Decanter’s Wine Investment Guide Part 3 – Rhone

(back to Part 1) (back to Part 2) Hugo Rose MW discusses the whys and wherefores of investing in the Rhone. Updated January 2009

Investing in the Rhone – the 2007 vintage

Unlike the rest of France, Rhône producers are looking at a potentially great vintage 2007 for their wines. There are smiles all round, though the broadest are in the south around Châteauneuf-du-Pape where the local terroir was especially favoured.

There was a glow of confidence immediately after the harvest, with respected producers of the calibre of Jean-Pierre Perrin and Marcel Guigal confirming a very special vintage had been gathered, in the south and, to a lesser extent, the north.

A year later Robert Parker described Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2007 as ‘the greatest vintage I have tasted in my 30 years working in that region’.

Given the damp weather experienced in much of France in summer 2007, the fine, dry conditions that blessed the south eastern corner of the country were something of a local miracle. In fact the southern Rhône experienced one of the driest summers of the last 20 years. This of course is not threatening where old vines are deeply rooted, or where the vineyard is covered in pudding stone galets which serve to preserve precious soil moisture. The Mistral served its purpose of cooling the vines too, and of maintaining a healthy if wind-blown crop.

Phenolic maturity (ripeness of the skins and pips) required a longer than usual ‘hang time’, and alcohols of 15% and higher appear to be endemic.

Vineyards less able to counter the dry conditions may offer up unbalanced or even under-ripe wines. Commentators have suggested that quality is to be found at every level, and my own tastings have yet to throw up any problems, but with the top wines still six months or more from being bottled judgements must be considered provisional for a little while longer. There may yet be problems among the lesser appellations.

Those who have tasted the wines confirm Châteauneufs are deep wines with elemental, dark colours and sweet yet brooding flavours along the black fruit spectrum.

Volume and mass are everywhere, the wines showing opulent textures and ample yet refined tannins. Acids are good too – a consequence of wind-moderated temperatures – and freshness is another star quality to add to the pot. Given time to show their underlying harmony, 2007s offer great promise.

Oh, and the whites of the appellation are magnificent.

2007 has already been compared to the terrific twosome, 1989 and 1990 which, if borne out, is high praise. Whether the vintage will trump 1978, for many still the best overall Rhône vintage in living memory, remains at this stage a matter of conjecture.

Northern Rhône wines are patchier, an indication perhaps that the weather began to weaken progressively up the valley. August was cold – very cold – in the Lyonnais and was cloudy and damp too, so it is a feat worth noting that Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie appear to have made the passage safely into September where the crop ripened slowly but surely.

There are undoubtedly a number of spectacular successes, though largely confined to the top end. With the wines still in cask, it is not clear to what extent the north in 2007 has eclipsed 2006.

En Primeur releases

There is no formal en primeur timetable for Rhône wines. The majority are offered for sale around the time of bottling – in the case of the 2007s, in Spring or early Summer 2009. That said, some of the top Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie remain in barrique or cask for much longer.

Decanter’s pick of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape crop

Given the publicity already accorded to Châteauneuf-du-Pape, now is the time to take a serious interest in the many new or unfamiliar names that are appearing on best buy lists, as well as the dozen or so acknowledged stars of the appellation.

Château de Beaucastel

Still to be blended (December 2008) but clearly an across-the-board success, from (Cotes du Rhône ) Coudelet to the limited edition Hommage à Jacques Perrin.

Domaine Paul Avril, Clos des Papes

With is magisterial Parker score, this is the darling of the en primeur offers. Almost unobtainable as a result, and expect a rush to buy earlier vintages.

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe

Another estate which has resisted the temptation to produce a limited edition cuvée. With its archetypical pudding stone vineyards, VT has produced a marvellously deep and firm wine.

Château Rayas

A triumph for proprietor Emmanuel Reynaud, with magical wines in store, not just Rayas itself but also the second wine Pignan and Cotes du Rhône Fonsalette. Rayas will release its 2007s in 2010.

Domaine de la Solitude

A domaine equally respected for its whites as its reds. Barberini is a special selection in both colours, and look out for Réserve Secrète, a rare limited edition.

M Chapoutier

Tain l’Hermitage-based Chapoutier makes wines from up and down the valley. Barbe Rac is 100% old vine Grenache, aged only in stainless steel (no barriques).

Other wines to watch

Cuvée du Vatican, Réserve Sixtine*

Clos de l’Oratoire des Papes, Chorégies*

Domaine Raymond Usseglio, Cuvée Impériale*

Domaine Pierre Usseglio et Fils, Cuvée de Mon Aïeul*

Domaine Roger Sabon, Cuvée Prestige*

Domaine de la Mordorée, La Reine des Bois*

Domaine Clos du Caillou, La Réserve*

Clos St-Jean, La Combe des Fous*

Stéphane Vedeau, La Ferme du Mont*

Domaine la Barroche, Fiancée*

Henri Bonneau, various cuvées (final selections made at time of bottling)

Dom Paul Autard, La Juline*

Château de Vaudieu, Val de Dieu*

* limited edition cuvées

Hugo Rose MW

The 2006 vintage

After a string of vintage successes in both the north and the south – apart from the washout of 2002, one has to go back to 1997 to have much to complain about – the news of another fine vintage in 2006 risks being perceived as over-gilding the lily. The season was not without its hazards, notably early drought, mid summer heat and finally September showers, but growers up and down the valley completed their harvests with much to smile about.

