Dec
5

High Hopes for Rhône 2015

The 2015 vintage in the Rhône region of France is said to be the best for several years. International wine writer Stephen Quinn takes a look at what could be an inconic vintage for the region.

Wines from the 2015 vintage in the Rhône region have become available “en primeur” this month. The phrase translates as “first offering” in English and means wines can be purchased before they are bottled at the winery.

People pay for these wines without taxes and duties, and only hand over those extra costs when the wine is delivered. The main reason for buying “en primeur” is to secure wines that are rare or difficult to find. Prices tend to be lower than when the wines finally appear on the market. White wines from 2015 will usually be shipped in the spring of 2017, and reds in the autumn of that year.

The Rhône is one of the world’s most important wine rivers though the term “Rhône region” is usually associated with the Rhone valley in south-east France. The river starts as the Rhone glacier in Switzerland, passes through Lake Geneva and ends in the Mediterranean Sea. At Arles, the Rhône divides into two major arms to form the Camargue delta. Both branches flow into the Mediterranean.

Much excitement has surrounded the 2015 vintage in the Rhône because it is reportedly the best since 2010, which was one of the great vintages of the twenty-first century. Because of the quality, demand is likely to be high, which will affect supply. By securing allocations now, prices could be low and therefore offer value to investors.

The 2015 vintage was one of the Rhône region’s earliest. It started on August 27, weeks head of previous years. Stephane Ogier finished harvesting his Côte Rôtie grapes on September 12 and believes the vintage was the result of cooler weather in August after a very hot and dry June and July.

Some growers suggested 2015 was as good as the legendary vintages of 1947 and 1961, while others are less hyperbolic and maintain 2015 was similar to 2010, 2009 and possibly 2005. The last was one of the best vintages in recent decades.

Paul Jones, fine wine buyer for Genesis Wines in London, described the 2015 vintage as excellent. “This is a very good vintage indeed, to the extent that we almost got bored with writing down superlatives. The almost perfect growing season has produced grapes at the optimum end of maturity – ripe but balanced by a fresh acidity; concentrated yet retaining elegance.”

Rhône wine can be divided into two broad categories: the north and the south. The northern sub-region produces reds from the Syrah grape, sometimes with a small amount of white wine, usually Viognier, added. The other main white grapes are Marsanne and Roussanne. This latter pair are often blended to produce delightful dry white wines.

The southern sub-region produces red, white and rosé wines. The most famous rosés come from Tavel. The main red grape varieties grown include Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault, while the main whites are Ugni Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul and Clairette.

Vines were probably planted in the Rhône region around 600 BC. Until recently, much speculation existed about the origins of the two most important grape varieties in the northern region, Syrah and Viognier. Some historians claim the Greeks brought the Syrah grape from the Persian city of Shiraz. (Syrah is known as Shiraz in some parts of the wine world such as Australia.) Others suggest the grape came from the Sicilian city of Syracuse. Recent DNA testing has led scientists to conclude that Syrah originated in the southern Rhône valley.

The northern Rhône has a continental climate with harsh winters and warm summers. Its climate is influenced by the Mistral, a wind that brings cold air from the Massif Central mountain range. This region is cooler than the southern Rhône, which has a Mediterranean climate with milder winters and hot summers.

Wines from the south of the region are quite different in character from those from the north. Drought can be a problem but limited irrigation is permitted. The south’s rugged landscape partly protects the sub-region from the Mistral, producing a range of meso-climates that in turn give rise to a diversity of wines such as Lirac and Tavel.

A feature of the southern region’s viticulture is the number of large pebbles around the base of vines, known as “galets”. These absorb the heat of the sun and keep vines warm at night, hastening the ripening of grapes. The stones also help retain moisture in the soil during the dry summer months. The rocks are remnants of Alpine glaciers that have been smoothed over millennia by the Rhône river.

The southern Rhône’s most famous red wine is Châteauneuf-du-Pape. AOC rules permit a blend of up to 19 grape varieties (10 red and nine white). More wine is made in this one area of southern Rhône than in all of the northern Rhône, though the latter is associated with some of the great wines of France – namely the appellations of Hermitage, Condrieu, St Joseph and Côte Rotie.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape translates as the “Pope’s new castle” and the history of this appellation is linked with papal history. In 1305 Pope Clement V, the former archbishop of Bordeaux, relocated the papacy to the town of Avignon on the Rhône to avoid discontent in Rome. Even after his successor Gregory XI returned to Rome, the popes continued to drink Rhône wines.

The wine owes its name to a summer palace that Pope John XXII built near Avignon. Wines of this area were originally called “Vin du Pape” (papal wines) but became known as Châteauneuf-du-Pape under John XXII. The famous castle he built, destroyed by German bombers in World War 2, remains the symbol of the appellation.

The cost of Rhône wines has not risen as rapidly as the wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy in recent years, so it’s possible to find bargains at a range of price points. Perhaps it is time to consider en primeur this year. One of the best 2015 wines tasted recently was Pierre Gaillard’s Côte Rotie l’Esprit de Blonde: Elegant yet with loads of liquorice and spice and lovely black fruits. Delicious.