This is an excellent vintage and is deserving of its early tag as one to match the best years of the 20th Century in the Northern Rhône, says John Livingstone-Learmonth. Read his full vintage report below, including a summary of each appellation.
‘Northern Rhône 2015 is surely the vintage of a lifetime.’ – Marcel Guigal
The snapping jaws of social media bring frenetic judgement to new vintages these days, with the risk of superficial conclusions.
However, the hullabaloo surrounding 2015 in the Northern Rhône is justified. This is an excellent vintage on every level: the grandiose vineyards have produced grandiose wines, while the lesser terrains have supplied very good wines.
The first salvo on the vintage came in October 2015, when Marcel Guigal, unprompted, launched into a eulogy on the year. ‘2015 is on the level of 1929, 1947, 1961,’ he announced.
‘It is surely the vintage of a lifetime. In 55 years, I’ve never seen anything like it.’
From my point of view, 2015 was the only vintage since I started in 1973 that tasted so well, so forwardly, at such a young stage. The relief is that yields were almost full, which serves as something of a release valve on prices. However, with many of these wines issued in lots of less than 10,000 bottles, scarcity will drive prices higher.
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Timing was all in 2015: sunshine when required, rainfall when required, windy days when required. The northern Rhône was actually hotter than the southern Rhône in mid-July for two to three weeks, with temperatures rising to 39°C at Côte-Rôtie.
Some cool August nights contributed to freshness in the wines. At harvest time, barely one bunch was thrown away anywhere.
It is an immense year at Côte-Rôtie, which doesn’t mean that the wines speak clearly of their terroir – yet. The richness is so intense, and the tannins so embedded that there is plenty of camouflage wrapped around the heart of the wines. However, the top spots do speak of their origins – Côte Blonde, Côte Brune, Côte Rozier or Les Grandes Places, for instance.
Balance is excellent, freshness is present and there is great length. Alcohol levels are higher than usual – 13.5% to 14.5%.
Bernard Levet commented: ‘There is a lot of typicity, with richness as well. Concentration was tempered by the large crop.’ Christophe Billon added: ‘2015 is a hot and balanced vintage, the tannins quite silken and more tender than in 2013.’
A year of heat, even with well-timed rain and cool August nights, is one that robs the Viognier of its tinkle of freshness, its entrancing dance of lightness. As a result, the Condrieus in 2015 are generally robust, solid wines, with packed-in content and, at times, heady alcohols. That sets them up well for spiced Asian or classic butter-based French cuisine. The contrast with the purity of 2014 is marked, the latter a better-balanced vintage.
There are some very good St-Josephs this year, but a minor and annoying theme is excess extraction and overly scaled wines, with the northern sector around Chavanay sometimes guilty of that charge. The wines from Mauves and Tournon are full and graceful, bearing red fruits, effortless richness and well-blended tannins, whereas the northern wines are terrestrial and grounded, carrying dark fruits and, for now, prominent tannins.
With the wines starting to tighten in autumn 2016, the best policy is to leave many of these Syrahs until 2019, when extra complexity will emerge. Notable wines include Pierre Amadieu’s Les Capelets, Delas’ St-Epine, Pascal Jamet’s Les Traverses, Maison Ogier’s Baligant and Les Vins de Vienne’s L’Arzelle.
The whites are full of sunshine and overt richness, and require drinking with food. The Roussanne grape performed particularly well.
Hermitage reds set the pulses running in 2015; it is a mighty vintage here. There is the classicism of the hill in the wines: the ability to issue supreme richness and textured depth with extreme length and winning finesse.
Le Méal, the south-facing, sun-hungry slope, resembles its role in 1961 and 1990 when it gave the heart and inspiration to those two sunswept vintages. It is king this year, with the granite tension of Le Bessards reduced in favour of ripeness and low-level crunch.
All the climats across the appellation have performed well, with Diognières in great form – such as the wines named Les Dionnières from both Fayolle families. Ferraton’s Les Miaux, 85% from Diognières, was also extremely accurate in its terroir expression, while Cave de Tain’s Epsilon (largely Bessards and Méal) was bounteous.
As Jean-Louis Chave put it: ‘2015 is a bit like 1990, when everything was good.’ The Hermitage whites this year are complete, large, full of glycerol, and deserve initial patience, then a large glass.
‘Fun, fun, fun’, sang The Beach Boys – and that rings true for Crozes-Hermitage in 2015. The fruit rushes left and right, hither and thither, the wines are open, generous, and light up the glass.
From attack to finish they course with abundance.
Names that have performed well beyond those highlighted in my recommendations include Domaine Melody’s Etoile Noire, Natacha Chave’s Aléofane, Domaine Pradelle’s Les Hirondelles, and in the juiced ‘call for more’ category, Cave de Clairmont’s Classique, Domaine Belle’s Les Pierrelles, Domaine de Chasselvin’s Les Lièvres and Domaine Mucyn’s Les Entrecoeurs.
It’s also a wonderful vintage for white Crozes-Hermitage, with an impressive number of wines expressing their terroir.
Rainfalls in early June and mid-August were perfectly timed here. Stéphane Robert of Domaine du Tunnel reported: ‘The 2015 could be superior to 2010; all the plots in 2015 were good, be they at the foot of the slopes or high up – they all really delivered.’
With richness high on the agenda, the usual Cornas mineral snap sits in the background, and there is a southern leaning to the wines – very ripe, almost prune fruit. The tannins are fresh, however, and the fruit does have style.
Three that captured the sense of place well were those from Jacques Lemenicier and Maison Nicolas Perrin, and Dumien-Serrette’s Patou.
The reviving appellation of St-Péray provided rich, substantial wines, some blessed with welcome elegance. Yves Cuilleron made a stylish Les Potiers and a tangy, fresh Lieu-Dit Biousse. Jacques Lemenicier’s elegant Cuvée Traditionelle and Alain Voge’s concerted, serious Fleur de Crussol both showed well.
John Livingstone-Learmonth is Decanter World Wine Awards regional chair for Rhône, the author of four books on the region and publisher of www.drinkrhone.com