Vintage Report: Rhône 2021 En Primeur

23 November 2022

Mark Dearing

We have always adored the Rhône Valley in all its luminous, lavish, multi-faceted splendour. It is, though, an uncomfortable truth that the Rhône has fallen out of favour to the sorts of “precise”, “vivid”, “mineral-driven” wines that are easy to appreciate but hard to access.

By contrast, the immense Rhône Valley sits as a model of celebration and simplicity. There is freedom in a largely benevolent climate; a wide array of grape varieties, microclimates and soils; and the desire to articulate things as they are. Prices remain largely very fair for wines that – in the south especially – have remarkably wide drinking windows. Embroidered with silken fruits, berries and flowers, the wines are a joy to drink in the first few years, and will often hold for several decades. One does not come to Châteauneuf-du-Pape to die on the altar of acidity. We who love the tremor of the south are happy to luxuriate in the amplitude and pantheon of the Mediterranean, and feel compelled to invite others to bathe in its glow. To have it any other way would be to lose the essence of the wine world’s most famous and well-known appellation: the very first of its kind.

There is more fine-tuning to be done, of that we can all agree, but if ever there were a vintage to convince the market of the Rhône’s overarching allure, and to bring wine lovers back on side, 2021 must be it! The best wines of 2021 balance a natural corpulence with a grippy, floral weave: building a bridge between vigneron and wine-lover, waiving any compulsion to impress through density alone.  Just as consumers are advised to follow good producers in every other region in the world, Rhône Valley growers with the right outlook, and a feeling for honest, characterful, flavoursome wine, have made wines in 2021 that your future self will thank you for buying.

To say that 2021 is simply a “white wine vintage” is to damn with faint praise. It is true, of course, that the whites are spellbinding. Bright but contoured, suffused with glamorous fruits and flowers, they are the best since 2014. However, this should not detract from the reds – they can be equally captivating. More complicated to pin down of course, by virtue of a near 90/10 production split between colours, but there is plenty to admire up and down the Rhône, and there is a hand-in-the-soil feel to tasting this year that is seriously compelling.

A mild winter, followed by a warm early spring and a hard frost, then intermittent rainfall and generally cooler conditions throughout the season, save for a hot June and July in the south, has given an overall bright feel to the wines, at alcohols that are more or less a degree down on last year. If anywhere, we concede that it is perhaps in the tannins where some irregularity is felt in the south. In the north, quality is more acutely split between hillslope and plain – the latter occasionally suffering from dilution, the former imbued with vibrancy, presence and terroir transparency.

At this early juncture, the 2021 Syrah-based wines have quite a reductive feel – this a boon for growers who favour minimal intervention and reduced sulphur levels, but it requires a certain amount of experience to assess the wines fairly – time will prove them to be delicious drinkers. In Cornas, Thierry Allemand did not acquiesce in any sense to the vintage, asserting that “great terroirs will always produce wines of gravitas, balance and substance.” Jean-Louis Chave explained that in Hermitage they used cannons for the first time to lift temperatures by 1.5C. Condrieu saw extreme 60% losses to frost, and Saint Péray was basically decimated. What remains though is full, fresh and resonant. Including Saint Péray.

In Châteauneuf, Julien Barrot of Domaine La Barroche described the April frosts as “more fear than damage”, unlike Paul Avril of Clos des Papes who reports a paltry yield of 15 hl/ha. Rains in mid-September in the south engendered two schools of thought: those who picked a first tranche, then waited until the rain had passed before commencing the second; and those who felt it best to act quickly and bank the results. In both cases, the Mistral winds ensured that most vineyards were in excellent sanitary condition come harvest time. At the top end, the wines have a triumphant purity to them.

Growers in the northern Rhône saw alternating spells of rain and warmth throughout the season and, on the whole, felt it prudent to act when they could. For growers who favour whole bunch, the main adaptation this year was a slight reduction come vinifications to avoid excessive herbaceousness. Overall, where frost hit, crop reduction led to good concentrations across, with steady nutrient supply from the summer rainfall for the vines to recover a certain balance come harvest time. 2021 was a vintage without the modern-day stresses of drought and sunburn. In some cases, conscientious blending was required to make sure of the best “main” wines possible, even if that was at the expense of more lucrative single vineyard bottlings – Bastien Jolivet and Andre Perret both spring to mind. Comparisons to the lighter, higher acid vintages of 2008, 2013 and 2014 are largely erroneous as there is more substance and complexity to the 2021s. Jean-Louis Chave likens 2021 loosely to a 1980s Rhône vintage in terms of broadly similar weather patterns over the decade, but with much better grapes. Classical wines with a contemporary polish.

We have worked hard to assemble a collection of wines that we fully endorse. It is impossible to sum up a year across such a wide area, other than to say that we left for the airport with the feeling that 2021 is a vintage of pleasure, perfume and heart.

For the specifics of each estate and appellation, we invite you to peruse our offer.

Mark Dearing

Rhône Buyer, Justerini & Brooks