The fabulous 1999 vintage in the northern Rhône has surpassed even 1947 in producers' minds. JOHN LIVINGSTONE-LEARMONTH looks at what made this year so great

The fabulous 1999 vintage in the northern Rhône has surpassed even 1947 in producers’ minds. JOHN LIVINGSTONE-LEARMONTH looks at what made this year so great

That was the year I slept on the lawn,’ recalls Gaston Huet. ‘It was hot, hotter than 1999,’ remembers Marius Gentaz-Dervieux. Both vignerons, Huet the softly-spoken 91-year-old and Gentaz-Dervieux, the modest ’78 and a half’-year-old, remember well the legendary nature of the 1947 vintage.

Huet deems it ‘the great wine of the 20th century’. His 1947 Haut-Lieu moelleux is still glorious, unfurling an array of dried fruits and honeys. But Gentaz-Dervieux reckons Côte-Rôtie 1947 has been trumped by the 1999. We are talking legendary quality here.’1999 is very, very beautiful, indeed exceptional,’ states Gentaz-Dervieux. He retired from wine making in 1993, but remains in touch through his son-in-law Réné Rostaing and his brother-in-law Albert Dervieux’s family. Apart from Joseph Duplessy, now 88, he is best qualified to place the 1999 Côte-Rôtie vintage in perspective.’It’s so rare for years to have all the elements – alcohol degree, acidity, ripe tannins – in such harmony and abundance,’ he observes.

‘A grower will only have one or two chances during his career to make such wine – at the very top of the scale. From 1947 I learned that you must not seek high yields. You must also respect the quality of the harvest, and really concentrate on that ripeness. Including 1947 and 1952, I have never seen such ripe, heady and perfumed grapes as we had in 1999. The mix of sun and rain that year was decisive.’For Gaston Huet, the lesson is this: ‘Respect nature, do nothing technical. Follow that course, do not use external yeasts, and do not forget that your vinification starts in the vineyards.’ He adds: ‘Some oenologists consider that the person does all the work to make wine. I say that man can make the best or the worst, so beware.’1999 in the northern Rhône should be a vintage that teaches the younger growers for the future. The area has seen a multiplication of start-ups in the last 10 years. Some come from old wine roots, like the very promising Jean-François Garon at Côte-Rôtie (his grandfather sold and raised wine), others from well outside the wine world like François Villard of Condrieu and Martin Daubrée of Côte-Rôtie: one worked in hospitals, the other in industry in Lyon.In 1999 they could all feast off their harvests. This is a reference vintage for Syrah. Taken off the granite, the schist, or the clay, it produced memorable wines that will age well and display great style and elegance as they evolve.

PERFECT CONDITIONS

Healthy weather played its part. Treatments against bugs like grape worm were two instead of an average six at Crozes-Hermitage; less weeding was required, with rain spread at convenient intervals. ‘It’s easy to forget the role of rain,’ commented Auguste Clape. ‘At Cornas we had some at the end of April, into May, but not too much. The couple of rainfalls in July then helped and kept the vegetation nicely vigorous, and we had a further 20mm of rain in mid-September. August was also hot, but not too hot. We harvested between 20 and 24 September, with the grapes showing 13.9˚ and a lower than usual pH at 3.6. The 1999s here have more gras… are more unctuous than the more austere 1998s. That indicates their ripeness.’

Another factor in the middle valley around Cornas and Hermitage was the north wind in September, which dried out the grapes and reduced their tendency to be too inflated and therefore diluted.If there is a legendary wine among the 1999 northern Rhônes, it is Côte-Rôtie. Usually the Cornas ripeness is 1.5˚ ahead by early September – equivalent to one week – but in 1999, both appellations reached the same level, more than 12˚, at the same time. Hermitage, Crozes, Saint-Joseph and Cornas were all marvellous wines, but the crown goes to Côte-Rôtie.

The 1999 wines contain delicious fullness, balance (a rather forgotten word these days) and beautiful promise. They are notable for the completeness of their flavour, never an uneven edge, and in many cases, a fantastic length with a long-lasting fruit. They are 10- to 15-year wines on the whole, although the big, oak-led Guigals will live longer.

