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Rippin' Rhône: A Golden Age Buying Strategy, Vol. I
By Michael Franz
Aug 20, 2019
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France’s Rhône Valley is on a historic tear, with excellent vintages now running back-to-back for a decade even as prices have held quite stable, unlike Burgundy and Bordeaux.  That’s the good news, and though there’s some reason for concern about the cause lurking behind all this vinous success, it seems clear that we’re in the midst of a Golden Age for lovers of Rhône reds…of whom I am emphatically one.

The only fly in the proverbial soup is the indisputable fact that a remarkable string of excellent vintages for the Rhône has coincided with an alarmingly even ascent in average temperatures.  This would turn from good vinous news to extremely bad news for the Rhône if the trend line doesn’t level off, even though vintners do have some counter-measures at their disposal.  Only time will tell whether France’s climate will simmer down, but one must acknowledge candidly that the current growing season has already included two ferocious, historic heat spikes, and only an idiot could be complacent about the situation when the temperature in Paris hits 108+ degrees Fahrenheit.

With the climate alarm officially sounded, let’s get back on the upbeat…to address the Golden Age mentioned earlier and consider some purchasing considerations for those who wish to take advantage.  I’ll wrap up by reviewing some exceptional current releases from the marvelous appellation of Côte-Rôtie for those prepared to pony up and start buying now. 

If you’d rather buy than strategize, feel free to skip over my assessment of recent vintages to get to the Côte-Rôtie reviews…I’m not easily offended!

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To find a bad vintage in the Rhône, you’d need to go all the way back to 2008.  As for the intervening years, you could find some purists who are less enthusiastic about some years than others, but for the red wines that remain by far most important in both the north and south, 2009 and 2010 were fabulous; 2015 was great in the north and very good in the south; 2016 was stylistically marvelous everywhere; 2017 looks sensational in the north and excellent in the south, and 2018 showed wonderful promise based on the young wines that I tasted in the region in April of this year (which were unfinished in most cases, but wonderfully packed with pure fruit).

Indeed, the last four vintages look so strong that wine lovers who didn’t stock up on the many great wines made in 2009, 2010 can simply laugh off what would have looked like a colossal blunder in almost any other vinous historical context.

So, what should you be buying in the midst of this embarrassment of riches?  And just as important, what should you not be buying…on account of the alternatives available in the current Golden Age? 

I’ll work to answer both of those questions in detail in this column and others to follow in the months ahead.  For now, let’s start in the north. 

For practical purchasing purposes, nine vintages are “in play” for the wonderful wines of Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, beginning with 2009 and running to some early-arriving 2017s that are already stocked in the USA (or are being sold on a pre-arrival basis, with the wines arriving before long).

As noted above, both 2009 and 2010 were genuinely great vintages, and though most of the wines have sold through, I still have my eyes peeled for the few that still show up in online offers.  The best wines from these vintages are still improving; the next tier are ready to drink now and are delicious, and only the rather inexpensive ones from Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are starting to tire.  So, don’t go back this far in time unless you’re buying quite reputable wines that scored well when released, but don’t forget about these great vintages.

2011 was probably the weakest of the nine vintages in relative terms, and as so many excellent wines were made after that year, you should probably just steer clear of those unless you see great deals on highly rated wines from Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage or Cornas at close-out prices.  2012 made balanced wines of very good quality, so that vintage should be up on your radar along with 2014, which produced wines similar in style that got overlooked because of all the buzz for 2015 and 2016.  2013 was a frost year, and with quantities reduced, many of the wines showed excellent concentration, and I’m still looking for bargains from that vintage from retail websites.

I bought 2015 reds when they were released, though mostly from the north, as heat and dryness in that year produced many wines in the south with a lot of alcohol in relation to acidity.  I’m re-commenced buying 2015s from the north, as importers and retailers are now working harder to move remaining stocks to make room for 2016s and 2017s, and the ‘15s have turned out very well after some time in bottle, now resembling 2009s uite closely.

That heat that marked 2015 was much reduced in 2016, which included a long end to the growing season with even daytime temperatures and cool nights, letting growers patiently await exactly the time they got the balance of flavor components they desired in their grapes before picking them.  The 2016s are “smaller” wines than the ‘15s, but also more harmonious in structure and pure in flavor.  They’re easier to enjoy young, but are so balanced that they’ll last (and improve!) for years.  If you’re not solely into “blockbusters,” but value wines with balance and freshness, this is a great year.  And if you do like big wines, it is still a great year…just concentrate your purchases on Cornas and Hermitage.

Although 2017 was clearly hotter than 2016, the results look better to me at this point than in 2015, and I tasted the wines at exactly the same point in their development (I tasted many 2015s in the Rhône in April of 2017).  Crop yields were reduced by frost in 2017, so concentration is increased but there’s not a lot of juice in the pipeline, so you’ll need to be prepared to buy these pretty quickly as they arrive…and that means from now through the next 18 months. 

