A Tasting of the 1991 Northern Rhones

From the outset, the 1991 vintage in the Northern Rhone Valley was overshadowed by 1990, perhaps the greatest vintage of our generation for syrah in France. It did not help the reputation of '91 that the Southern Rhone was a washout that year, while the previous vintage produced monumental wines in Chateauneuf du Pape and neighboring appellations. But 1991 was a very successful year for the Northern Rhone, and, as I pointed out back in Issue 52, an exceptional vintage for Cote Rotie. So I leaped at the chance to take part in a tasting this summer of carefully stored '91s from Cote Rotie, Hermitage and Cornas.

Recap of the 1991 vintage.
A period of rain in late August arrived at the ideal moment for the syrah vines of Cote Rotie, serving to jump start the ripening process in this third consecutive drought summer, without resulting in dilution or loss of sugars or acidity. Drought stress in 1990, in comparison, had widely prevented full physiological maturity of the grapes, particularly in the steepest vineyards of this appellation. As a result, numerous 1990 Cote Roties are aromatically somewhat stunted or lacking in middle palate richness.

Hermitage and Cornas also produced stylish, expressive, midweight wines in '91. The fruit was healthy and crop levels were reasonable, although yields were generally a bit lower in Cote Rotie due to spring frost. Hermitage would have attracted more attention had these wines not immediately followed the majestic '90s, several of which are destined for legend. Cornas also yielded excellent examples in 1991, some approaching the splendid '90s in quality. Neither region, however, can match the performance of Cote Rotie in 1991, although a handful of exceptional wines were made. The best '91s from Hermitage and Cornas are approaching maturity, but in cool cellars they will last well.

My scores for the '91s today closely track those given for the just bottled wines five years ago; surprises are generally of the positive variety. In particular, the cru bottlings of Guigal are splendid--perhaps better than they were at any time prior to their bottling. What I did not anticipate at the outset was how slowly and gracefully the '91 Cote-Roties would evolve. With few exceptions, these wines still possess fresh, dark colors, some with strong ruby tones, and show no signs of amber at the rim. Some wines appear to be as dark as they were the day they were released. Although a number of them make thoroughly satisfying drinking today--they display the sappy, gamey, raspberry scented Cote Rotie perfume in spades the 1991 Cote-Roties should offer many more years of development in bottle. What these wines offer, first and foremost, is a near-perfect balance of fruit, acidity and alcohol. They rank with the '88s as the best Cote-Rotie vintage of the past two decades. If you own these remarkably elegant wines, you are sitting on vinous treasure.

Incidentally, a tasting of the 1990 Northern Rhones will have to wait at least a few years--at least if it pleasure the taster is after--as most of these wines are going through a sullen stage today. But then this statement will hardly come as news to collectors who have recently uncorked major reds from Burgundy or Bordeaux. This was an outstanding vintage for most important wine regions of France, but the big reds are generally going through an awkward phase that may well last for several more years.