Never a Dull Vintage in the Northern Rhône


It’s an interesting time for wineries in the Northern Rhône valley. On the one hand, demand for their wines, especially for small-production, single-vineyard bottlings, is higher than ever. On the other, nature hasn’t been playing nice for the last several vintages. Luckily, the best producers have handled the increasingly challenging conditions with aplomb.

The village of Cornas, viewed from the steep, winding road down from its summit.

2021: Reality Hits Hard

The 2021 growing season was extremely complicated and all over the place weather-wise. March was beyond abnormally hot, with temperatures as high as 90 degrees Fahrenheit, foreshadowing a likely early budding. In the end, the growers’ worst fears across the region were realized; the budding started quickly, and, unfortunately, the heat wave was followed by a severe frost on April 8th, which caused a loss of over one-third of the crop for the Northern Rhône. Some vineyards lost their entire harvest. Erratic temperatures with heat spikes, cold dips and hail occurred throughout the rest of the season. An overabundance of rain, often poorly timed, brought on mildew and rot issues throughout many areas in July, which required careful, not to mention expensive, attention in the vineyards and severe fruit-thinning from what was already a diminished yield. That was especially difficult to accomplish considering the labor shortages that plagued French wine regions during the peak of COVID-19 days, with seemingly perpetual lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions taking their toll. Wineries with locally based, full-time crews fared better than those traditionally relying on outside, seasonal or temporary workers. Smaller domaines, with less vineyard area to cover, could usually handle things better than the big players, who require more hands on deck, but not always.

The southern sector of Crozes-Hermitage, especially around Mercurol, suffered severe losses due to the April frost, up to 100% in several cases. Many apricot and peach trees, which continue to be a relatively significant part of the region’s agricultural landscape, literally and figuratively, lost all their crop, which stung small family wineries here that still depend on their fruit harvest for income. So, some estates suffered a double whammy. Up north, however, there were no issues in the vineyards of Gervans, Larnage and the actual village of Crozes-Hermitage. At Hermitage, things were far better as the hill suffered no frost damage. Cornas was hit hard by the frost in its upper vineyards, but it was even worse further down the slopes and into the flatlands, where in some sites, there was total loss. Luckily, vineyards in the southern sector of Saint-Joseph mostly dodged the killer frosts, although some of the flatter areas near Châteaubourg, just a bit north of Cornas, were slightly affected. Vineyards in the northern sector were not so fortunate, as some around Condrieu lost up to 50% of their fruit. Côte-Rôtie’s high-elevation vineyards were hit extremely hard, but according to a few growers, the sunniest sites mitigated the frost to a certain degree and fared well. That’s a small comfort because production here was off by around 50%, and some vineyards lost all of their fruit. As a result, many regional producers did not or will not bottle single-vineyard or special-selection wines, instead opting to blend what wine they could produce into a single “basic” or “village” bottling. Needless to say, this is a vintage to watch very closely.

Guigal's impeccably maintained cellar, from which almost five million bottles are produced annually, including some of the best wines from the entirety of the Rhône valley.

2020: Dodging Bullets

A hot and exceedingly dry growing season, especially mid-summer, marked the 2020 vintage, like the three years that preceded it; however, 2020 had an earlier harvest, which helped the fruit maintain acidity in many cases. The drought caused the vines in select areas, notably Côte-Rôtie, to suffer. Some producers noted that their yields were off by up to a third. However, in the southern sector at Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Cornas, yields were normal to a bit higher than average. It goes to show the difference a few (maybe more than a few) kilometers make. These are livelier wines, broadly speaking, than the 2019s and 2018s. Many are truly outstanding, showing a deft combination of ripeness and vivacity with excellent balance and length. The tannins are generally on the light side and more subdued than those in 2019 and 2018, meaning most wines will be approachable young. The top-quality wines, and there are quite a few, should age gracefully on their added depth and balance. In multiple cases, the 2020s could age for longer than many of the wines from the previous two vintages, where I fear that there’s a chance the ripe characteristics will take over while the tannins are still strongly present. Balance and energy, even elegance, are the keywords in this vintage. But it’s still a year where one should tread at least a little carefully, if not to the extent required in 2019, 2018 and 2017.

2019: Ripe, but Often Lively - It Is Possible

Two-thousand nineteen was a hot growing season, much like 2018, but with the advantage of well-timed rains in August, which enlivened the vines and helped preserve acidity in the still-ripening fruit. Overall, the wines show more brightness, higher energy and a bit less overt weight and brawn than the 2018s. They are almost always livelier and more precise than their 2018 siblings, if not generally as fresh as the 2020s in the same cellar. There was more rain the further north you went, meaning that Côte-Rôtie received the most and the southern sector of Saint-Joseph and Cornas the least. Hermitage fared slightly better than its neighbors across the river, as did Crozes-Hermitage, especially at Larnage and Gervans, on the north side of the appellation. On June 15th, at Crozes (in the lower-lying southern sector) and in the far south of Saint-Joseph, a brief, fast-moving and narrow but damaging hailstorm, composed of large hailstones, caused anywhere from 25% to 50% crop loss in particular vineyards. Generally speaking, this will be a very satisfying vintage for most Northern Rhône wine lovers.

