Holy trinity

  • Sunday 1 July 2001

The Rhône Valley's last three vintages have produced wines to rival the best in the world, writes TIM GRANGE

The Rhône Valley's last three vintages have produced wines to rival the best in the world, writes TIM GRANGE

Given that the Rhône has long been considered the natural recourse for buyers in search of high-quality wine at sensible prices, the prospect of increased competition from the New World is a cause for concern to such Rhône luminaries as Jean-Luc Colombo: 'We are losing civilisation and vulgarising wine,' was his lament. 'A US winemaker doesn't think about gastronomy, but I only sell my wines to people who like food – and wine.'

Colombo predicts that the French wine industry will be decimated by the sheer volume and marketing brawn of Californian competition by the time his grandchildren inherit the estate. Yet nature has blessed the Rhône with a trio of outstanding harvests in 1998, 1999 and 2000. 'These are the best three vintages in a row that I can remember' says Jason Yapp of Yapp Brothers, specialists in Rhône wines. The reputation of these three vintages goes before them. Anyone who has kept remotely abreast of developments in the Rhône will have heard great things of the 1998 vintage. Those who have delved deeper will have noted that 1999 delivered utterly seductive wines, which with few exceptions are as fine as the 1998s. And on a trip to the Rhône at the end of 2000, I did not meet one winemaker who did not think that this vintage was at the very least excellent. The temptation is to compare these vintages to those a decade ago: 1988, 1989 and 1990. But the chances are that they will be better. This is because a more widespread knowledge of winemaking techniques, along with a new crop of young, exciting winemaking talent has brought out the best in these exceptional climatic conditions.

1998

In the southern Rhône the vintage was the best since 1990. Grenache seemed particularly well favoured. In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Jean-Paul Versino (also bottling under the name Domaine Bois de Boursan) elected to make a special Cuvée Félix from very low yields (20hl/ha) of Grenache (70%), Mourvèdre (20%) and Syrah. The wine spends a year in 2–3-year-old barriques and then has 20–30% of the standard cuvée blended in for balance. The 1998 has a wonderful aromatic nose, with an exeptionally balanced palate of sour cherries emerging from a background of red fruit. It wore its alcohol lightly – indeed 'the trick in Châteauneuf,' Versino says, 'is to mask the alcohol and keep a watch on yields.' His 1998 Cuvée Félix is a feminine wine, contrasting with the angular and sometimes brutal proportions of some Châteauneuf. Likewise in Gigondas, Louis Barruol at Château de Saint-Cosme felt the harvest worthy of two cuvées: his top estate wine, Valbelle, is the product of old vines and is composed of 70% Grenache and 30% Syrah, fermented and macerated together. Half then went into new oak, half into one-year-old oak. The 1998 Valbelle is truly massive, with a huge nose mixing toffee, tannin and a faint hint of cola sweetness and spice. Tannin follows on to the palate, underpinned by intensely ripe fruit, and on to the finish, yet the wine retains proportion and great depth. In the north, vignerons were equally ecstatic about the quality of the vintage. But yields were down in some areas due to frost. The brothers Courbis at Domaine Courbis in Châteaubourg made outstanding cuvées of Cornas in 1998.

Their 'Champelrose' (a lower slope blend) had an aromatic nose with hints of cassis, and the palate displayed an impressive balance of red and black fruits, tannin and structure. Their higher slope blend – 'La Sabarotte' – is made from 50-year-old vines from the old Delas estate. On the nose it displays the spice and sweetness of new oak, underpinned by red fruits. The palate is tightly wound around a compact tannic structure, and displays both finesse and concentration, but gives little away. At the moment the Champelrose is preferable but La Sabarotte is probably the one to follow. Domaine Jean-Louis Chave produces legendary red and white Hermitage, and some red Saint-Joseph. Six different wines go into the final blend for the red Chave Hermitage, the wines that don't make the grade being sold off in bulk or otherwise. The white is made primarily from Marsanne, with 15% Roussanne blended in. 'Even if the acidity is quite low, the glycerine keeps this wine going,' says Gérard Chave. The wine is unyielding on the nose, with a massive structure and a long finish. The red is extraordinary, with a shimmering 'washing-up liquid' note on the nose, coupled with a huge structure of unripe red fruit and an endless finish.

