2003 and 2002 Northern Rhone Wines

As I taste my way through the 2003 vintage from Europe, it is becoming increasingly clear that this historic year of the canicule (heatwave) was more challenging for most white grape varieties than for reds. And, as a rule, the reds that fared best were those that managed to survive the most stifling days of August and could be harvested after the worst of the summer's heat-in the last few days of August or, better still, in September. I traveled to Burgundy for my annual red wine tour at the beginning of November fearing the worst, as wines made from roasted grapes are not my favorite style of pinot noir, but instead was pleasantly surprised by what the region's top estates were able to accomplish in this extreme vintage (these wines will be covered in depth in the next issue). For the normally warmer Rhone Valley, I went with no preconceptions at all. After all, wasn't it likely that the results of 2003 would be less exaggerated in the context of this region and its native varieties than they were for pinot noir in Burgundy?

In fact, 2003 has produced many extremely impressive, highly concentrated, opulent wines in the Northern Rhone-wines that will gain new fans for the area, especially among a younger generation of drinkers who are more accustomed to fleshier, superripe syrahs from the New World. Purists, on the other hand, may quibble that the Rhone Valley's 2003s are not classic wines, that they will always be more marked by the vintage character than by their terroirs. But there are really two styles of Northern Rhone wine in 2003. The best of them are extremely ripe versions of classic wines. Others are simply extreme. These latter wines impress with their deep colors, alcoholic weight and larger-than-life textures, but they don't deliver the aromatic interest or flavor development one would expect from a very ripe year.

The 2003 growing season and vinifications. As in many other growing regions of France, the harvest at many estates in the Northern Rhone Valley was the earliest on record. Most of the Cote-Rotie crop was in by the end of August. In Cornas, Noel Verset, who started making wine in 1943, told me this was the first time he had harvested vines in August. Crop levels were sharply lower than the norm, typically down by 30% to 50%. Spring frost had already reduced potential yields in some spots, and the unrelenting summer heat, as well as drought in some areas, resulted in very small berries with little juice. Sugar levels in the grapes widely rose to record levels and acidity levels plunged.

As in Burgundy, many winemakers carried out gentle vinifications, avoiding energetic extraction for fear of making wines with excessive, dry tannins or green tastes (many estates noted that the stems were not completely ripe in 2003, and some of them destemmed almost entirely). But there are some notable exceptions, particularly in Hermitage, where vignerons were often more confident about the balance of their raw materials.

Many winemakers who were concerned about extremely low levels of acidity in their grapes added tartaric acidity to their musts. In some instances acidification has added necessary life to the wines and improved their balance. But in others, the extra acidity has given the wines a tart edge that they may never lose. (Other wines taste green or sour owing to blocked maturity in the grapes, or to the inclusion of second-generation grapes that developed on frosted vines but never ripened properly.) Some winemakers who are philosophically opposed to acidifying maintain that acidity levels remained stable-or even rose-during vinifications, and did not fall during malolactic fermentations because there was so little malic acidity to begin with. They believe that the wines possess more than enough alcohol, phenolic material and extract to last well even where pHs are high and measurable acidity low. Still, several producers I visited this fall acidified their red wines in 2003 for the first time.

As in Burgundy, estates that harvested prior to the last few days of August generally brought in their fruit in very hot conditions and had fast fermentations. Malolactic fermentations were normally very early in 2003; in many instances they occurred in cuve, simultaneous with sugar fermentations. This is not generally a formula for wine longevity.

The 2003 wines. Of the five major Northern Rhone appellations where I taste red wines (Cote-Rotie, Saint-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage and Cornas), Cote-Rotie struck me as the most exaggerated. Here I found the widest extremes in both style and quality of wine according to the effects of blocked maturity, picking dates, the ability to chill musts during the hot harvest, even the impact on crop yields of frost in early April and hailstorms in mid-summer. But Cote-Rotie also produced some of the region's greatest wines in 2003. Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are also quite variable, owing to the wide range of terroirs, soil types, expositions and picking dates across these more far-flung appellations. Interestingly, some of the best hillside sites in both Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage were more affected by heat and drought than were vines lower down on the slopes. But more than one grower told me about blockages of maturity that occurred when vines on flat land lost their foliage in the extreme heat.

The young 2003s from Cornas are for the most part unusually rich, with atypically ripe, smooth tannins. But possibly owing to their often extremely high pHs, I was less taken with these wines as a group than I expected to be. Perhaps my favorite appellation, all things considered, was Hermitage, where a number of monumental red wines have been made, and where underlying minerality and tannic structure have widely made up for very low levels of acidity. As a group, growers in Hermitage were more likely than those in Cote-Rotie to have held off on harvesting until the last few days of August, by which time ambient temperatures had begun to moderate. For those who maintain that the keys to longevity are low yields, substantial alcohol, and high levels of ripe tannins, and that strong natural acidity is not a requirement, the best examples of 2003 Hermitage should argue their case.

