2011 and 2010 Northern Rhone Wines

Northern Rhone aficionados who didn't exhaust their budgets on the many outstanding 2009s now have an even greater number of superb 2010s to start chasing down, but they'd better move fast because low yields and increasing worldwide demand are working against them.

Of particular interest to longtime Rhone lovers is the often stark contrast between 2009 and 2010, which was made crystal clear this winter whenever I was afforded the opportunity to taste the same wines from the two years side by side.  While the '09s are generous and rich, often to a fault, the 2010s display a stunning combination of freshness, richness and structure, the traits necessary for long aging.  It's the rare 2009 that will outlive its 2010 sibling, I believe.  In fact, a number of producers warned that consumers should keep a close eye on their 2009s as they believe that they will be at their freshest and best over the next decade.  That's not to say that those with ample stocks of '09 need to be alarmed, but wines with such ripe fruit rarely hold onto their freshness beyond 10 years or so, as many fully mature 2003s are proving right now.

The keys to the success of the 2010s in the northern Rhone were numerous.  First, a damp spring and extended flowering resulted in widespread coulure, which meant a diminished crop but excellent concentration thanks to very small berries.  The summer was then favorably dry and cool, especially during the nights, which allowed for a slow, smooth maturation of the fruit, and allowed harvesting to start well in the latter part of September and then extend into October for many growers.  These are emphatically wines for the long haul and, in fact, many of them are beginning to shut down so the good money is on leaving them be for a minimum of a few years.  I pity the fool who opens up the most serious bottlings any time in the next five or six years.

After the frenzy around the '09s and '10s, 2011 was almost predestined to be pushed into the shade, which is a shame because many delightful and even excellent wines were made by a number of producers across the region.  Despite a good, quick start to the growing season, with some of the earliest flowering ever, a dry, cool summer slowed maturity in most of the region and the grapes struggled to gain in sugar.  On the plus side, the lack of disease pressure ensured healthy, clean fruit, so the wines can offer an appealing blend of freshness and fruitiness.  It's the general lack of depth, power and structure that's the weak spot here, but I don't think that will become apparent for a few more years, so those who tend to drink or serve their wines by their fifth birthday, and that means almost every restaurant on earth these days, should take a very close look at the best 2011s. 

Agnes Levet is actually quite keen on the wines and said that "2011 is being dismissed by some, already.  They have lots of freshness but there's a depth there that people are underestimating."  She added that she thinks the wine will be "a lot like 2007, but with brighter fruit."  Negociant Bastien Tardieu, who sources fruit from every major appellation in the northern Rhone, told me that "2011 is still underestimated by many people but when the wines get into the bottle many will be surprised by the quality; they'll be enjoyable early but have the balance to age for the mid-term."  A cautionary note was raised by Jean-Paul Jamet, who said that it will be important to "get the '11s bottled before the oak starts to move ahead of the fruit."  That sentiment for early bottling is shared by his neighbor Patrick Jasmin, who thinks that "you can't have the wine start its life dry, with diminished fruit, especially in a year like this where the fruit is the main factor."

The two most recent vintages are very good to outstanding for the white wines of the northern Rhone, with 2010 producing wines that are both vivacious and powerful.  The '11s have very good freshness as well but in most cases they should be drunk before the '10s "for their fruit expression", according to Stephan Ogier.  I had the chance to retaste a number of 2011 whites here in New York after I returned from my trip and found most of them accessible and, in some cases, completely ready to drink.  Recently tasted '10s, on the other hand, are showing their structure right now and definitely deserve some more patience.