Northern Rhône 2016 and 2017 Reds: From a Whisper to a Scream


The two most current northern Rhône vintages, 2017 and 2016, provide a fascinating study in vintage personalities, with 2017s bringing the thunder and the 2016s offering elegance and even understatement. Fans of large-scale Syrah are going to love the younger vintage, while those who seek balance and freshness will have a field day with the 2016s.

Looking down on the Rhône from the slope of Condrieu

2016: Balance, Elegance and Precision

From the beginning, even prior to harvest, it was clear that 2016 would be marked by elegance far more than power. Now that the wines have had a chance to settle down and find their footing, that has been confirmed – emphatically so. The wines show bright acidity thanks to a late, cool start to the growing season and an equally cool late summer. Beautiful weather marked the lead-up to harvest and continued into October, which allowed leisurely harvesting of fully ripe fruit with healthy pH and tannin levels. The resulting wines possess plenty of depth and more than adequate structure to ensure long, graceful aging curves. There’s more red fruit character than usual on display, especially when compared to the 2015s and, especially, the 2017s. These are elegant wines, not bruisers, and, in many cases, especially from Côte-Rôtie, many come across as nothing less than Burgundian in style, which the old-timers will tell you is the quality that made the appellation’s name and reputation in the first place.

A number of producers – especially those whose wines favor elegance, like Franck Balthazar – have told me since early on that they believe 2016 deserves to be considered a top-notch, even great vintage based on freshness and balance. My own impression, which tracks that assertion, is that the wines, in most cases, will surprise many of us with their longevity. I also suspect that most of the wines will never really shut down, much less go through an extended dumb phase or even a surly adolescence. Ripeness and powerful tannic structure are in no way a guarantee that a wine will age smoothly. On the contrary, such wines all too often collapse under their sheer mass, lose whatever freshness they may have possessed, and reveal roasted, even dull character if left to age for too long. I’ll be extremely surprised if many 2016s take such a path.

Winter pruning on the slopes of Condrieu

2017: Big but Accessible

Two thousand seventeen was definitely a hot year here, as was the case across western Europe, and the wines show it. As a group the 2017s display deep-pitched dark fruit character, palate-coating textures, distinct weight and, in many cases, powerful tannins. These are clearly opulent wines that will satisfy oenophiles who look for richness, even opulence, in their Syrah. It should be noted, however, that only a handful of 2017s possess strict tannins, meaning that in numerous cases the wines will be enjoyable on the relatively early side. In contrast, the 2015s are wines that, in most instances, positively demand patience and are, as a group, in a pretty cranky state right now. Compared to their 2015 siblings, the tannins in the 2017s, which are typically softer in the first place, tend to wrap gently around and into the ripe fruit, rather than creating a theoretical shell and contributing overtly chewy texture or hardness. They also lack the solid and even rigid spine of acidity that supports the 2015s, which is by no means a bad thing if one lacks cellar space, patience or even a personal taste for mature Syrah.

Clay barrels in the cellar of forward-thinking Domaine Lombard, in Brézème

Now for the Not-So-Great News

Unfortunately for long-time northern Rhône lovers, the world continues to discover the region’s wines and, unsurprisingly, prices are steadily rising, even exploding, in response. Dozens of the most sought-after bottlings, especially those from Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage and Cornas, now command prices in excess of $100, with an increasing number of wines soaring well past $200 and even higher. On top of that, yields across the region were mostly down in 2016, and in many cases severely so in 2017. It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize–winning economist to understand that that’s a recipe for disaster when it comes to finding, much less affording, the most sought-after wines. Happy hunting.

I tasted all of these wines from bottle starting in late winter through mid-August of 2019.

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