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Vintage report: Northern Rhone 2009

An excellent crop of generous and ageworthy reds and rich whites

2009 is a sweet shop vintage for the Northern Rhône. It offers a tingle of anticipation and an abundance of choice.

If there is one wine that exemplifies the vintage, it is Marc Sorrel’s Le Gréal, Hermitage red (see panel, right), truly a feast sent to us by some higher force. Its rampant generosity and depth of flavour bring to mind the legendary 1979 made by Marc’s father Henri, as well as many of the most glorious Hermitages of the classic 1990 vintage.

The quality has been widely spread, so there is plenty for everyone. The most striking feature is the flamboyance of the wines, but their control is also impressive – the elements are in unison, providing a concerted balance that will present enjoyable drinking throughout their lives.

Comparisons with 1990 emanate from producers around the Hermitage area. ‘It is excellent – 2009 is like 1990, with a full crop and excellent quality,’ said Jacques Grange of Delas.

Meanwhile at Hermitage, Bernard Faurie, renowned for his caution, said: ‘The grapes were magnificent, the late weather impeccable.’ Similarities are also found with 1999, notably at Côte-Rôtie, where generous yields often hover near 40 hectolitres per hectare – high for a hillside vineyard.

The year got off to an excellent start thanks to the boon of winter rains. They allowed the vineyards to overcome much of the challenges later posed by the lack of summer rain.

As an organic hillside vigneron, Jean-Michel Stéphan at Côte-Rôtie is more weather-dependent than interventionist growers. For him, the pattern of summer rain – a bit here and there – was very helpful: ‘There was no drought problem. We had a storm in July, but only 20mm – it was a moderate year in that way – then we had around 30mm in mid-September.’

Throughout the summer, growers were happy with the evolution of the grapes’ ripening, so this can be classed as a happy year as well; one free from stress.

Christophe Billon at Côte-Rôtie was heartily pleased: ‘I had a big smile in 2009. It is a magnificent year after two difficult ones – a lot of hail in 2007 and, in 2008, a lack of concentration.’

Both hillside and flat vineyards performed well in 2009, although some young Syrah vines suffered from the heat at Crozes-Hermitage.

Philippe Guigal was active in this area: ‘We bought a lot of red Crozes this year, more than usual. The wines are abundant in style, even from the northern zone villages. I compare it to 1999.’

Doyen of Crozes, Alain Graillot, was purring: ‘The Syrah is magnificent, ripe, free of any rot, with good, ripe yellow stems. It is not a misery.’

The style of the wines is solar – they are rich, full and giving, and the only proviso is one of low acidity levels. ‘Acidity and freshness, and the quality of the tannins were my two concerns whenworking with 2009. I was very careful on my extractions,’ said Max Graillot of Domaine de Lises at Crozes-Hermitage.

2009 is also a vintage when the wines of organic and biodynamic growers should be explored. Soil and plant quality were vital contributors to 2009, as the accomplished biodynamic grower at St-Joseph, Jean-Pierre Monier, observed: ‘2009 is quite stunning in effect – the wines are open. It is very round and supple.

Like 2003, we had to deal with low acidities. But our vineyard, with deep roots, stood up well.’

Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage

Some Côte-Rôtie 2009s are capable of greater interest and complexity than the 1999s which, at 10 years of age, are still sunny and ample but lack the subtle nuances of shadier years such as 2007.

The strongly schisty northern sector of the vineyard has impressed with purity, cut and also a floating clarity in its site-specific wines – note La Viallière, Les Grandes Places and Les Rochains (see panel, right) – all noble vineyards with vines dating back to the 1930s, and little Viognier present.

Côte-Rôties will please drinkers. The wines are copious rather than mysterious. They have always been good to taste, even straightaway in the vats.

Tannins are ripe and well integrated. The southern sector of Côte-Rôtie, usually with fine, scented wines, is fatter than usual, the wines open and gushing.

