Rhône 2015: Vintage Report
The wines of 2015 are a gold-plated triumph for both ends of the Rhône valley. Early plaudits favoured the North and reds over whites; but the empirical evidence of extensive tasting (so much more reliable and pleasurable than anecdote) has underlined a rare uniformity of excellence. Reds maybe prevailed, but only because of a climate that was almost too benevolent and which, on occasion, undermined acidity levels, in Viognier for example.
The rare coincidence of quality and quantity has left a lot of the winemakers very happy indeed. The now notorious Drosophila Suzukii fruit fly which ravaged the vines in the humid 2014 season returned whence it came and in addition there was very little rot to contend with. “Facile”, as Jean Gonon would have it, in French, but the wines are far from facile and share, in point of fact, a complexity last seen in 2010.
The fun bit, as always is to ask the vignerons to rank the vintage and to select years that are or were similar. In the South the most popular answers were 2007 and 2010, 2015 maybe a little less “rich” than the former and a touch less tannic than the latter. Indeed, despite the relatively small berries and impressively thick skins, it is the superb finesse of the tannins which really marks out this vintage.
Some have looked back further, with Frédéric Brunier at Vieux Télégraphe making a slightly unexpected comparison with 1985. More 78 to my mind; and that is praise indeed. In the North the most common comparisons are between ‘09 and ‘10, with the consensus praising a style somewhere in the middle of these two fine years. Jérôme Coursodon specifies that 2015 shares the power of 2009 and the freshness of 2010; he cites “une buvabilité déconcertante”, with which it is hard to disagree. Jean-Louis Chave mentions 1990 and René Rostaing, unpredictable to a fault, cites 1991. He feels that ‘91 was better than 1990 in Côte-Rôtie (like ‘83 versus ‘82 Margaux perhaps) – and he should know.
So: a terrific vintage all in all. One should not be too exercised by the intimations of greatness for 2016, in the South at least. The more recent vintage has been fantastically varied across France and, even where apparently excellent, there will be issues of inconsistency and reduced volumes. Indeed the relative generosity on the volume front in 2015 has ensured that prices, at source, have not rocketed. The vagaries of the exchange rate are against us, of course, but overall, prices are fair, growers are sensible and demand will be high. A virtuous circle.
What one needs to avoid in such relatively southerly vineyards is too much of a good thing; too much sun and the danger of desiccated and sunburnt fruit, with alcohol levels creeping over 15 degrees and natural acidity that is far too low. Such indulgence was avoided in 2015 as a result of two natural phenomena, both of which are often absent: firstly, the relatively wet spring, which topped up the water table; and, secondly, the unusually cool nights in the hottest part of the year, which delayed the process just enough to ensure physiological ripeness and sugar levels that were not excessive.
The heat was actually more pronounced earlier in the summer, with late June and early July particularly scorching, so much so that they contributed to an average mean temperature over the total growing season which was higher even than 2003. And the wines from 2003 were – and are not – noted for subtlety, longevity or, to be fair, an inherent balance.
The mitigating factors rehearsed above were, however, sufficiently significant to change the profile of the 2015 vintage and to ensure a lengthy and – to borrow a word much in currency with the vignerons when describing 2015 – “easy” season. Easy is as easy does and few things are, in reality, that simple in modern winemaking; the philosophy of so-called “minimal intervention” is very hard to achieve after all. Like drawing a perfect circle, free-hand.
What looked set to be a late year was soon revised towards an early picking date and then, with the relatively mild August, a “normal” harvest date. The early whites were picked in the middle of September and the late grapes, Mourvèdre significantly, all brought in by the end of the first week of October. It’s a good to very good vintage for whites across the piece, and an excellent vintage for reds, with Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage particularly successful in the North. The southern vineyards were uniformly impressive, from the higher sites in Gigondas and Vinsobres through to the Crau plateau of Châteaunuef-du-Pape. And very few ‘15s actually touched 15 degrees, even down here. Harmony and balance; a Socratic ideal. Who could wish for more?
Cornas, St Joseph, Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, St Péray
Thierry Allemande, the magus of Cornas, dispenses with his normal reticence in praising the 2015 vintage. The altitude of his vines militated against the dangers of excess, Cornas being relatively southerly and protected from the Mistral. The diurnal variations engendered an extended season which, for him, brought out the minutiae in the differences of terroir between his Reynard and Chaillots plots – both, to the untrained eye, uncompromisingly granitic, south-east facing and steep. Near neighbour Stéphane Robert is equally effusive; the vintage is, to be sure, solaire in the vein of 2009, but it has more focus and more linearity in its tannins and therefore, ultimately, is more like 1990. Praise indeed.
Further north Jean-Louis Chave agrees with this comparison, citing an absence of malady and just the right amount of Mistral and summer rain to ensure even ripening and an escape from water stress. The aspect of some of the best St Joseph vines, easterly by inclination, mitigates against too much lingering late afternoon sun and ensures, even in a generous vintage such as this, that the sugar levels are not excessive.
Further north still, in Côte-Rôtie, there is general jubilation: firstly at the clean fresh conditions that have banished the fruit fly and latent mildew; secondly at the generous volumes of the harvest. René Rostaing’s hyperbolic turn of phrase does not fail him; 2015 is the “stuff of dreams” – partly, it seems, because the intimations of precocity were dispelled and the second half of the season was so easy to navigate. Yves Gangloff singles out the rain of the first week of September for its cleansing benefit; beneficial but not excessive so there was not undue swelling in the grapes. Stéphane Ogier returns to the comparison with 2009, a sunny, muscular vintage: 2015 is similar but more classic Rhône, he advises. The aromatic harmony and structural profile of his Syrah has seldom been matched, and his wines are certainly built to last.