In the south September’s Mistral played a key role, not only blowing away any lingering moisture from the grapes but also slowing down the pace of ripening. The unrushed harvest played into the hands of properties with significant plots of Mourvèdre such as Château de Beaucastel, which picked right up until 13th October, taking full advantage of the cool, fine conditions.

In the north, the picture was similar, though Syrah is harvested later on the steep slopes of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage than in the south where it is the first variety to be picked. After the cool August the crop ripened steadily to give a classic vintage characterised by well-defined red and black fruits. Condrieu is particularly fine this year, with clear flavours and clean acidity.

Given the abundance of good vintages, where does 2006 sit? Chapoutier is already on record as a champion of 2006s, comparing the côte rôties with the splendid 1991s. In the south comparisons have been made with 1999, another year of beautifully crisp wines. And many experts have noted the elegance of the tannins this year, in contrast to those 2005s marked by drought-stress. Daniel Brunier’s summation is of a blend of 2005 and 2001, the latter a magical year for a number of châteauneuf-du-papes.

Apart from the ultra rare super-cuvées, the Rhône is not a blue chip investment prospect though keen buyers will usually benefit from favourable prices, and from early-bird pickings of scarce wines. There is always a scramble for the top en primeurs such as Beaucastel and Télégraphe. That said many of the rarest single vineyard bottlings are released only once in bottle (see below).

En Primeur releases

Unlike Bordeaux there is no formal en primeur timetable for Rhône wines. The majority are offered for sale around the time of bottling, in the case of the 2006s, in Spring 2008. That said, some of the top Hermitage and Côte Rôtie remain in barrique or cask for much longer: Guigal, for example, has yet to send its top 2004s to the market. But for over a decade a band of Châteauneuf-du-Pape estates, and some northern growers, have released a proportion of their crop (around 25%) as primeurs twelve months after the vintage. This allows for the assemblage of the component varieties to take place: press and merchants chasing too early are often required to visualise the final blend from components tasted in cask.

Decanter’s pick of the early releases

The south

Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

An estate celebrated for employing each of the 13 permitted varieties across its châteauneuf range, notable for its relatively high use of the Mourvèdre grape. Le Coudelet is a product from a contiguous côtes-du-rhône vineyard. Almost as good! Two special editions are made, Hommage à Jacques Perrin and the white Roussanne Vieilles Vignes.

Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Daniel and Frederic Brunier’s wine sits midway between traditional and modern, with elegance and underlying strength. The product of organic winemaking and a wine which acquires a leather and spice elegance with age. A crisply-refined, oak-matured white châteauneuf is also released.

Domaine Paul Avril, Châteauneuf-du-Pape Clos des Papes

One for connoisseurs. The epitome of châteauneuf in terms of depth and richness, and a wine for the long term. A long-lived white is also made.

Domaine La Roquète, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Elegant, spicy châteauneuf from the sister estate to Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe

Domaine Font de Michelle, Châteauneuf-du-Pape

Harmonious and light on its feet. Cuvée Etienne Gonnet is the limited edition from this organic estate.

The north

Chapoutier, Côte Rôtie La Mordorée

An almost bewildering raft of wines is made by this famous northern Rhône house, and the top wines are available en primeur. In addition to the well-established labels like Monier de la Sizeranne (Hermitage) Chapoutier has in recent years been celebrated for its rare ‘selection parcellaires’, single vineyard wines grown according to biodynamic precepts. Quality across all appellations is high. Check the lot sizes as both 6 and 12 bottle cases are offered.

Etienne Guigal, Condrieu la Doriane

Guigal’s top condrieu, made from Viognier vines grown on steep terraces. Fermenting and aging in new oak barrels gives a toasty sheen. We will have to sit it out for the remainder of the gems from Guigal’s 2006 stable.

Marc Sorrel, Hermitage Le Gréal

A grower of rising stature. Le Gréal is assembled from the Gréffieux and Méal vineyards. Look out for the white Hermitage Les Rocoules, a wine of silky depth.

Michel Ogier, Côte Rôtie

A blend of different parcels from the Côte Rôtie slopes. Since Stéphane Ogier took over in 1997 there is a new-found purity to the wines, a pleasing grip and typically a discreet savoury finish. A wine to watch.

André Perret, Condrieu Coteaux du Chéry

A barrique-aged Condrieu from this dedicated grower offering spice and floral charm. Also produces a deep-scented saint-joseph.

René Rostaing, Côte Rôtie, La Côte Brune

A thoughtful winemaker regarded as one of the top in the appellation. Three variants of côte rôtie are bottled, Cote Brune, Cote Blonde and a generic wine. His exotic Condrieu La Bonnette is worth seeking out.

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Written by Hugo Rose MW