greatest years. These are fruit-driven wines with rather soft structures and limited grip, the weakest among them a bit wimpy. But even estates that made wines with high alcohol are more likely than not to admit that the '97s lack power. At the same time, these wines are mostly richer and fleshier than the '96s. 1997 will offer the advantage of quick and pleasurable drinking; the wines will make good bets for consumers who are not able to age bottles under proper conditions.

With a few exceptions, my visits in October were limited to addresses in Cote-Rotie, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Chateauneuf du Pape, and focused on red wines. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. Following my brief profiles of several Chateauneuf du Pape estates visited in October, I have included notes on additional '97s and '96s tasted at the Federation in Chateauneuf du Pape as well as at the Syndicat d'Orange.