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2010 Rhone

My favourite Rhône wine vintages of the last decade have probably been the superlative 2001 and the relatively under-rated 2006, the latter more specifically in the North, whilst the South excelled in 2007. 2010 looks set to join their ranks and quite possibly beat the lot of them!

For Marc Perrin it is the best vintage in his experience, compared by him to 1985, which he just remembers, and by his parents to 1978 and 1962. Laurent Combier advises that it is the very best of the 22 vintages that he has made, and, more generally, Christophe Delorme at Domaine de la Mordorée describes it as the ‘best ever’. However one looks at it the word ‘best’ seems to come up quite frequently…. Hyperbole or truth? The vignerons know not to cry wolf and proclaim every year as their best, as the market is too mature and discerning for that.

Rhône 10 En Primeur - Reports & Blogs on a superlative vintage
So what exactly is so special about 2010?

The answer, somewhat paradoxically, lies in a negative, namely very poor fruit set, which has drastically reduced volumes but also increased concentrations and yields. It was more prevalent in the South, especially with Grenache, the grape often associated with fleshiness of fruit and high levels of alcohol.

The correspondingly increased significance in the blends, albeit by small degrees, of the Syrah and Mourvèdre varieties, allied to an unusually long growing season and a relatively mild August have all informed the style of the vintage. These are classic, structured wines of pedigree, with relatively high tannin and acidity levels (as in Bordeaux) but a wonderful purity and linearity.

Whilst not LS Lowry or Giacometti in Whilst not LS Lowry or Giacometti in physique, the wines are far from Rubenesque. 2009 was more ‘solaire’; 2010 is described by Marc Sorrel, with pithy precision, as ‘précis, droit et complexe’.

Classicism and aristocracy pervade the wines; Poussin, David and Claude are the most accurate artistic comparisons; vins de garde certainly, and to quote Nick Thompson at Ameillaud, ‘upstanding’ wines, with a touch of the Roundhead rather than the Cavalier about them, but with undoubted ageing potential.

Stéphane Ogier describes it as a connoisseur’s vintage, a vintage for the English rather than the American market. I’m sure he does not say the opposite when he is with his American importer.

Northern Rhône
A cold wettish winter cleaned out the vineyards and raised the water table. Snow, normally rare, caused complications in February on the Autoroute du Soleil all the way down to Avignon and beyond, setting the pattern for a delayed growing cycle and correspondingly late harvest, which strayed into October as in days of old! The mild early spring did not last and the flowering was tricky, the poor fruit-set the cause of the low yields later on.

A warm early summer ceded to a rather mild August and then pleasing conditions in early September. Midsummer was relatively dry, despite lacklustre temperatures, so a little modest rain in September was perfect to ensure an optimal coincidence of phenolic and physiological ripeness. The berries were almost universally small and thick-skinned but with discernible sweetness and, importantly, no bitterness in the pips at the time of picking.

The cool nights in summer have ensured freshness and good levels of acidity, which have made the whites particularly successful. Indeed the whites, to my mind, now bear comparison with any in France and some of the Condrieus possess levels of complexity that I have never encountered before. The reds are marked by low PH levels, and high polyphenols in the skins which have given Syrah superb definition of colour and exceptional ageing potential.

Jean-Michel Gerin praises the ‘equilibre’ of the wines; long seasons can result in high levels of sugar and alcohol and a lack of harmony. This is not the case here Indeed, overall alcohol levels are probably a notch beneath those of 2009, with acidity a shade higher..

René Rostaing and Jean-Louis Chave both praise the ‘rigour’ and the ‘Jansenist’ purity of the wines, and Francois Villard is excited by the complexity engendered over the long season. Yves Cuilleron, interestingly, describes 2010 as ‘le millésime de tannin’ comparing it to 2006.

The 2006s, as mentioned above, are now drinking superbly, while the initially more lauded 2005s are still battling with their muscular tannins. It seems that for the 2010 vintage, wines will have all the charm of the 2006s then, but with a little more gravitas and depth. Perfect for the cellar in other words.

Southern Rhône

Overall and quite unusually the weather patterns were quite similar in the South, but the effects of the poor fruit-set (coulure) were especially relevant to Grenache and the resulting yields were even more parsimonious. This was more of an issue in Châteauneuf-du-Pape than some of the hillside villages, such as Gigondas, which is two weeks behind in its vegetative cycle.

Vincent Avril at Clos des Papes may have, in this as in so many other ways, been exceptional with his yields of a mere 18 hl/ha, but the average for the whole of Châteauneuf-du-Pape was a not much higher at 27 hl/ha. Indeed given the low volumes, the quality of the vintage and the rapidly increasing international demand, it is pleasing that any price increases have been relatively modest. Long may it continue!

The 2009 wines were fatter, fleshier but sometimes undermined by slightly drying tannins at the back. As in the North, tannin management has been superb in the wines made south of Montélimar, and with the Grenache relatively subdued, the Mourvèdre and Syrah in particular have been allowed to show their worth, adding colour, shape and phenolic rigour.

The late harvest came after welcome rain around the 8th and then again the 24th September…the long hang-time, logically, increasing the influence of the soil on the grapes and justifying the near-ubiquitous ensuing references to ‘vins de terroir’. The volumes are miserly but the gold-standard of quality has never been stronger; indeed any intimations of austerity in the wines, in deference to parlous economic times, are quickly undermined by recognition of the equilibrium, finesse and quiet confidence of the 2010s.

Comparisons have been made with 2007, 1990 and 1978, all very pure and harmonious vintages, all universally applauded on release and on every possible occasion thereafter. This bodes exceptionally well for the vintage that was 2010…….

Simon Field MW, BBR Wine Buyer
2010 Rhone