In July this year I spent a week travelling between producers in the Rhone Valley tasting 2015s, a year that I am confident will unequivocally wear the badge of a great vintage as the years pass and corks are pulled. Up and down the valley - from Condrieu to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, from Ardeche Vin de Pays to prestige cuvee Cote Rotie, from Syrah in the north to Mourvedre in south - and across both reds and whites, thrilling wines have been made.
For my palate, 2015 rivals the outstanding wines of 2010 – ahead of the 2005s and superior to the over-hyped 2007s. When Michel Chapoutier came to London to present his range in April, he told us that 2015 is the best vintage since 1990. Michel’s neighbours at Guigal are making comparisons to 1961 and 1947. Whilst neither my memory nor cellar extend quite that far back, this is unquestionably a year that hits extraordinary heights in the Rhone. Since returning, I have been squirreling away funds in preparation for the releases.
My first experience of 2015 in the Rhone came in July of that year, 12 months prior to my tasting visit, just as the vineyards were undergoing veraison - when the juvenile grapes change colour and start to ripen – whilst tasting the 2014 wines. It was hot. In fact, it was furnace-like, with a run of days over 40c – conforming to the official definition of a heat-wave – and a prolonged dry spell, causing the vines to struggle. Especially in the north, where Syrah is particularly vulnerable to extreme conditions, growers were starting to worry about hydric (water) stress leading to wines with insufficient acidity and dry, leathery tannins.
Three elements combined to save the 2015 harvest in the Rhone, delivering some of the finest examples I have ever tasted from the region despite decidedly unpropitious circumstances during the growing season.
Hard work in the vineyards
The Rhone Valley is experiencing a period of climate change. Summers are becoming hotter and nights warmer, dry spells and heat waves are becoming more frequent, and extreme weather events more common. As a result, vignerons are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their vineyard work – dropping bunches during periods of vine stress, arranging the leaf canopy to shade delicate grapes and using mulches to nourish and cool the soils. 2015 was definitely a year that benefitted from increased ‘boots in vineyard’ hours.
2015 was undoubtedly a dry year in a region that is becoming increasingly dry but precipitation did seem to come at just the right moments. Rain in June replenished water reserves prior to the fierce heat of July and more rain fell as a punctuation mark to end the hot spell on 14th August, combined with an easing of the heat, when the vines needed it most. Light showers in late August and early September, just as bunches started to show some raisining of the berries, freshened things up and brought the vines back into balance in time for harvest. Mother Nature indeed smiled on the Rhone’s growers in 2015.
This powerful wind is the Rhone Valley’s very own air-conditioning unit, blowing down the river from the Alps. We felt it this July, with three solid days of Mistral whilst we were in the south. This coincided with the Mont Ventoux stage of Le Tour de France, and the wind’s ferocity forced organisers to keep competitors from riding the final, most exposed, section. One rider’s bike was blown clean off the side of the mountain. Early in the 2015 season, as the Mistral blew, vineyard workers rushed to tie back new growth to training wires as delicate new shoots were bent and snapped by the force of the wind. This was experienced even in Chateauneuf, where they are accustomed to the Mistral’s power. During spring in the north of the Valley, the wind’s affect was to reduce the temperature from 18c to closer to 12c. As well as cooling the vineyards the Mistral circulates air, dries the vines in wetter years (unnecessary in 2015) and relieves disease pressure from mildew and similar.
2015 in the Rhone is characterised by wines of mass and density allied to freshness and supple tannins. There is absolutely no lack of structure but the tannins are often so ripe and polished that it is not until you taste at the apogee of Hermitage that the tannic bite really comes to the fore to remind you where you are. It is the muscle and structure of these wines that reminds me of the 2005 vintage but the ‘15s are also expressive and silky in a way that recalls 2010. The vintage combines elements of each and, whilst I have not met anyone who would not put 2015 ahead of 2005, growers are split as to whether it is level-pegging with 2010 or in front by a nose.
The white wines were perhaps the biggest surprise of our July tastings. Our expectations were for a red wine vintage and for whites that were somewhat fat, lacking in energy and acid, but this was not what we found. From modest Cotes du Rhone Blanc to saline, mineral-laden Hermitage Blanc, the best winemakers have found ways of locking vibrancy and freshness into 2015 whites. These might not be as long lived as the taut and nervy 2014s but they are so full of pleasure it would be a great shame to miss them.
Rhone reds in 2015 can be astonishing and it is on these that the vintage’s reputation will be founded. Michel Chapoutier’s whites usually out-shine the reds in his April tasting but this year belonged to the reds, particularly a majestic Ermitage Le Pavillon that I rated above the more expensive Ermite. If one appellation really stands out in 2015 it is probably Cote Rotie and the single vineyard Guigal wines promise something very exciting indeed.
The Côte-Rôtie will without any doubt rank among the great wines of this vintage – Michel Chapoutier.
Quality in the south is less consistent and, in places, the heat had led to dried fruit characters and Porty characters in some wines. That said, the southern Rhone is used to dealing with heat and experienced winemakers – especially those with old vines, cooler terroirs or higher altitude vineyards – were able to rise to the challenge. Outside of Chateauneuf-du-Pape, growers with hillside plots in Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Vinsobres and so forth benefitted from their elevated sites. The Rhone Crus from the Perrin family will be well worth attention. In Chateauneuf itself, estates with great vineyards and old vines have achieved that magic combination of density, structure and perfume. Beaucastel, Bonneau, Janasse, Mordoree and Rayas will all be long-term propositions and sit in the front rank of the vintage.
Matthew Hemming MW