1999

The second of our three fine vintages seems to have been characterised by high quality and quantity – if that is possible. Generally a vintage that promises less longevity for southern Rhône appellations than 1998, 1999 nevertheless delivered delicious wines with supple tannins. As well as his château wines, Louis Barruol produces several wines in a négociant capacity. His 1999 Saint-Cosme Côtes du Rhône 'Les Deux Albions' is a prestige cuvée of Côtes du Rhône, made with differently sourced grapes from the regular blend. 'Why make this wine?', Barruol asks rhetorically. 'Because there are excellent grapes available.' The blend is 50% Syrah, 40% Grenache and, interestingly, 10% Clairette. The grapes are sourced mainly from Cairanne, with a little Rasteau, fermented together and macerated for 40 days 'just like my Gigondas'. This is a step up from the regular Côtes du Rhône, though the tannins were similarly forbidding and carried a characteristic 'urinic' odour. A profound wine. Châteauneuf-du-Pape white is often a labour of love – and Barruol made his last vintage for a while in that appellation: 'It doesn't sell well and it's not exactly what I want to make – I want something fresher and more complex.' The 1999 is 100% Grenache Blanc: 'You can't buy Roussanne in Châteauneuf: people keep it for themselves.' The notes of wax and of alcohol hint at the 13.8% alcohol the wine carries. On the palate it is big in every direction: full of voluptuous, rich white peach and apricot notes. Louis shakes his head ruefully: 'I love to drink this, but it's unsaleable.' In the north, 1999 proved more varied than the universal quality of the previous year. Nevertheless outstanding wines were made in every appellation. At Domaine Courbis barrel samples from the 1999 vintage hinted at fine quality. The basic Saint-Joseph red blend from 1999 had a spicy nose of ripe red fruit. Their Saint-Joseph cuvée 'Les Royes' is made from vines with an average age of 20 years, and in this very productive vintage the brothers managed to achieve a yield of 40hl/ha. Tasted from barrique, it shows a considerable tannic structure, with ripe redcurrants lurking beneath. The 1999 Cornas 'Champelrose' is, as expected, again rather tannic but with a golden syrup edge to the nose. On the palate there are few contours yet showing themselves. The 1999 'La Sabarotte' again displays ample redcurrants on the nose, but in contrast to the other wines shows a very tight, structured harmony on the palate. Spirited concentration of tannin and fruit hardly displays any trace of new oak, and the finish picks up a note of pepper. René Rostaing is making very fine wines in Côte Rôtie – in the guise both of his Cuvée Classique and more exalted offerings. He offered us a barrel sample from the 1999 Cuvée Classique. Rostaing admitted he was getting such potential from the vineyard that year that from early on he had to notify the authorities that he was on track to get 14% alcohol (technically too much for Côte Rôtie). He was allowed to make the wine and the result is a bruiser. The nose is very intense, and I noted a hint of 'old engine oil' – but no noticeably separate alcohol element. The palate is loaded with a superabundance of ripe fruit, and lip-smacking young tannins.

2000

The vintage report from Paul Jaboulet Aîné notes that the first quarter of 2000 was abnormally dry, while from April to June, only the drying action of the Mistral offset the risk of rot following some wet weather. July was exceptionally wet, and August hot and dry – which interfered with the smooth ripening of the crop. September was fine and predominantly dry, and delivered a harvest of great quality for both reds and whites.

Jean-Paul Versino advises: '2000 will be very good, but you needed to know how to select.' Perhaps because of the rain that came towards the end of the vintage once most of the grapes had been harvested. Louis Barruol in Gigondas tasted with us some inky barrel samples from the Saint-Cosme property's 2000 vintage, made up of 80% Grenache, 20% Syrah. Only the most preliminary of impressions are to be had of this infant's potential, but blackberries on the nose follow on to the palate, supported by some noticeably grainy tannins. Even now the wine displays impressive length. Barruol is very excited about his 2000 Roussanne, so much so that he is tempted to make it into a special cuvée white Côtes du Rhône, but he knows that the market can't really justify that kind of move. He is also sure that his 2000 Condrieu will be superb. Nature has helped the Rhône deliver an initial response to its New World rivals. There will indeed be plenty of drinkable wine flowing from the new vineyards in California and Australia. But with commitment to quality and the phasing out of carbonic maceration, a crop of talented young winemakers can help fashion a true Rhône renaissance where, instead of indigenous grapes being exported, the terroirs of the northern Rhône can be consolidated, and new terroirs in the south discovered.

In 1998, 1999 and 2000 high-quality vinification married with excellent weather conditions to produce wines of a truly unprecedented stature, across the board. The task now is to maintain this momentum into the new century.

Recommended wines

1998

Gigondas, Domaine du Cayron £11.95

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Vieux Mas des Papes £11.40

Cornas, Domaine S&J Leménicier £14.70

Hermitage Blanc, Jean-Louis Chave £52.75

1999

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Le Vieux Donjon £17.25

Crozes-Hermitage, Alain Graillot £11.95

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Blanc £14.95

2000

Gigondas, Château de Saint-Cosme Dec

Condrieu, Saint-

Cosme Dec

Côtes du Rhône

Saint-Cosme 'Les Deux Albions' Dec

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