A round up of the 2017 vintage in the Southern Rhône, including Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and Rasteau...
Southern Rhône 2017
A hot, very dry year has resulted in a very good to excellent vintage of powerful, structured red wines, though sometimes overripe or with leathery tannins. Whites tend towards richness over freshness.
Scroll down to see Matt’s tasting notes and scores
When I asked Pascal Lafond at Domaine Lafond Roc-Epine in Lirac what the key factors in shaping the 2017 vintage in the Southern Rhône were, there was no hesitation: ‘The dryness,’ he said, ‘and coulure in the Grenache.’ Both affected yields, which are sharply down in 2017, but they also impacted the style of the wines.
The coulure (the failure of fruit to form after flowering) was caused by a sudden snap of cold, wet weather in April and early May, after an early start to the season following a warm February.
One result is that some winemakers have had to recalibrate their blends to include higher proportions of other grape varieties. Another consequence is that certain producers, such as Domaine La Collière in Rasteau and Clos du Mont-Olivet in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, didn’t manage to make as many different cuvées as usual, meaning top quality fruit destined for prestige cuvées has ended up supercharging their classic blends.
‘Of the various Southern Rhône crus, the best wines (and some of the worst) were made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape’
The summer was marginally warmer than usual, and the grapes ripened quickly in healthy conditions. Spring saw less rain than usual, and the summer was exceptionally dry. Thankfully, there was little water stress since crops were so light.
It was an early start to the harvest, with fine weather throughout September allowing producers to pick each parcel at optimum maturity. Anaïs Vallot of biodynamic Domaine Vallot in Vinsobres said ‘the quality was absolutely great, nothing rotten, a really healthy vintage.’
Conditions were also beneficial for lignified, woody stems which, when used judiciously, have really added complexity, texture and lift to the wines.
Winemakers brought in small bunches with tiny grapes – thick skins, making for plentiful tannins and phenolic compounds, but little juice. Fred Férigoule at Domaine Le Sang de Cailloux in Vacqueyras refers to it as ‘a bonsai vintage’. Good news if you’re making tannic reds, less welcome if you’re aiming for juicy whites.
Quick link: See all Rhône 2017 tasting notes & scores
The wines are similar in style to the 2015 vintage, but less homogenous in quality and a little less sunny – less obvious alcohol, darker fruit and firmer tannins.
2017 doesn’t have the effortless balance and joie de vivre of the 2016s, but will be enjoyed by those looking for structured, tannic, ageworthy wines.
Of the various Southern Rhône crus, the best wines (and some of the worst) were made in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Rasteau has outdone itself and produced some fabulous wines this year, while Lirac benefitted from its natural freshness, as did Gigondas and Vinsobres.
Yields may be low in the south this year, but Rhône lovers take note – they will be lower still in 2018.
Read Matt’s individual commune reports and top buys below
Matt’s top Southern Rhône 2017 wines:
The Grenache may have taken a hammering this year, but Mourvèdre, when grown on water-retaining soils, performed well.
In 2017, Vincent Avril at Clos des Papes lost 40% of his crop due to hail, coulure and drought, yielding just 15hl/ha. He made up for the lack of Grenache with extra Mourvèdre, and the result is a deeper, darker, long-lived vintage.
This is also a vintage for old vines with deep roots – the ancient Grenaches of Domaine Le Cailloux’s Le Centenaire have yielded a phenomenal wine.
It’s a very ripe, robust vintage that can tip over into overripeness, high alcohol and tough tannins – especially where winemakers have been tempted to extract too enthusiastically.
Finding balance and drinkability isn’t as easy compared to the previous vintage, especially among the Tradition bottlings. The best wines are among the Cuvées Spéciales, where you can find exceptional, cellar-worthy Châteauneufs in all their pomp and glory.
White Châteauneuf performed surprisingly well considering the style of the vintage. Naturally opulent this year, the most successful have dialled down the sweet, silky oak and focused on building tension through acidity, subtle bitterness or a mineral dimension – some to impressive effect.
It’s a solid showing by many of the best estates of Vacqueyras this year, with some imposing, concentrated wines on the one hand, and medium-bodied, juicy expressions on the other. But it’s not a year to buy blind. Many less successful wines had harsh tannins due to the drought.
Gigondas performed more consistently. It’s a forceful year, with many wines showing assertive tannins, acidity, and fruit – which can all be a bit too much if not managed with a light touch. They sometimes lack the charisma of the stellar 2016 vintage, but there are many lovely 2017s to choose from. Céline Chauvet at Domaine du Grapillon d’Or compares 2017 to the 2015 vintage.
Beaumes de Venise is as up and down as ever, but if you’re looking for imposing reds with robust structures that will age with interest, there are some great value choices here.
The 2017 vintage was particularly successful in Rasteau, which has produced a clutch of juicy, pure and intense wines, some for drinking now and some that will blossom in a few years time. No doubt the water-retaining clay and marl soils helped the wines retain their sense of juiciness and soft yet generous tannins. Don’t miss out.
The Cairannes don’t hit the mark quite so regularly, occasionally showing overripeness and drying tannins, but the best have a winning combination of freshness, vibrancy and intensity of fruit. The wines of Domaine Alary, both whites and reds, are particularly fine this year.
Vinsobres’ yields weren’t hit as hard as its neighbours, and it’s another high-quality vintage. Its northern location and high-altitude vineyards have helped it to tackle the climatic excesses of the year and produce a number of imposing and attention-grabbing but refreshing wines.
It was a remarkably reliable year for the west bank crus, with Lirac making impressive wines in all three colours. The reds were particularly successful, with none of the gruff tannins that affected all the appellations of the east bank to some extent, and very little overripeness. They are neat, precise and highly drinkable, if generally lacking the complexity and longevity of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
For elegant, medium-bodied whites, Lirac is the go-to southern appellation in 2017.
For rosé, naturally Tavel is where to look, with a handful of strong, confident, vivid pink wines that really make an impression. It’s a unique style that remains cruelly out in the cold due the wine’s unfashionably deep tint. But if you’re more into flavour and texture than colour, you won’t be disappointed.