The 2017s are fabulously generous without seeming overbearing, and though they are too big to fit everyone’s definition of “classic” in style, the best renditions will be among the most generous and delicious wines ever made in these appellations.  The ‘17s (generally speaking, of course) are extremely dark in color and very densely concentrated.  They’re packed with fruit, but importantly, the fruit us almost always pure in character rather than “cooked,” which is the risk in any warm growing season.  As for balance, most show very pleasant freshness at this early juncture, and sufficient acidity is really the flip-side of the fact that the wines don’t taste “cooked” or “raisined” or “candied.”  One last note of importance:  The 2017 reds from the north are remarkable in that these things just absorb oak like they were eating it for breakfast.  Even producers whose wines are usually too oaky for my taste got the balance right in 2017, perhaps despite themselves, due to the great depth of fruit they were working with.

I’m definitely keeping some funds in reserve for these, and as it is a vintage of inherently ripe, concentrated wines, I’ll probably emphasize the generally “smaller” categories of Côte-Rôtie, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, as these wines will really shine in the vintage, whereas already-weighty Cornas and Hermitage may be more to my personal taste in the fresher 2016 vintage than in their riper 2017 incarnations.

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For those who’ve had enough of strategizing and wish to shift into action mode, here are reviews of some of the most impressive Côte-Rôtie wines I tasted in the Rhône in April.  They appear in order of score, and prices are approximate:

Patrick Jasmin, Côte-Rôtie “Oléa”  (Rhône Valley, France) 2016 ($120):  Some of what follows about this wine is speculative, but please bear with me, as the wine is so good that a measure of uncertainty is merited.  I’ve never tasted a “prestige” bottling of Côte Rôtie from Jasmin, and thus didn’t understand what was going on when the “regular” bottling started showing the proprietary name “La Giroflarie” not long ago.  It seems that the regular wine needed that name to distinguish it from this wine when Jasmin evidently began releasing a higher-end bottling from his favorite barrels, a higher percentage of which are new for this wine.  This looked like a finished wine when I tasted it in April of 2019, as it was wearing a capsule (but not a label).  I’m assuming the name “Oléa” based on a tasting note of the 2015 by northern Rhône expert John Livingstone-Learmonth, whom I respect highly…as my sensory evaluation of the ’16 runs closely parallel to his note on the ’15.  As for the price, well, my $120 is just a wild-ass guess.  Regarding the wine itself, no guesswork is required, as it is a big bruiser with very impressive concentration and lots of spicy wood to match, with very intense perfume including floral notes, crushed black raspberries and cherries and faint suggestions of cocoa powder and campfire embers.  Huge as it is, it remains internally balanced and harmonious.  Patrick Jasmin resembles a rugby player…and a rather rough one at that, and consequently I’ve always thought it was a bit mysterious that his rendering of Côte-Rôtie was so sleek and restrained.  With the discovery of this wine, that mystery has evaporated, but only to be replaced by the mystery of how one acquires a bottle of “Oléa.”  I’ll follow up once I’ve learned the answer to that question, at which time my credit cards will likely be maxed out.  98

Chapoutier Côte-Rôtie “La Mordorée” (Rhône Valley, France) 2016 ($180):  Moderate in density but nearly overwhelming in complexity and expressiveness, this is the best vintage of this wine that I’ve ever tasted.  Floral, fruity and savory all at once and all in balance, it shows amazing aromas and flavors recalling dried flowers, Asian spices, cured meat and wild mushrooms as accents to a juicy core of dark cherry and berry fruit.  Insanely sexy wine that’s already getting rather short in supply, this should be bought soon if you can swing the price.  To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s getting late early,” so pony up now or miss out.  97

Domaine Pierre Jean Villa, Côte-Rôtie “Fongeant” Rhône Valley, France 2016 ($105):  Sourced from a single lieu-dit near La Turque toward the top of the Côte Brune, this is a very different wine than Villa’s Côte-Rôtie “Carmina.”  Visibly darker and physically denser, it is more “impressive” and less “elegant,” but this is a distinction that could easily be misunderstood.  There’s very little overt oak in either wine, and this is all about the site rather than different treatment in the cellar.  Despite this wine’s sheer size, it is equally remarkable for its purity and energy, which are virtues that become even more valuable in wines of striking concentration.  Simply gorgeous, this will be hard to find, as only 2,000 cases are made, but it is definitely worth a search (and if a search doesn’t suffice, theft or murder are worth considering).  97

Yves Cuilleron, Côte-Rôtie “Lieu-Dit Bonnivière” 2017 ($80):  A couple of Cuilleron’s releases from Côte-Rôtie were “just”good in their 2017 renditions (“Bassenon” and “Madinière,” both checking in at 92 points), but this was fantastic, showing extremely expressive aromatics and then backing them up with concentrated fruit and plenty of spicy wood.  A powerful wine that really lives up to the intense profile of the vintage, yet retains the magical charm of Côte-Rôtie on account of its lovely perfume and overall balance and proportionality.  Powerful but still amazingly pure, this is a great accomplishment.  96

