2010 and 2009 Cotes du Rhone Wines

The benevolent conditions that produced the generally superb 2010s and 2009s in the Rhone Valley were obviously beneficial to the "little" wines of the region as well, although that fact has been obscured by the frenzy over the marquee bottlings.  The great news is that many of the best non-trophy wines--the ones that can be enjoyed on an everyday basis--are still widely available or yet to arrive in the U.S. marketplace.  And in many instances, these are wines at a quality level close to those from loftier appellations; many of them are actually built to age just as long as the big names.

Anyone who has been a Rhone wine lover for the last few decades knows that pricing has gotten way out of whack.  In the good old days one would expect to pay 30% to 50% more than the cost of a Cotes du Rhone to get a decent Chateauneuf du Pape.  Now, that ratio is routinely 100% to 200%, and sometimes much higher.  And we're talking about wines from the same producers!  This bifurcated pricing struck Bordeaux and Burgundy a while ago and now, unfortunately, is affecting the Rhone.

As economic reality and rising prices for blue chip wines sink in, savvy wine buyers have been trading down.  Instead of Chateauneuf du Pape, they're buying Gigondas; rather than Gigondas, they're opting for Cairanne; instead of Cairanne, Cotes du Rhone.  This does not necessarily involve a commensurate trade-off in quality, as so many of the wines I tasted for this report attest. 

It's good to keep in mind a couple of facts when it comes to shopping for wines from the appellations covered here.  First, a number of talented growers and winemakers simply got the short end of the stick in the inheritance game.  Instead of genetically waltzing into, say, Chateauneuf du Pape, they were "unfortunate" to come into vineyards in, say, Cairanne, Sablet or Ventoux.  Second, many of these wines are made by the same men and women who are responsible for running some of the most prestigious wineries in the Rhone.  If you've been priced out of their most sought-after wines, check out their entry-level bottlings:  these wines frequently deliver plenty of their more exalted siblings' character at far gentler prices but without the prestige or cachet of a big-name region.  These are wines for true wine lovers, not name droppers.

Broadly speaking, the 2009s from the Rhone Valley, both north and south, are weightier, richer wines with more obvious tannins and darker fruit profiles than the 2010s.  While the '10s show plenty of depth and flavor impact, most of them display brighter personalities than the '09s, and that's not just a function of the wines being a year younger.  Two thousand nine was a hot year and many vineyards had to be harvested before their sugars ran too high and acids dropped to dangerously low levels, so the grape skins were often thick, which could mean hard or even bitter tannins.  In 2010, by contrast, the harvest began a full three weeks later than the previous year so the tannins were usually softer and sweeter, and it shows in the wines.

The far-flung range of wines featured in this article include those that I tasted this winter that didn't come from any of the appellations covered in the IWC's annual features, which means Chateauneuf du Pape, Gigondas and Vacqueyras (all covered in Issue 160) in the south and the major northern Rhone regions of Cote-Rotie, Condrieu, Saint Joseph, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Saint-Peray, which are reviewed in the current issue, 161.  I also put the emerging Seyssuel region into that article as I believe that these wines fall comfortably under the umbrella of the Cote-Rotie producers who make almost all of those wines.