There are virtually no stalky notes encountered, or, attempting to conceal such imperfections, wines which are over-extracted or treated. Syrah fails to hide its distaste for such practices particularly well and purity, by definition, cannot be “fabricated”. Most laudatory commentary is for the reds, it has to be said, but there are some attractive whites too. Picking dates were key to ensure acidity has been preserved and to guarantee the freshness which now underwrites the textural complexity of the best examples. Benchmark Condrieus from Vernay and Mouton illustrate this well, as indeed do the leading lights of Sts Joseph and Péray.
Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage
The commanding figure of Michel Chapoutier, who has now added the presidency of Inter Rhône to his panoply of achievements, appears to sound a note of caution in his typically voluminous vintage report, citing the year as the hottest since 2003. The sun blazed especially fiercely from late June until the third week in July, bolstering the aggregate of sunlight hours dramatically. Thereafter, things calmed down, however, and the inner resources of the high water table and the subsequent, albeit modest, bursts of rainfall served to redress the balance. And Michel is more characteristically bullish in his conclusions, underlining that the best vignerons were able to combine ripeness with freshness, tannic power with balanced natural acidity.
This is certainly our overall impression of the great wines of Hermitage, with savoury depth beyond their solid granitic foundations and, charmingly, very attractive harmonious red fruit characteristics in youth. Marc Sorrel had such confidence in the wines that he added significantly more stems than usual, not that they are especially discernible at this stage, such is the velvety charm encountered when tasting from barrel.
These generous features are shared with Crozes-Hermitage, oft overlooked these days, especially with so much focus on St Joseph over the river. There is more variety in Crozes, certainly, but top performers, such as Laurent Combier with 45 years of organic viticulture under his belt, achieve aromatic harmony alongside crystalline purity in their wines, which are already hard to resist.
Photogenic pudding stones, Papal palaces and crossed keys have helped to build the myth here… oh, and some outstanding wines. Latterly, however, the status of primus inter pares has come into question, almost as if Châteauneuf, in many senses, has had too much of a good thing. Here the Mistral can be at its most fierce and unforgiving and the summers exceptionally hot. When conditions are tricky, this terrain is unforgiving, and both 2013, when the Grenache was struck by the disease “coulure”, and 2014, when there was a little mildew in the vines, challenged the putative harmony. I am happy to report that 2015 marks a definitive and triumphant return to form.
The conditions were absolutely ideal – a cool and relatively wet start to the season topped up the water table, paving the way for a fiercely hot early summer (up to 40 degrees) to fully ripen the grapes. A more temperate period followed, before a final mannered canter towards the late September harvest – notable for diurnal temperature variants which ensured both good levels of natural acidity and fully ripe tannins.
Frédéric Brunier at Vieux Télégraphe is less reticent than usual in his praise of the wines. To him they combine all the best features of 2010, 2007 and 2005 – praise indeed. Cerebral yet perfumed, concentrated yet light on their feet, the reds are conspicuously successful in 2015 and will repay long cellaring.
The whites also impress, demonstrating once again the value of that ancient and hitherto somewhat under-rated varietal, Clairette, which is increasingly planted and, along with the floral Bourboulenc, provides a counterpoint to the fuller Grenache Blanc and Roussanne varietals. Happy winemakers abound in the village, with Christophe Sabon at Janasse typical of many when he praises the essential “nobility” of the fruit. Isabel Ferrando at Saint Préfert rejoices in the fact that there was minimal sorting required, praising the aromatic and textural harmony of the young musts. Sophie Armenier at Marcoux compares the vintage to 2001, a more than felicitous comparison given that 2001 is one of my all-time favourites in the appellation.
If Châteauneuf still sits at the head of the southern Rhône table, one of the most exciting and encouraging recent developments has been the emergence of its near neighbours, villages such as Cairanne, Beaumes de Venise and Vinsobres, which have recently been elevated to Cru status.
Of all the villages, by far the most photogenic is medieval Gigondas. Its multiplicity of soils is well suited to the year in question, while its relative latitude ensures freshness, linearity and consistency in the wines. The championing of this village by the Perrins of Beaucastel, evidenced by the rebuilding of the Tourelles winery, demonstrates a faith which feeds into the wines themselves. Pre-phylloxera sandy soils do not make for rustic, raw wines, as Gigondas was once judged.
Similarly, in the relatively northern environment of Vinsobres, where Syrah is much in evidence, both topography and terroir have conspired to create 2105s that are both elegant and profound. Cairanne’s signature charm is far from absent in 2015; Frédéric Alary at L’Oratoire St Martin cites near perfect conditions which resulted in the near-contradictory harmony of juicy and thick-skinned berries. Christine Saurel at Montirius acknowledges the anxieties surrounding the “canicule” (heat wave) of early-to-mid summer, but is quick to reveal that there was no sécheresse on the Plateau de Vacqueyras. Minute differences in terroir, from the rainbow colours of the clay to the relative size of the galets roulés, have led to a wonderful variety of styles from these emerging villages. Self-belief is self-fulfilling and there is no better year for its display than this.