A week in the life of a Rhône correspondent during en primeur…
Sunday 17 September
If I leave my house in the UK after breakfast, I can reach Tain l’Hermitage by train in time for dinner. It’s a journey I make several times a year, but my autumn visit when I taste the new vintage (in this case the 2022) is the most instructive – and the most gruelling. Tasting around 80 wines a day takes a lot of concentration and you finish the day exhausted. Is that the sound of tiny violins I hear as I pull into the station? I press on undeterred.
For a region so obsessed with rugby, it’s surprisingly difficult to find somewhere to watch this evening’s England game. I’m directed to a new bar on the edge of town that opened a few months ago, called Numéro 9. It does a good burger and the terrace has a panoramic view of the hill of Hermitage – a sight I never tire of.
After the match, my mind turns to the week ahead, five days of intensive tasting and visits. I’ve heard it was a hot and dry vintage, but reading some weather reports clarifies the situation – 2022 was the hottest and driest since 1950. Uh-oh. Will I find a repeat of the jammy 2003s, a year that suffered similar conditions? I sincerely hope not.
Monday 18 September
I’m woken up at 5am by a clap of thunder. It’s still raining when I get up. Normally I walk up to the Chapelle on Hermitage hill before a day’s tasting in Tain, but the lazy devil on my shoulder is rather smug – I have a satisfactory excuse to skip the morning’s exercise. I drive to the Maison des Vins, windscreen wipers on maximum, which will be my base for the next few days.
After lunch I visit Chapoutier to taste through its 2022s, including some very impressive Hermitage. Maxime Chapoutier says they saw 180mm of rain in certain parcels during the last 12 hours – that’s a quarter of a year’s rainfall. The term ‘climate chaos’ is no exaggeration.
I finish the day at Le Tournesol restaurant in Tournon. It’s run by a welcoming husband-and-wife team serving small plates of seasonal French cooking, and has an exceptional wine list with lots of hard-to-find gems. Worth a visit if you’re in the area.
Tuesday 19 September
I get up early to blue skies. The foot of the hill of Hermitage is cluttered with heaps of sandy soil washed down the slopes, broken échalas (the poles on which the vines are trained), bits of old vine…despite a small tree blocking the path I make my way to the summit. The Rhône River flows a muddy brown below.
Today I’m tasting Cornas and Hermitage. Expecting sweetly ripe fruit and high alcohol, what I find is the opposite – light, just-ripe wines, sometimes with green tannins. It’s confounding.
An afternoon visiting Pierre and Olivier Clape of Domaine Clape, then Franck Balthazar of his eponymous domaine, sheds some light on the vintage – it was so dry in 2022 that some vines shut down and stopped ripening. Things begin to make sense.
Wednesday 20 September
I work through the whites today. Some appellations, such as St-Joseph, are more successful than others. It’s certainly not as fresh and tense in style as the cool 2021 – quite the opposite, rich and potent.
A visit to Domaine Gonon is always a highlight of my northern Rhône tastings. Jean Gonon is buoyant but weary after a tough season – he’s just finished harvesting the 2023s. ‘The most stressful moment is deciding when to pick,’ he says, and stresses the importance of having a good team at harvest.
We taste the 2019, 2020 and 2021 wines from bottle; a sample of 2022 from tank; then take a peek at his 2023s, still fermenting, frothy and sweet.
Thursday 21 September
A daunting line-up of red Crozes-Hermitage today – 76 in total. The hot, dry weather is reflected in the wines here: very ripe, powerful, with suede-like tannins. They are certainly more successful than the disastrous 2021s, but not all have good balance.
Afterwards I meet with Grégory Joannès, the new managing director of Paul Jaboulet Aîné. The company has been restructured, and a new property established. The jewel in the Jaboulet crown, Hermitage La Chapelle, has been scythed off, and will now be made in a new winery called Domaine de la Chapelle. Paul Jaboulet Aîné will continue to make its other domaine wines and negociant blends, with a tighter focus on the northern Rhône. I’ll get the full low-down in November.
Friday 22 September
A day of visits around Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu today, starting at 9am at Domaine JP Jamet. Wow, its Côte-Rôties are tannic! Certainly more structured than a typical year, but still detailed, fresh and expressive.
Pierre Rostaing’s are softer and more velvety in style. The weather in 2022 made for a relatively relaxed end to the season – there was no grass to cut and no disease pressure due to the drought. But ‘it was hard to watch the vines suffer,’ he says. Usually around 1% of his vines die naturally each year. It was 3%-4% in 2022. There will be a lot of replanting to do this winter.
A comprehensive tasting of Stéphane Ogier’s single-vineyard wines, some brilliant, finishes a long and enlightening week.
I expected wines akin to 2003 or 2019; what I found was a fascinating if curious mix of 2014, 2016 and 2018. Is it a good year? Yes; but not uniformly. It will be interesting to see how the southern Rhône compares. I’ll let you know.
Look out for Matt Walls’ southern Rhône diary next week.