Hermitage 2009 can be grandiose. Here, cask raising of a year or more has served the wines well. They are punchy, effortlessly rich and offer immediate impact.

A note of caution: the low acidity levels, though one cannot argue with the words of Jacques Grange at Delas: ‘Our Hermitage is sumptuous, explodes with fruit, has great colour.’

The aforementioned Le Gréal of Sorrel exceeds 14% alcohol, but I find it more silken than the 1999, and accompanying the intensity are both finesse and elegance.

The different climats or sites of JL Chave bode very well, while Chapoutier has performed extremely well, the leaders being his wines from the westerly sites of Les Bessards and Le Méal.

Cornas, St-Joseph & Crozes

Cornas is on exuberant form in 2009, with the modern-style wines well capable of handling young oak. The fruit for all Cornas is ample, the richness sustained; there is a muscular abundance that fits with its signature, in contrast to the more sophisticated Hermitage.

Choose from the finesse of the Balthazar fruit with its local mineral manner, the rocking engagement of fruit from the brothers Durand, or the deep-set potential of the Vieilles Vignes from Alain Voge.

Sun wins over terroir for now, with many wines around 14% alcohol.
Striking wines have been made at St-Joseph. Pascal Jamet, whose wines continue to improve, commented: ‘The 2009s are sumptuous – even my red Vin de Pays. They tasted well straight away, and are very uniform – you see the link with the vintage.’

The Coursodon family, pillars of the appellation for three generations at Mauves, have really hit the jackpot in 2009, with an excellent stable of reds.

Jérome Coursodon’s view is that ‘2009 is super in quantity and quality; there is super potential. The wines have the structure of 2005 and the amiability of 2000 and 2007 combined’. St-Josephs will be drunk early and very successfully, as people latch on to their food-friendly features – ideal for bistros and grills.

At Crozes-Hermitage, the granite hillside northern sector (the smaller part of the appellation) has been a particular success. Domaine Belle at Larnage, behind the hill of Hermitage, is flying along, and has made two exceptional terroir wines in the shape of Roche Pierre and Louis Belle, while old Syrah at Domaine Rousset has performed extremely well on the terraced site of Les Picaudières.

The flatter southern vineyards have delivered generous wines that are often scented and easy to drink; their fleshy nature leans at times towards liqueur influences, and I prefer the structure of the northern sector.

Vin de Pays, CdR & whites

At the Vin de Pays and Côtes du Rhône level, 2009 is a year to buy. These wines are often made from mature Syrah vineyards on the plateau or just outside a hillside appellation, with experienced vignerons guiding them. In 2009, they outperform their modest title.

Among the 2009 whites, the surprise package is Crozes-Hermitage. These can be light and rather dull, but in 2009 they deliver a saucy front of pleasure – an ample depth – that makes them great with a wide variety of foods.

The excellence of the Marsanne, supported by the Roussanne, is also apparent at Hermitage, where the whites ease along with unctuous, layered appeal.

St-Péray, the quality of whose granite vineyard is underestimated, showed up well in 2009, the terroir explaining its superiority over the 2009 St-Joseph whites which are made from many different soils and exposures.

A supreme richness lies at the heart of the St-Pérays, whereas the St-Joseph whites can be overblown – too big for their own good, and lacking simple drinkability.

Condrieu 2009s are similar to St-Joseph – forceful, with heat, power and oak all present. There are very few crystalline, truly inviting, aperitif wines. 2009 is the ultimate food vintage for Condrieu – flavours are needed to step in with the scale of the wines.

2009 is a triumph for Syrah, and will no doubt encourage more growers to cultivate this popular variety. The Northern Rhône is the Syrah mother ship, and I recommend drinkers to wholeheartedly embrace these wines.

Drink the St-Josephs and the simple Crozes within five to eight years, and as for the top Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage – rendezvous still a good idea after 2025.

Written by John Livingstone-Learmonth

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