Home > Editorial > Northern Rhône 2021 vintage report
The 2021 vintage was extremely challenging in the Northern Rhône. Almost every complication that Mother Nature could think of was thrown at the vines throughout the growing season. Many of our producers describe how months of hard, persistent work in the vineyard, then stressful conditions at harvest, had left them completely exhausted.
The season began with much-needed rainfall over the winter period, but the winter overall was mild. This trend continued into the spring where the temperatures settled at a much higher level than normal, causing early growth in the vines. However, a severe frost blighted the region between 7th and 9th April, as also occurred in many other parts of France. In the Northern Rhône, this was completely unexpected as it was the first frost to attack the vines in April for over 40 years.
Frost is a strange phenomenon; it acts almost like water, running in ‘streams’ down the hillside and sometimes moving in waves. As such, it is not uniform and some vines escape any impact where neighbouring vines are burnt by the cold. In the North, the appellations of Saint Péray, Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage were particularly badly affected. Here, there was no wind to deter the tide of frost from moving all the way down to the lower slopes. When the alarm bells started ringing in Hermitage, the growers scrambled to light candles amongst their vines. This is to provide enough warmth to raise the temperature to a less brutal level. Guillaume Sorrel, who also had plots at risk in Crozes-Hermitage, describes the panic of that night. They had to burn bales of hay in old barrels as all the candles had all been taken. “We could only fight in one place, and we fought in Hermitage”, he said.
Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie also suffered losses but here it was more random; Pierre Rostaing lost 80% of his wonderful La Viaillère parcel and 50% in La Landonne. Here it was mostly worse for the vines near the top of the hill, where the frost brought temperatures down to -6°C. It was a more manageable -2° to -3° C on the slopes.
This was only the beginning of the challenges facing the grower this vintage. A wet and mild May followed with flowering around 7th June but the warm, wet weather continued into July. This promoted leaf growth and the formation of compact bunches ‒ all a perfect recipe for mildew. It was during these months that the quality-conscious growers had to be in the vineyards almost all day, every day. They were either spraying against the mildew or leaf-plucking and aerating the bunches as much as possible to maintain healthy fruit. It is those that worked so hard during this period, those who we represent in this offer, who are the success stories in 2021.
Finally, the heat arrived with temperatures rising to 30°C by the end of July. A mini-heatwave between 10th and 15th August provided much-needed warmth to ripen the grapes. Then the final challenge: harvest. A small rainstorm around 20th September caused some panic. With the prediction of an even bigger rainstorm for early October, harvest started in earnest for most, all aiming to pick before the rains. Those that had the resource and the capacity to pick all their grapes, in perfect health, before that second rainstorm have produced stunning wines in 2021.
Before tasting this vintage in the North, we had feared the Syrah would have produced rather lean, austere, dilute wines, as its wines are of higher tannin and more unyielding nature than those of the South. How wrong we were! Without exception, the growers represented here have all made wines which are an absolute delight to taste. They are wines which have welcomingly lower alcohols than normal (many delightfully at 12% and 13% abv), balance and freshness. Somehow, they still have beautiful ripeness, concentration and certainly a long life ahead of them. These wines do not have the heavy richness of 2018 and 2019 but instead are wines you can lose yourself in, even whilst they are still young. I cannot shout loudly enough about how much I adore this vintage. With its forward fruit, depth of flavour, balanced alcohols and beautiful freshness, this is ‘my’ kind of Rhône.