Delas, Côte-Rôtie “La Landonne” (Rhône Valley, France) 2016 ($240):  Although I was disappointed by the performance of Delas’ “Seigneur di Maugiron” bottling of Côte-Rôtie from 2016, this top-of-the-line La Landonne bottling is fabulous.  Raised in 40% new oak, it shows plenty of woodspice and vanilla, but these are accent notes that are easily overwhelmed by the dense, extremely expressive fruit.  Black and blue fruits lead the way, with additional undertones of baking spices, carpaccio, cola, minerals and toast.  It seems both pure and fresh despite its sheer size and a healthy dose of oak, which is a hallmark of the vintage.  Gorgeous.  96

Domaine Geroges Vernay, Côte-Rôtie “Blonde d Seigneur” (Rhône Valley, France) 2016 ($100):  A gorgeous, graceful wine, this doesn’t push too hard in any respect, but is so beautifully proportioned and complex that it comes off ultimately as effortlessly impressive.  Wonderfully perfumed, this is really only medium-bodied, but that’s hardly a knock on the wine, which offers a host of expressive flavors with floral notes, tastefully ripe fruit, alluring spices and light toast all working to leave a fully satisfying impression at the end of a long finish.  Complete and convincing in every respect.  96

Domaine Patrick & Christophe Bonnefond, Côte-Rôtie “Côte Rozier” 2017 ($70):  A terrific wine with impressive density and depth of flavor, this is a powerful wine with wood to match, yet it wears its oak effortlessly, and already seems to be absorbing it into the fruit.  The “Le Rochains” bottling in this vintage is nearly as good in 2017, so don’t hesitate to try that if you can, but Côte Rozier is the pick of the litter in this amazing vintage.  95

Domaine Rosiers, Côte-Rôtie “Besset” (Rhône Valley, France) 2016 ($75):  This house makes three very good bottlings of Côte-Rôtie, and though you should not hesitate to buy any of the 2016’s, this is the clear pick of the litter above the “Drevon” and the “Coeur de Rose” in this vintage.  Made entirely from Syrah, this single-site wine shows wonderful complexity with fruity and savory notes enhanced by lovely accents of flowers, spices and cola.  Already terrific, this is easy to enjoy already, but is so beautifully balanced and proportional that it will surely retain all of its current charms while developing additional complexities in the years to come.  95

Patrick Jasmin, Côte-Rôtie “La Giroflarie” (Rhône Valley, France) 2016 ($60):  Jasmin makes one of the most pure and stylish Syrahs from the famous appellation of Côte Rôtie in almost every vintage, and though the wines are always moderate in ripeness, extraction and oak, my direct experience shows that they age long and gracefully.  On top of all that, they remain very reasonably priced…if not so easy to find.  The 2016 is a very worthy successor to the delicious 2015, which I’m delighted to have sleeping in my cellar, though it is already delicious.  So too is the ’16, which shows lovely aromas of dark berries, dried flowers, cola and damp earth, with just a bit of oak spice but still plenty of structure for what is certainly a rather “feminine” vintage in the northern Rhône.  94

Domaine Gilles Barge, Côte-Rôtie “Côte Blonde” (Rhône Valley, France) 2016 ($90):  I tasted three utterly different bottlings of Côte-Rôtie from this well-respected house’s 2016 lineup, including a quite gamy “Le Combard,” a woody but still balanced Côte Brune (probably Barge’s best-known wine) and this intricate, lovely Côte Blonde…which was my clear favorite.  Why it was poured third in order wasn’t easy to understand on account of its modest size and much less pushy character by comparison to the other two, but the finish was so pure and detailed that I came to see the wisdom of saving the best for last…a full minute after it first passed my lips.  Wonderfully fine juice, in a vintage that is all about fine-ness.  94

Domaine Pierre Jean Villa, Côte-Rôtie “Carmina” (Rhône Valley, France) 2016 ($85):  This young domaine is only a decade old, but the wines are very fine and entirely worth a search.  This is the lighter of two excellent Côte-Rôtie bottlings, though “lighter” is certainly no knock on the wine, as Côte-Rôtie’s claim to worldwide greatness is all about complexity and grace (like Burgundy unlike Hermitage).  Made from two plots of vines averaging roughly 60 and 10 years of age, 60% of this was made from whole clusters, though the grape and stem tannins are exceptionally well managed and there’s virtually no sensory evidence of stem tannins at all.  The aromas are wonderfully expressive, with vivid floral notes giving way to very pure fruit scents.  Medium-bodied, with fresh acidity and very pure fruit flavors firmed by ultra-fine tannins, this is a beauty that shows why Villa loves the vintage.  When I first met him in April of 2017, long before this was bottled, he told me that 2016 would be extraordinary on account of a perfect end to the growing season.  Moderate daytime heat, cool nights and no threat of rain meant that he could pick all of his plots exactly when he thought the grapes were optimally mature.  His sense of optimal maturity has certainly borne out.  93

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Questions or comments?  Write to me at [email protected]

I’ll have many more reviews in the weeks ahead from Hermitage, Cornas, Saint-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, so stay tuned….