2005 isn’t just about Bordeaux and Burgundy – the Rhône has yielded some truly magnificent wines, says JOHN LIVINGSTONE-LEARMONTH.
Rhône 2005 is a vintage of such bounty that I would unhesitatingly name it is as my one allowed luxury were I to be stranded on a desert island. Rhône 2005 works well on every level – pleasure in the tone of the fruit, the freshness of the flavours, and the ability to please now or later, such is its balance. Rhône 2005 is also very democratic, with the lesser areas offering style, flair and harmony in the drinking.
The Northern Rhône reds are abundantly appealing, with only one or two doubts about a few Côte-Rôties to challenge a very bright picture. This is a benchmark vintage for Syrah in its home territory, and should be compulsory study for any New World grower wishing to branch out into Shiraz. The wines possess tremendous grip – a word that summarises the binding in the wine: the firm, clear fruit core with its overlay of smooth, black fruit – and pepper-sprinkled tannin. In years of less balance, the fruit can be soft and juicy, without a steadying context, or the tannins can be dry, too stretched, too austere. Here there is the perfect ensemble. For vintages of similar stature, one has to delve back to 1978 – the seventh Rhône vintage that I experienced at first hand. 2001, 1999, 1990, 1989 and 1985 form a group of excellent vintages, with 1998, 1995, 1988, 1983 and 1982 as a band of very good years. But out on their own come 2005, 1978 and, of course, the legendary 1961. Ensemble is the key word. 1990 was a mighty, sun-filled year – a delight for gourmands, but it didn’t so precisely reflect the terroir as 2005; 1999 was pretty similar. 1978 had that ensemble – with more evident tannins when young, since growers knew less about the ripening of polyphenols in those days, and wholebunch fermentation was the norm.
Led by mighty wines from Hermitage and Cornas, the top red 2005s will live extremely well thanks to their balance and sound acidity. Only those growers who were too blinkered and too attached to their cellar toys will deceive – these extracted wines will fade earlier. Warning: there should not be grilled, oaked flavours this year. There should be layers of cool, harmonious fruit, a quietly ticking richness and, at the very most, some oak backdrop. A few wines do not possess as much fullness or grandeur as one might expect from the preceding comments. Jean Gonon, the leading light at St-Joseph, pointed out that the grapes headed into September with high sugar contents, but that a week of wet, stormy weather from 4 September set them back, until relieved by a north wind and fine weather through to the harvest.
At Côte-Rôtie, the classic cuvées lag behind the wines from the best named sites – the latter led by Les Grandes Places (three excellent wines from Clusel-Roch, JM Gérin and Domaine du Monteillet), La Garde, La Mouline and La Landonne. 2004 was a famous white vintage in Northern Rhône. The fruit and the aromas were present in rich supply. Rhône 2005 is more demanding, more powerful, and a little less savoury. More muscle, more evident alcohol, and firmer textures mark the 2005 whites against the 2004s. The Viognier at Condrieu performed a little better than the Marsanne-Roussanne combination elsewhere. Southern Rhône 2005 was more complicated in Southern Rhône than the North. There was a repeat of a now quite regular feature: two-speed ripening, with the sugars developing, while the polyphenols or skins and stalks suffered a blockage in their evolution. ‘At Gigondas, it was a year for vines growing in clay, not sand,’ says Pierre Amadieu, of the fast improving Domaine Pierre Amadieu; ‘they needed those extra water reserves.’ The risk was that some wines suffered from rather raw tannins, especially if the grower had extracted too hard and too hastily during fermentation.
Top sites, with the best exposures and often the oldest vines, did particularly well at Châteauneuf-du-Pape. For once, prestige wines – usually drawn from 70-year-plus Grenache harvested at low yields – have really performed, with distance between these and the regular cuvées. Domaines such as Mordorée (La Reine des Bois and La Plume du Peintre), Château La Gardine (Cuvée des Génerations), Beaurenard (Boisrenard), Olivier Hillaire (Les Petits Pieds d’Armand), Chante Cigale (Vieilles Vignes), Roger Sabon (Prestige, Secrets de Sabon) and Château de Vaudieu (Val de Dieu) all indicate success giving fantastic value for money. The year in Châteauneuf can be rated as very good to excellent, with the fruit sharpened up by some sound acidity. There is usually enough matter to handle elevated alcohol levels – often over 15%. It is a less obvious, tighter-knit vintage than 1990, and its tannins are more rounded than in 1989. I wouldn’t put it quite in the mighty, wonderfully balanced 1978 league, but it is one of the top four years since then, maybe in company with 1981, 1998 and 2001. Elsewhere in the southern Rhône, Gigondas did very well. The fruit is generally clear cut and persistent, with plenty of rich content in the leading wines – up a marked grade from 2004. Tannins are ripe, sometimes punchy but always lending solid support. It is certainly the best vintage, with the best prospects of long life, of the past 10 years: more balance than the rather wild 1998, and more stuffing than the also fresh and accomplished 2001.
The Vacqueyras and Lirac reds are both full wines, in a similar vein to their neighbours. The clearly defined fruit theme continues, underpinned by good, constructive tannins. Vacqueyras should provide broader quality across many domaines in 2005, when it also needs to make the leap beyond its inner circle of half-a-dozen core names. As debutants on the full appellation stage, Vinsobres and Beaumes-de-Venise are lucky to have 2005 to kick them off. Vinsobres in particular has delivered fine quality and displays just how well the Syrah does there. The Syrah in these northern reaches of the Southern Rhone area is some of the best in the region, and also underpinned very good wines at the village of Rousset-les-Vignes, near Nyons. Beaumes-de-Venise produced a good, chunky vintage – the only proviso that high alcohol can sometimes be apparent. Côtes du Rhône Villages reds are excellent from the best domaines, a confident tick in the box alongside the leading names from Cairanne, Rasteau, Visan, Sablet and Séguret. The newly elevated villages of Signargues, Massif d’Uchaux and Plan de Dieu have also done well in the hands of quality domaines such as Haut Musiel and Valériane in the first-named, plus Cros de la Mûre and Vieux Chêne.
A final word on the white wines: here the dark horses are the Côtes du Rhônes and some of the village whites, such as Cairanne. They have great flavours, lots of richness and do not show the high alcohol levels that mark the big name wines such as Châteauneuf, that thus rendered the latter rather tense. These overlooked whites are great value for money, and will show well over four to nine years.