One of the few dangers to the vintage comes in the form of yields. ‘We were frosted here in Saint-Joseph in 1998,’ reflected Pierre Gonon, maker of pure, very well-structured wines, ‘which brought extra abundance the following year, as a reaction. Twenty-two hl/ha (hectolitres/hectare) in 1998 became 39hl/ha in 1999, but ripeness was there for everyone.’

Yann Chave of Crozes-Hermitage, a shining example of the Rhône’s new wave of ‘thinker-growers’, also saw abundance, and yet again had to cancel the family holiday in August. ‘You need day-to-day vigilance to get the grapes right, and in 1999 I went through my vineyards dropping bunches twice, 12 days apart, in early August. My wife was not happy.’ At Hermitage the fruit extract is decisive, very clear and delicious. Acidity levels here and at Crozes were better than usual, bringing a clear-cut, almost cool texture. The tannins are ripe and well-founded. For Crozes, the straight cuvées are drinking well from the start, and can perform for up to 7–8 years. The special, more wooded or small plot/old vines cuvées are sometimes mini-Hermitages and are well worth cellaring for another 4–5 years: longevity around 10–15 years.

Hermitages will age in a consistent pattern, reflecting the balance of the vintage. Throughout, their clear fruit will shine. The top wines will run for at least 20 years. Track down the smaller grower wines, especially, from men like Bernard Faurie, Florent Viale, Albert Belle, Alain Graillot. The cooperative of Tain has also done well in 1999.Cornas 1999s are potentially a little richer and more overt than usual: this is due to the ripeness of the tannins. They will drink delightfully at around eight years old, and may show very well a touch earlier because of the fruit.

The straight Saint-Joseph reds are well worth trying young: their black fruit runs with great definition. Some of the oak-influenced wines need another two years to integrate.One other personal word of warning on the 1999s. When buying, look for growers who have a pedigree of following the Gaston Huet/Marius Gentaz-Dervieux principles. There are plenty of ‘fall-apart’ techno wines in circulation, as I know to my cost. While the harvest can be ripe, a heavy interventionism destroys the terroir and the vintage after an hour in your glass. These wines are made by people in a hurry, a hurry to cash in, to pay off the bank, who do not possess native instinct and decry the rules of thumb of their predecessors. I call them les vins boutonniers, the press-button wines, which are considered to be what a large public following wants. The makers eschew simplicity, and the wines are oak-soaked and tense.

But glory be, here is a vintage to warm us all as we age. There should be 1999 Syrah from the northern Rhône in any self-respecting cellar. The east side of France, with Burgundy and Beaujolais also performing very strongly, was spoilt in 1999. It is undoubtedly the best vintage of the trio 1998/1999/2000, and rightly confirms the Rhône at the wine world’s top table.

John Livingstone-Learmonth is an authority on the wines of the Rhône.

CELLARING SUGGESTIONS

Michel Ogier, La Rosine, vin de pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 1999

100% Syrah. Spiced bouquet, depth. Spice, tarry black flavour. Good length. 6–7 years.

Cave Cooperative de Tain, vin de pays des Collines Rhodaniennes 1999

100% Syrah. Black fruit, smoky bouquet. Good fruit, clean and direct. Well-integrated flavour. Ends soundly. 5–6 years.

Paul Jaboulet Aine, Cornas St Pierre 1999

Broad aroma, prunes, violets. Rich, berried fruits on palate. Ends with reserve, tannins creep out. Complex. 20 years.

Clape, Cornas 1999

Smoky, black fruits, potential on bouquet. Excellent harmony, with fruit all the way through. Supportive end tannins. 25 years.

Jean-Francois Garon, Cote-Rotie 1999

Dense bouquet, mixes floral and chocolate aspects. Delicious, appeal on palate. Red fruits, good length, well-integrated tannins. Real charm. 12 years.

Jean-Michel Stephan, Vieille Vigne, Cote-Rotie 1999

Ripe fruit on bouquet, warm and fat. Swirling black fruit extract on palate. Potent, well charged. Good length. Solid wine. 15 years.

