- Thursday 1 August 2002
The 2000 vintage in the Rhône offers fantastic promise, provided you know which producers to make a beeline for. John Livingstone-LearmontH looks back at the vintage and recommends the top wines of the year
Rhône 2000 is one of those vintages where early press releases lead one to think the whole region has performed well: not true. Two variables exist. One is the growing north–south divide opened up by hotter summers and lower rainfall in the south. The other is how the growers handled yields.
Climate is an important word in this vintage. As one grower remarked: 'It's easy to forget how far away Côte-Rôtie is from Châteauneuf-du-Pape.' Certainly, weather played a larger role than usual, perhaps suppressing some terroir and sense of place aspects.
A sudden snap of frost at the end of March hit parts of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but the spring was generally dull and a little rainy. The Vacqueyras-Gigondas eastern axis of the Vaucluse enjoyed more heat and fine weather in June than areas nearer the river like Châteauneuf. Their wines have been very successful and, even given their relative extra class, contain more genuine density than the northerly villages like Valréas and Visan.
If there was a problem, it was a lack of rainfall. The south baked. August was hot, with just a couple of well-timed rainfalls. Such extreme heat came close to burning the grapes, and toughening their skins unduly. But growers reflect on a generally smooth run-up to harvest.
'We only destalked 60% against 90% when things are difficult; all very healthy,' comments Christian Berthet-Rayne. His red Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2000 is elegant and delightful, in its youth unusually fruity rather than spicy. His neighbours at Beaucastel saw no need to sort the crop at harvest time. So the south was generally spoilt.
On the southern Rhône right bank, growers were also happy. 'Our top year since we started at Domaine de la Mordorée in 1986,' says Fabrice Delorme. His white Lirac, La Reine des Bois is sumptuous, with fantastic balance, and red Liracs La Dame Rousse and La Reine des Bois both reflect ripe crop and a vibrant, big-scale extract.
Meanwhile, the northern Rhône's year was more rain influenced, both in quantity and in its timing. 'Not a special summer – until 10 August the weather was worthy of England,' is the wry comment from Yann Chave of the very good Domaine Bernard Chave at Crozes-Hermitage.
Vineyard vigilance was vital. Grey, dull weather with a lack of sun prevailed in June and July, and late July/ early August green harvesting carried two objectives: take out some rotten bunches and cut excess crop. A holiday taken then was to court trouble.
But the three weeks of 10–30 August were too hot, and grapes with a south/southwesterly exposure toughened up, their skins hardened and their acidity levels dropped. With rain in early and mid-September, alcoholic ripening got ahead of tannic ripening. Press the grapes like that and the colour would be pale, the tannins sharp.
Extra work in the cellar beckoned.
A good year for Hermitage. The quality is well spread across the small and large domaines. The issue, as elsewhere, was to restrict yields and avoid dilution. Mastery of tannins was also vital – getting them ripe. 'We cut back a lot of grapes in summer and harvested late – that saved us. You had to get on top of the tannins,' explains Gérard Chave, the maestro of Hermitage.
The Hermitage reds are savoury, full-tasting wines. Florent Viale of Domaine du Colombier uses the word 'sucrosity' about his, acknowledging the lower acidity in 2000 against 1999. The wines adapted well to wood and will be generous, and less long lived and complex than the 1999s.
The white Hermitages are a triumph, with the style playing to Marsanne's strengths of oily, fat textures. Succulent wines, these will live for over 20 years. The style continues into Cornas, where the tannins at even the most shy, overtly tannic domaines like Clape are en rondeur. These wines will run for 15 years or so. Harmony and tasty flavours prevail.
However, 2000 is perhaps indicative of growing pains at Côte-Rôtie. The vineyard has expanded fast, from under 100ha (hectares) in 1980 to 205ha in 2000. There has been a trend towards small parcel cuvées, often leaving a domaine's vin de base weakened. This policy can work in big years like 1999, but is shown up in years of lesser extract.
After the festivities of the wonderful but abnormal 1999, 2000 has delivered reality. It is quite clear that the crop size affected quality. Dropping grapes in early August was vital, but even then there was work to do. High-quality growers like Stéphane Ogier and Patrick Jasmin bled their crop by the saignée method rather than crush too firmly.
As a longer-term issue, the high crop effect is being aggravated by the use of over-productive clonal selection vines. This impact was revealed through a deliberate comparison made by the excellent, investigative Domaine Clusel-Roch.
It cut back the yields from its clone vines to 40 hl/ha. This wine in 2000 is light, easy and forward in style. It also made a 2000 Côte-Rôtie from home-grafted massale selection vines (taken from the best old-vine wood stock to be found in its vineyard) on the same plot called Viaillère, an excellent location. This contained more matter, the bouquet was less sharp and piercing and overall was deeper. Its fruit lasted longer on the palate, too. Analysis showed that the acidity level in the massale wine was higher, and its tannin structure superior.
Some 2000 Côte-Rôties are delicate and gentle, with refined tannins: they may live six to seven years. There are cases where the wine has gained structure between eight and 15 months old, so there is hope. I have found this with both Patrick Jasmin and Gilles Barge's wines, for instance. '2000 has a lot of aromatic finesse,' observes Gilles Barge. 'It is more peppered than 1999 and over the winter of 2001/2 has grown in matter and tightened.'
There are other wines that skip a beat in the mid-palate: lacking true core. There are a few that are going to live, say, 15 years, and whose fruit and integrity of extract merits attention, but these are a minority. Neighbour Condrieu had a good year: wines such as the Vernay Chaillets d'Enfer are classy and expansive, with a flamboyant finish, the Coteau de Vernon a more complex, profound wine – both excellent.
At St-Joseph the rounded style continues at leading domaines like Bernard Gripa and Jean-Louis Chave; their reds are tasty and show immediate fruit and charm. Drink now, or let them add smokiness over the next four to five years. Tannins lie in quiet support, but the texture is appealing. The whites, as with St-Péray, can be wonderful – fat, generous and likely to age well. The year has been good, but not startling at Crozes-Hermitage. Many cuvées are soft and easy – fine for early drinking.
A good term for many Châteauneuf-du-Papes is 'delicious'. The wines are spherical, will age well and have a central warmth. Domaines like Pierre Usseglio, Marcoux, Berthet-Rayne and Château Mont-Redon reflect this. They should run for 12 years or so. Others are marked by great fullness and a heady extract. '2000 is the most powerful wine I've made since 1991,' says Christophe Sabon of Domaine de la Janasse. 'The matter in the wine, the flesh, is so intense and more structured than 1998, for instance.' Some of his big-scale wines took up to 18 months to finish their secondary fermentations – that was the one issue in his cellar.
Gigondas' growers are pleased. The fruit is fresh and clear cut, and is more easy and supple than the 1999s or 1998s. Tannins are present, but not intrusive. A lot will be drinking well around 2005– 2008. The special cuvée wines will live for around 12–14 years. At Vacqueyras the fruit is also lively and nicely spiced: true to the terroir. The tannins are richer on the 1998s and 1999s, and growers see 2000 as a medium-distance vintage – 10-year wines.
The result in the heartlands of Cairanne and Rasteau was good: full, broad-tasting reds, and rich whites. There is not as much depth in the wines from cooler villages where ripening takes longer – places like St Maurice and Vinsobres further to the north.
The Tavel rosés in 2000 contained an appealing squeeze of plump fruit, while the red Liracs were quite chunky and were sometimes a touch forceful. Overly apparent alcohol is sometimes an issue in the reds from villages in the Gard département.