2000 and 1999 Rhone Valley Wines

At a time when prices for many categories of collectible wine seem distinctly out of touch with economic reality, the red wines of the Rhone Valley represent a great opportunity for wine lovers in search of bottles that offer both hedonistic pleasure and distinctive soil character.

This vast region has enjoyed an unprecedented string of successful vintages, and the generally large size of the 2000 crop has exerted a moderating influence on price hikes. You can spend as much on Cote-Rotie and Hermitage as on Burgundy if you try, but there are also solid values to be found even in these swankier appellations. And in the South, especially if you are willing to look beyond Chateauneuf du Pape, many current releases offer phenomenal quality/price rapport.

On my annual tour of the Rhone Valley, I focused on the 2000s from barrel and the mostly bottled 1999s. For those readers who would rather read gross overgeneralizations than consider the intricacies of each new vintage, this is for you: 2000 is better the farther south you go in the Rhone Valley, while in 1999 it was the other way around. (Nineteen ninety-eight, as most readers of this publication know, resembles 2000, having produced firmly tannic, leaner wines in the North and denser and more generous wines in the South. Especially for Chateauneuf du Pape, 1998 was a fabulous vintage.)

A brief look at the 2000 vintage. High yields, full ripeness and low acidity characterize the 2000s. In the North, the grapes often showed a lower skin-to-juice ratio than those of 1999, with the result that only the best wines have outstanding concentration, structure and grip. Many growers in the Northern Rhone (as well as in Burgundy, by the way) blame the somewhat thinner skins on uncharacteristically cool, rainy weather during the first half of July. France then had a hot, dry August. Growers from Cote-Rotie to Chateauneuf told me that drought conditions during the second half of the month blocked the maturing of the fruit in the driest spots. Some rain at the end of the month helped kick-start the vines, and September then brought moderate conditions. While those who picked into October faced more persistent rains that eventually compromised their remaining grapes, most fruit was brought in under benign harvest conditions.

Crop-thinning was essential to making wines with concentration and backbone from Cote-Rotie in the North to Chateauneuf du Pape in the South. At the same time, it was also critical to avoid overextraction during vinification; winemakers attempting to extract more than the fruit had to give, always a temptation when grapes are fat with juice, risked throwing the wines out of balance. In my tastings from barrel, I came across a number of wines that betrayed clumsy acidification. I also noted that many 2000s aging in a high percentage of new barrels have tended to absorb the new oak very quickly, even to the point of dryness (this is also a problem in Burgundy in 2000, but more on that in the next issue). This phenomenon is most apparent in wines that began with relatively modest middle-palate density due to high crop levels. But make no mistake about it: for most estates that actively control their yields, the fruit of 2000 was capable of producing ripe, supple, thoroughly satisfying wines. In the South in particular, the best wines have superripe, fruit-driven flavors and wonderful sweetness and fat. While only a minority of these wines offer the sheer verve and grip of the '98s, the best 2000s will make splendid bottles.

As a general rule, the 2000s will be best suited for medium-term aging, which is to say that the finest reds of the North will be at their peaks anywhere from 5 to 20 years from now, depending on appellation and style, while those from the South will offer greatest pleasure over the next 8 to 12 years, with the densest wines capable of longer evolution in bottle.

1999 revisitedMany wine journalists in France and elsewhere, as well as a number of producers, consider 1999 to be a great vintage for Cote-Rotie. But, as you will read in the following report, many '99s from this appellation are so ripe, powerful or freakishly high in alcohol that they risk losing the seve, or sap, that makes Cote-Rotie a suave and distinctive drink. In the appellations of Cornas, Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage, where yields were generally higher than in Cote-Rotie, the wines similarly tend to be rich and high in alcohol, though perhaps a bit less exaggerated. As a rule, the '99s possess fuller textures and riper tannins than the more austere though often more classically proportioned '98s.

The Southern Rhone '99s are more difficult to characterize. Where growers were able-either by crop-thinning or simply due to the location of their vineyards in favored microclimates-to bring in thoroughly ripe fruit before the weather deteriorated in early October, many outstanding wines were made. But numerous grenache-dominated wines lack the fullness and thoroughly expressed flavors, not to mention the element of surmaturite, of the best '00s and '98s. In many cases, alcohol levels spiked higher in the days leading up to the harvest without corresponding gains in the ripeness of tannins and flavors. But the best '99s combine solid ripeness with lively acids; a number of growers in Chateauneuf suggested that their '99s may ultimately be longer-lived and more complex than their 2000s. Still, the fresh acidity of the vintage is a positive only when the wines are sufficiently ripe and dense. In my November tastings, many '99s were a bit awkward in the year following the bottling: far more difficult to taste than the '98s were at the same stage. In a number of smaller-scaled wines, the brisk acids and firm tannins had not yet come into harmony, giving their finishes a slightly harsh or sour character; these bottles are likely to develop quickly.

This year, I had the opportunity to broaden my coverage of Southern Rhone wines. Whereas in the past I have focused on Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas, this fall I was also able to do a fairly sizable group tasting at the syndicate in Vacqueyras, and to follow up in New York with additional wines from Rasteau and Cairanne (as well as Cotes du Rhone-Villages and plain Cotes du Rhone bottlings). It is worth emphasizing that while the wines of Chateauneuf theoretically have more class and finesse than those of lesser appellations, there are still many underperformers in this region. And there are any number of talented growers throughout the Southern Rhone who have made excellent wines in the recent string of ripe years. Some of their bottles rank among the world's greatest red wine buys.

At most of the estates I visited in November, I have followed up last year's early coverage of the '99s with notes on the finished wines. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel or cuve. Following my brief profiles of numerous Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas estates visited in November, I have included notes on hordes of additional 2000 and 1999 Southern Rhone wines I sampled this fall in France and in New York. As usual, my Rhone Valley coverage is devoted largely to red wines. Although the 2000 vintage was a very good one for Northern Rhone whites, thanks to its unusually satisfying combination of richness and vibrancy, I have limited my coverage mostly to Condrieu and to a handful of wines made from roussanne and marsanne. Due to space constraints I have omitted numerous well-made whites (wines that would rate from 85 to 87 points on my scale). I'd be the first to admit that white Rhone wine is something of a blind spot for me. With roussanne and marsanne, and even more so with white blends from the South, I rarely find enough flavor payoff for the alcohol, even in wines that are reasonably fresh. And the relative handful of wines that are outstanding are rarely bargains.