Matthieu Barret is not afraid of experimenting in the cellar.

2018: Trust the Producer Who Has a Track Record 

Throughout 2018, conditions were quite warm to blazingly hot and exceedingly dry, much to the growers’ and their vines’ chagrin, especially in younger vineyards. The resulting wines showcase excellent ripeness and heft, with distinct, dark fruit character and solid tannins due to thick skins if the grapes weren’t canopy protected. Typically cooler areas, like Côte-Rôtie and the high-altitude sites of Cornas and Saint-Joseph, dealt with the heat issues better than low-lying areas, like the plains of Crozes-Hermitage and the flatter sites of Saint-Joseph, from south to north. Nonetheless, some excellent wines were produced, resulting from careful selection during harvest, at the sorting table and afterward barrel-by-barrel or tank-by-tank. It’s easy to over-generalize a vintage like 2018, and even quite understandable, but various bottlings will confound the stereotype.

A Brief, Older Vintage Overview

The 2017s, products of a hot year, are marked by dark fruit, sometimes warm character and noticeable weight, with often high alcohol levels and low acidity. The best wines are rich but don’t show overt heat or roasted character, at least not yet. That may change as they gain more bottle age. In contrast, 2016 issued incredibly suave, fresh and balanced wines, many of which are already delicious but with the energy to age gracefully. Then there is 2015, a vintage that is developing at a glacial pace. Overall, the 2015s are marked by serious structure as well as depth. They are built for a long time in the cellar, but the question arises: when or will they ever soften up? More than a few producers are looking at 2015 with some trepidation, wondering if they will always be on the strict and unforgiving side. They note that this can be the case with a selection of wines from 2010 and 2005, built along the same structure and tannic lines as 2015. Time will tell, as always. We are talking about wines made to last for decades, so it is still early days, at least for the 2010s and especially the 2015s. I still have hope and reasonable confidence that patience with the best 2015s will be rewarded and I look forward to following the wines wherever they are heading.

Pierre Gaillard has been an envelope-pusher in his cellar for years. Amphoras have steadily been making themselves at home here.

Prices Are Going Up, Sometimes Way, Way Up

The costs of the most sought-after wines from the top Northern Rhône producers have risen exponentially in recent years. I will emphatically state that this is not their fault. Of course, producers raise their prices as demand increases and production decreases, but winery increases tend to be minimal compared to what happens once the wines are in the market. Some of the prices that cult-y wines are commanding are, at least to my mind, out of control. I am talking about bottles trading for the price of a not-so-bad used car, a month’s rent for a New York City studio, a round trip for two or dinner for two (with wine) at a Michelin, three-star restaurant. Create your own analogy. All the producers I visit are flattered by the attention, assumed respect and high prices paid for their work. But almost all of them are shell-shocked, often embarrassed and flat-out angered by how the market for their wines has rapidly evolved in a direction that they never intended, something that is out of their control.

Winemaking and Drinking Outside the Box or Appellation

It is no surprise that land prices in established Northern Rhône appellations have gone straight through the roof, as has been the case with every prime wine-growing region worldwide. Even if they wish to expand, it has become prohibitively expensive for most small, family-run domaines to acquire even a few rows of vines in the village where they reside. Looking for land or vines near the home base is the ideal solution, but sometimes searching afar is the only option. That’s why there is an ever-growing number of outlier bottlings in many, if not most, of the wineries Vinous has covered over the years. Lately, I expect to be shown at least one “simple” Vin de France in almost every cellar I visit. In certain instances, they are wines made by a given producer’s friend or friends, where an exchange of crop was made. The point is that with the economic reality being what it is unless a producer has bottomless pockets, expansion in the old way (buying land in a fancy appellation) is becoming or is already a distant memory.

Côte-Rôtie in late winter just before the vines come out of hibernation. Unfortunately, they often get hit by frost, as they brutally did in 2021.

Time Marches On

Generational and name changes for some producers are happening, which is usually a subtle move. To wit, Jean-Luc Colombo’s estate wines are now labeled as “Domaine Colombo”, and René Rostaing is now “Domaine Rostaing”. Gilles Barge is now “Julien Barge” (I was not able to taste recent vintages from them), and Domaine Georges Vernay now has the founder’s daughter’s name, Christine Vernay, attached as well. There’s some irony because Christine is now semi-retired, and her daughter, Emma Ansellem, now runs the show at that historic estate. After 33 years visiting the region, I have become used to sons and daughters, or nieces and nephews, assuming control of their family's domaines, but it is always with a bit of melancholy. The good news is that each successive generation usually brings expanded experience and even more education, which can only benefit their wineries and, indeed, their region.

Since our last coverage for the Northern Rhône was in May 2020, I was not able to get back to the region until April of this year, for obvious reasons. During that extended lockdown, I continued to taste wines here in New York and followed that up with two, separate three-week trips to the Rhône this spring and summer. I tasted extensively during those visits and followed that up with more wines back home through the fall.

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