2001 Red Wines from the Rhone Valley

This fall, your intrepid correspondent could not quite convince himself to devote his usual 11 days to touring the Rhone Valley. With all due respect to the small minority of producers who outperformed the norm in 2002, the difficult summer and early fall of that year were tough on grape-growers throughout most of the Southern Rhone. A massive storm on September 8 and 9 resulted in serious flooding in the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation (rainfall amounts described to me by growers last November ranged from 10 to 20 inches in less than 36 hours). Sugars plunged during the rainstorm, and rampant rot required many growers to pick underripe fruit as quickly as they could. Some vineyards were submerged, and much of the crop was lost as harvesters literally could not get to their vines for many days. Many top estates will not even bottle Chateauneuf du Pape from vintage 2002, instead declassifying or selling off their juice.

In the North there was much less rainfall on the 8th and 9th, and then a succession of sunny days with a stiff mistral helped to dry out the grapes. Still, about a third of the crop was lost to rot, and many estates had no choice but to quickly harvest fruit with very low levels of potential alcohol (during my Cote-Rotie visits last November, reports of 9. 5% to 10% potential alcohol were not uncommon).

Two thousand one, in contrast, is a whole new ballgame. I'm tempted to call 2001 the most consistently satisfying Rhone Valley vintage since 1990:there are countless wines worth buying, drinking and cellaring. This is an outstanding vintage in the South and a classic year for the North. Many wines from the North appear to have put on weight and gained significantly from their final months of elevage, a trait often displayed by wines from ripe but not overripe vintages with healthy pHs. In the bottle, they are more aromatically complex, more intensely flavored, sappier and more ageworthy than the 2000s, and they are more classic than the often freakishly ripe 1999s. Certainly 2001 and 1999 are the two best vintages for the North in recent years, although I continue to like the best '98s as well. The 2001s should develop slowly and gracefully in bottle, with Cote-Roties probably best suited for consumption 5 to 15 years after the vintage, and Hermitages 8 to 20.

In the South, a very dry summer in 2001 resulted in stress from drought in some sites, but this problem seems to have been less widespread than in the previous year. Although grape sugars were often high by mid-September, tannins were not necessarily ripe, and the later pickers, especially those who harvested during the first week of October, generally made denser wines with riper phenolic material.

Although many 2001 Chateauneuf du Papes are characterized by aromas of surmaturite (which most long-time fans of these wines agree is virtually a prerequisite for greatness here), the wines also have a freshness and spine that suggest they will last well in bottle. Whereas many 2000s, often made from very high yields, seemed to lose clarity and vibrancy during their last months in barrel, this was not generally the case with the 2001s. Nineteen ninety-eight was a great vintage for grenache, but 2001 seems equally strong for grenache and mourvedre, and syrah also did well. You do not have to pay Chateauneuf du Pape prices to get outstanding wine from the Southern Rhone. In my recent tastings, I found superb wines not just from Gigondas and Vacqueyras but from less-exalted appellations like Cairanne, Rasteau and other Cote du Rhone-Villages. As one importer who works the South expressed it, the most important difference between wines made inside and outside the Chateauneuf du Pape periphery is thirty bucks.

Although I managed to taste an overwhelming majority of the most important 2001 Rhone Valley reds in recent weeks - and special thanks must go to several importers who had samples sent directly from France in advance of their regular shipments - a handful of key wines are missing, in a few cases due to a later-than-normal bottling (Chave Hermitage, for example). I will try to include a few more notes as these wines arrive in the market later this winter or in early spring; for the moment, readers are urged to refer to my barrel notes on these wines in Issue 106. But for every important 2001 missing in the following pages is another finished 2001 that I did not have the chance to report on from barrel a year ago. Due to space constraints, I have published notes only on wines I scored 87 points or higher. Additional wines rating 85 or 86 points are listed as "Also Recommended. "As for the 2002s, I will report on the most successful of these wines next year, when I visit the Rhone Valley to sample the 2003s from barrel.