2005 and 2004 Rhone Valley Wines

The 2005s are well on their way to being the most anticipated set of Rhône Valley wines of a generation that has enjoyed no shortage of "vintages of the century." Growing conditions from Côte-Rôtie to Châteauneuf du Pape were nothing short of sublime, save for the ongoing drought conditions that have plagued most of Western Europe's vineyards since 2003. My annual visit to the Rhône was exhausting thanks to the sheer number of wines I tasted and, perhaps more so, owing to the consistently high quality I found. Outstanding wines are far more demanding on the brain than mediocre ones, requiring greater focus and, of course, time for contemplation. And I found plenty to contemplate this fall.

Savvy buyers will also be paying close attention to the large number of excellent 2004s that were made in the north and south. Market obsessions being what they are, this looks to be a classic red-headed stepchild of a vintage, as many collectors are already plotting their buying strategies for the 2005s. Great deals are already being offered on some superb 2004s from all Rhône appellations, and these bottles are often priced at less than half what will be asked for the same wines from 2005.

The North. A cold winter followed by a moderately damp spring marked the beginning of the 2005 vintage in the north. The summer was dry and mostly warm but not excessively hot, with cool, breezy nights. The maturing of the fruit was a long, smooth arc, punctuated by rainfall at the end of August, which was beneficial to the ripening process. The harvest commenced on September 8 in the southern reaches of the north and extended into the first week of October for the coolest and highest syrah sites. A cool period following the crush allowed for extended macerations and slow fermentations, ensuring rich wines with deep flavors and considerable texture. Along with this richness the best 2005s have also retained impressive brightness and balance, with enough acidity to give energy and clarity to the flavors but not so much as to come off as shrill or austere. The 2005s should be long-aging wines but I suspect that many wine lovers will find the vivacious fruit so appealing that they’ll have a hard time keeping their hands off them in their youth.

The 2004 vintage has produced many examples that will appeal to fans of structured, “classic” renditions of their appellations. And by “classic” I mean wines that are ripe, balanced and expressive, with clarity to their aromas and flavors. Many of the growers with whom I tasted in November are confident that their 2004s will outlast their 2005s, even if they don’t offer the drama expected of the newer vintage. For collectors who gravitate toward elegant, complex wines with relatively moderate alcohol levels, this is a vintage to explore seriously. I’m betting that the best 2004s will offer plenty of near- to mid-term enjoyment, but I’ll also be socking away quite a few of these wines for at least a decade.

Both 2004 and 2005 were excellent vintages for white wines in the north, especially in Condrieu. I was pleased this year to see a continuation of the trend away from jazzed-up bottlings, with greater emphasis on purity and balance and less on strong new oak aromas and flavors. The strength of these wines, it seems to me, is their clear mineral and fruit character—qualities that would be obscured by excessive oak spice or vinification or élevage that privileges extraction.

The South. In the south, the 2005 season began with a harsh, cold winter with little precipitation, followed by a rainy spring. Bud-break occurred on the late side thanks to the cold weather but flowering was normal, in early June. Summer was very dry (drought has persisted in the Rhône since the growing season of 2003). Fortunately, heat was not a serious issue during the summer and a steady Mistral through July and August, in conjunction with cool nights, made for a slow, smooth maturing process. Scattered, well-timed rains came in early September, helping to push along late-maturing vines such as mourvèdre.

Harvesting began in early September (at Châteauneuf du Pape on September 10), and ideal conditions, often on the warm side, allowed picking to stretch until the first week of October—a repeat of 2004’s drawn-out, textbook conditions. Natural alcohols fall in the 13.5%-15% range and the tannins are supple and nicely integrated into the ripe but energetic fruit. I ran across few wines that were marked by roasted or obviously overripe qualities. These are thoroughly ripe wines but the majority are also lively and pure—a rare combination for the region and the cause for immense excitement among growers and, predictably, merchants, who smell a profit opportunity when it presents itself as clearly as this vintage does. The inevitable downside to 2005 is the generally low crop level, down from 2004 but higher than the severely diminished 2003 production. In 2005, ultimate yields seldom exceeded 31 hectoliters per hectare and in many cases dipped close to 20.

Broadly speaking, 2004 offers a collection of structured, focused wines, noteworthy for their balance and elegance. Fans of ripe and dramatic southern Rhône wines with distinct aromas of surmaturité may find them wanting in richness and weight, but for those seeking classically styled, suave wines, 2004 offers myriad choices. The long, drawn-out harvest allowed growers the opportunity to pick at leisure, bringing in each variety at optimal ripeness. The best wines have plenty of concentration and sweetness and in most cases the balance to reward patient consumers. As with the north, 2004 is destined to exist in the shadow of 2005, which has been an object of intense worldwide interest since before the first grapes were picked. I’ve already seen evidence of importers and merchants clearing the decks of their ‘04s (in many cases even before the wines have left the estates!) for the more lucrative and hotly pursued 2005s. But as my notes and scores indicate, many 2004s are close or equal in quality to the same producers’ 2005s, and it will not surprise me to see them available at 50% less than the opening prices for the newer vintage. I should point out that in my notes in this issue, I have frequently used garrigue as shorthand for the complex herbal notes of thyme, rosemary, basil, sage, lavender, wild mint and fennel that infuse so many wines from the South. Garrigue is the wild, pungently spicy brush that dots rocks and hillsides along France’s Mediterranean coast.

A word on special cuvées. During my travels in the Rhône Valley this fall, I heard complaints from a number of producers about the market’s obsession with great vintages and, especially, super-cuvées. But the fact is that there would be no frenzy over these micro-production wines if they weren’t made or presented to journalists and visiting collectors in the first place. Growers must know that telling some wine collectors “you probably won’t be able to get any of this special barrel” is like offering catnip to a cat.

Then, too, there’s the potentially negative effect on the estate’s flagship bottling of isolating significant quantities of a property’s best juice—from the oldest vines, the best sites, the best barrels. Most producers are now making old-vines or fantasy-named cuvées, and some are bottling numerous special wines. I can’t help thinking that the quality of some classique bottlings is suffering because of these decisions. More than one European broker, by the way, has said that without American demand for über-cuvées, the market for them would utterly collapse. Based on what I see coming through the grey market, this makes sense. Very few hyper-priced bottlings in this market do not bear an American importer’s strip label, but there’s an ocean of classique coming into the U.S. outside the traditional distribution system.