2004 and 2003 Rhone Valley Wines

Rhône wine aficionados will soon be showered with a greater number of enticing wines than were available even during the golden run of vintages from 1998 through 2001. Based on the number of successful, often truly outstanding wines I tasted in both the northern and southern stretches of the Rhône Valley in November, as well as on early previews of the 2005 vintage, I'd say we are now entering another period of Rhône madness. Best of all, 2004 and 2003 are about as different in style as two vintages can be, so there will be wines to satisfy every taste.

The Northern Rhône. Conditions in 2003 conspired to produce wines that are all over the map stylistically. Harvesting commenced in some appellations as early as mid-August, a full month earlier than normal, resulting in some peculiar and often disjointed wines that combine roasted notes with high-pitched acids. The bright side is that many wines, notably in Cornas, appear to have benefited from the fresher acidity that came from earlier harvesting. The best examples in this style possess two characteristics that have been missing in several highly touted vintages of the last decade: vibrancy and clarity of aromas and flavors. So simply looking at the broiling temperatures the Rhône Valley suffered through in July and August tells only part of the story. The best wines—and my cellar visits were generally limited to the most consistent high-quality producers of the region—show little evidence of roasted fruit character and can be as impressive as anything produced in such thoroughly ripe vintages as 1999. Yields in many cases were off by 50% or more in 2003, and the concentration and power of the better examples are as profound as one can hope to find in syrah.

Vintage 2004 is another story entirely. Grower after grower I talked to swooned over the pain-free growing season and the ability to draw out the harvest. This meant that grapes could achieve full maturity, and that harvesting could, in almost all cases, be determined by the producer rather than by Mother Nature. The vines, which had been stressed as a result of the very hot, dry summer of 2003, responded with lower than average yields, often in the 20 to 25 hectoliters-per-hectare range rather than a more typical 30 to 35. Nonetheless I heard descriptions like "a dream," "easy," "perfect," and "classic" at every turn—often from growers who are more likely to hedge when it comes to making early judgments of vintage quality. Comparisons to the very good 2001 vintage came up with regularity.

The Southern Rhône. Many wine lovers are approaching the 2003s with skepticism out of a fear that the wines will be overripe, stewy and roasted. The reality of 2003 in the south is that the hot weather leading up to the harvest, which took place up to three weeks later than that of the north, was relatively normal for this very warm region, and harvest conditions quite favorable. The finished 2003 reds tend to be low in acidity and rich in texture but can also be genuinely exciting for their powerful expression of ripe fruit. I encountered plenty of wines that were, indeed, overblown, excessively port-like and lacking in freshness. A good 25% of the wines I tasted in November were heavily marked by hot-vintage qualities that dropped my scores below the 85-point threshold for a recommendable bottle. But the best producers, as a general rule, have made rich, powerful examples that will greatly appeal to fans of luscious yet suave wines. These wines often possess the sheer material, balance and tannic structure for at least mid-term aging.

For all the excitement over the 2004 harvest in the north, the enthusiasm in the south was even greater. The growing season of 2004 began with a dry, cool spring, followed by typically warm summer conditions through mid-August. At that point, temperatures dropped and there was intermittent rain for nearly three weeks. The rains, which followed a very dry spring and summer, were welcomed, and were accompanied by relatively cool nights (ten evenings saw the temperature drop below 15oC). A steady mistral served to slow down the maturing process and enabled the grapes to retain strong malic acidity (acidity levels had previously been high in many spots due to a blockage of maturity, the result of drought conditions in mid-summer). The high malics, in turn, set the stage for extended secondary fermentations and may have resulted in greater-than-normal complexity of the wines. The weather then warmed up and turned drier after the first week of September and was often quite hot during the second half of the month.

These near-ideal conditions during the last six weeks of the season allowed the grapes to gain "an optimal ripeness that is not so frequent," according to Michel Tardieu, who works with growers throughout the Rhône Valley. The white grapes were mostly harvested during the second week of September and the red grapes were picked from then through the end of the first week of October—just in time, as steady rains began to fall throughout the Southern Rhône on October 9. In Châteauneuf du Pape, the mourvèdre, which thrives in long growing seasons, was especially successful. While the overall harvest of 2004 was anywhere from 10% to 33% below average, the crop level was more robust than what was produced by the stressed vines in 2003.

Two thousand four is a vintage that plays seamlessly into a movement among many growers I visited away from wines that are outsized, overripe and ponderous. Christophe Sabon of Domaine Janasse summed up the opinion of many producers when he told me: "I used to want color and power above all else. Finesse used to seem like an excuse for dilution, but now complexity is what I am after." The 2004 white wines, especially, are lovely, balanced and suave, with fresh, perfumed aromas and precise, energetic fruit, while their 2003 predecessors were usually more blowsy and heavy, sometimes struggling under their own weight and richness.

On the following pages, I offer scoring ranges for wines that were still in barrel or cuve when I tasted them, and precise scores for finished wines. Due to space constraints, notes are provided only for finished wines that rated at least 87 points, and for unfinished wines likely to be at the same level of quality. Wines are presented in the order in which they were shown to me during my numerous cellar visits. Following my brief profiles of producers I tasted with in November, I include notes on hundreds of additional wines I sampled either in group tastings in the Rhône Valley during the first half of November or back in New York following my trip.