Jasmin, Cote-Rotie, 1999

Warm bouquet, sleek black fruit, will widen and gain variety with age. Full, blackberry flavours. Lots of savoury fruit, raspberries notably, on the finish. 12 years.

Gilles Barge, Du Plessy, Cote-Rotie, 1999 (cask)

Sound density on bouquet, violets and red fruits. Tight texture still, the red fruits are tasty, then the tannins come through. Good

aromatic extract. 12 years.

Clusel-Roch, Les Grandes Places, Cote-Rotie, 1999

Lot of pretty, promising depth on bouquet. The flavour mixes streamlined fruit with an earthy support. Full, but orderly fruit. Persistent. 15 years.

Guigal, La Mouline, Cote-Rotie, 1999 (cask)

Reserved, dense bouquet, great potential. Bigger scale Mouline than usual: lots of red fruit, some oak and fatness on the second half. Dense, big wine. 20 years.

Guigal, La Turque,

Cote-Rotie, 1999 (cask)

Lots of leather, kirsch on bouquet, pretty. Mixes cooked plums and smoked meats. Tasty. More tannic than usual. Ripe fruit finish. Great length. 23 years.

Guigal, La Landonne, Cote-Rotie, 1999 (cask)

Massive bouquet. Lot of black fruit on palate, quite a heated, chewy texture. One of most

powerful Landonnes ever. Big, needs lots of time. 28 years.

Domaine Bernard Chave, Crozes-Hermitage, 1999

Lovely, nicely brewed black fruits. Good matter in the middle. Suave tannins. A real singing wine, has great purity. 12 years.

Pochon, Chateau Curson, Crozes-Hermitage, 1999

Black fruit, smoky bouquet. Tightly packed flavour, fruit is clear-cut. Persists well, good

integration with oak. 14 years.

Paul Jaboulet Aine, La Chapelle, Hermitage, 1999

Brooding mass on bouquet: plum, mint, smoke. Stylish fullness on palate, cooked red fruits. Harmonious, smooth, lovely fruit all through. Delicious. 24 years.

Chave, Les Bessards, Hermitage, 1999 (cask, part of final wine)

Black fruits, beefy, good solid matter. Lot of deep black fruit on a very full palate. Quite a giant, shows power, evident tannins.

Chave, Le Meal, Hermitage 1999

(cask, part of final wine)

Aromatic, red fruit bouquet. Very clean-cut flavour. Juicy, tasty, great balance and persistence.

Viale, Domaine du Colombier, Hermitage 1999

Lovely dark fruit bouquet –

mulberry, resinous. Oily flavour, a soaking fruit texture, and

helpful touch of end acidity. Well founded, lot of depth. 17 years.

Desmeure, Cuvee Emilie, Hermitage, 1999

Good potential on bouquet. Crunch fruit, nice spice touches on palate. Oak noticeable on

finish. Broad flavour. 17 years.

Graillot, Hermitage, 1999

Red fruit on bouquet, still reserved. Delicious red fruits flavour on the attack. Fruit cut is pure and fresh. Stylish wine. 15–17 years.

Chapoutier, L’Hermite, Hermitage, 1999 (cask)

Bouquet has spice, raspberry and black fruit. Delicate raspberry fruit, smoky dryness on finish. Masses of potential. 24 years.

Chapoutier, Le Pavillon, Hermitage, 1999 (cask)

Varied bouquet: smoky bacon, leathery, black fruits. Blackberry jam, oak still strong. Balance. Long finish. 22+ years.

Delas, Sainte Epine, Saint-Joseph, 1999 (cask)

Oily, black fruit on bouquet. Intense, black extract on palate, tannins evident. 12 years.

Pierre & Jean Gonon, Saint-Joseph, 1999

Expressive bouquet, black fruits, touch of pepper. Tight-knit flavour: berries, fresh and live

texture. Good structure. Still upright. 12–14 years.

Perret, Les Grisieres, Saint-Joseph, 1999 (cask)

Rich, dark fruit bouquet. Has excellent, sappy fruit, black berries. Very good, silky texture. Lot of potential. 13 years.

Written by JOHN LIVINGSTONE LEARMONTH