The likely aging curve of the 2003s. While a few producers expressed confidence that their unusually massive 2003s will be long-lived, several thoughtful and candid vignerons admitted to me that they had no idea how the 2003s would age, for the simple reason that they have never before experienced a vintage like this. I would recommend that most red wines from Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage be enjoyed over the next 6 to 8 years, and that Cote-Roties be consumed over the next 8 to 12 years. For Cornas, 10 to 12 years seems a reasonable projection, while Hermitage should go on for at least a few more years after Cornas. At the same time, I am confident that certain exceptional wines, particularly in Hermitage, could well last for two or three decades, if not longer. Just as some Burgundy producers compare 2003 to 1947, there are a number of monumental, liqueur-like Northern Rhones that will age at a snail's pace. But those wines that do not possess the requisite tannic underpinning and concentration of material may be taken over by their high alcohol sooner rather than later.

Not surprisingly, many atypically rich, fat white wines were produced in the North, but too many of them are blurry with alcohol, their fresh fruit and floral aromas having been burned off by the unrelenting sunshine and heat. But the classic steep sites of Condrieu nonetheless yielded some reasonably minerally examples, and a handful of the top bottlings of Hermitage blanc will likely age for 20 years or more based on sheer strength of material. Still, the overwhelming majority of white wines from the Northern Rhone will most safely be consumed early. White Hermitages from successful vintages have a habit of being attractive in the year or two following their release, then going into a sullen stage for a decade or so before emerging as interesting once more, albeit in a honeyed, nutty, earthy and often rather oxidative way. But other than the huge wine from Chave, the cuvees parcellaires from Chapoutier, and a handful of additional examples, I would not bank on the 2003 whites offering a satisfying Phase Two.

A brief look at the 2002s. Although the Northern Rhone Valley suffered from a mediocre summer and a rainy first third of September in 2002, the growing season here was generally less grim than that of the extreme South. The rains on September 8 and 9 were far less disastrous than the biblical flood visited on Chateauneuf du Pape by the same storm system. Still, despite a return to drier conditions by the 12th, rot spread quickly in less-favored sites, and many growers were forced to harvest much earlier than they would have wished, often with pitiful grape sugars and with the skins well short of full phenolic ripeness. As Alain Graillot said, "it was either that or nothing."

Many Cote-Roties on cooler schist soils were especially vulnerable, and much fruit here was picked quickly and prematurely. But some growers for whom ripeness of the skins is primordial simply waited, having made the decision that they'd rather eliminate the rotten grapes, even if that meant throwing out half of the crop, than make scrawny, green wines. While there's little or no outstanding wine in 2002, there are certainly plenty of respectable results. Many 2003s are brisk and food-friendly, but others come across as tired, perhaps due to the influence of rot, even where the taste of rot is not obvious. And of course these wines generally possess limited structure and aging potential. I was impressed by some white wines, a few of which show good ripeness and flavor development with better acidity than usual and enticing purity of flavor and mineral grip. But even at prices down from the norm, the Rhone Valley's 2002s will be a difficult sell.

I have not covered the Southern Rhone in this issue due to family tragedy. On arriving at my hotel outside Avignon the evening before I was to begin my visits and group tastings in the South, I received the news that my father, who had been in declining health for some time, had taken a sudden turn for the worse. I cancelled my appointments in the South, cut short my trip and returned home. My reviews of 2003s from the Southern Rhone will have to wait until later. I will either publish notes on these wines next winter, together with notes on 2004s from bottle, or, more likely, review these wines in batches, as they appear in the U.S. retail market.

A word on 2003 prices: Scary. Due in equal parts to the tiny crop and the shrinking dollar, prices for 2003 Rhone Valley wines will be at record levels in the U.S. market. Only the healthy size and sound quality of the 2004 harvest are exerting any meaningful restraint on price hikes by producers. But note that prices within appellations will vary more widely than ever for the 2003s, based on early reviews, cellar-door prices and mark-ups by importers, distributors and retailers along the way. For good affordable wines, and the best chance to find value in the Rhone Valley, look to Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, many of which benefited significantly from the added flesh brought by the hot, dry summer of 2003.

On the following pages, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel or cuve. Virtually all of the wines reviewed in this issue were tasted in France in late November and early December. As in the past, my coverage of the Northern Rhone Valley is devoted primarily to red wines.