Rhone 2017 - A tale of the unexpected

Rhone 2017 - A tale of the unexpected

Thursday 25th October 2018
by Giles Burke-Gaffney

During a week of bounding up and down the Rhone valley I have tasted some truly delicious wines. My focus has been on 2017s from barrel but I have also been tasting 2016s and 2015s from bottle. 

Before I launch into the many surprises 2017 sprung on me, a word on 2015 Chateauneufs. These are in a very good place right now and it is clearly a superbly-balanced vintage, they may well go into the shut-down phase that most Chateauneufs do but right now they are a joy and what’s more they show the harmony to suggest excellent ageing potential, it can genuinely be considered a great year in the South. People may remember France being bathed  in sunshine throughout 2015 but in the Southern Rhône it was not too much of a heat-wave vintage, there was a little more rain and ensuing cooler temperatures than further north.  The results were wines of great allure, roundness and charm. For sure richer than a “cool” style vintage but less alcoholic than other hallowed years like 2016 and 2007, for example. If you missed these at the time, then don’t hesitate to snap up 2015 Southern Rhônes. 

Back to 2017. The season was characterised by drought that set in at an early stage and lasted throughout the summer. In fact it was of the driest summers on record. However, as Julian Barrot of Domaine La Barroche put it, “ the wines are not what you would expect from such a dry year. As long as you did the right things vine shut-down was not a big problem, I remember the vineyards being much more stressed in 2005, for example.”  Flowering was not very successful anywhere in the Rhône but Grenache was particularly affected by coulure, as it so often is. Drought and coulure have meant it is a small harvest across the valley, smallest of all in the South.  The poor flowering may not have been music to the ears of producers’ bank managers, but it was a silver lining as far as quality was concerned.  From the outset the vines were much less laden with fruit than they would normally have been and so were less inclined to stress, shut down and block grape ripening during the drought. Nonetheless ripening was not necessarily quick and although it was an early harvest (starting early September or even end of August, in some cases)  more patience was required than originally expected and picking carried on throughout September and, for Mourvèdre, into October. Grape-health, from Lyon to Avignon, was pristine and the weather during September was beautiful. These were huge bonuses as, according to Jean-Louis Chave, “you could harvest when you wanted.”  Though it is not always an homogenous vintage (the danger was shrivelled grapes resulting in confit flavours and dry tannins) but proper vineyard husbandry and a well-timed harvest meant that excellent quality levels were very attainable. 

Whereas 2016 was rich and powerful in the South yet elegant and classic in the North, and whilst 2015 was the reverse but equally contrasting, 2017 is one of those rare years where the vintage style and quality is the same across the Northern and Southern Rhône:  There are some real gems in this vintage, wines characterised by richly-aromatic and alluring fruit profiles. They have a headily-scented sunny side to them but are even-keeled. Sweet but clear fruit counteracted by discernibly crisp, firm but not unwieldy tannins. Alcohol levels are on the higher side of the scale but largely well-balanced. They sit between, in the south, the more elegant 2015s and the headier 2016s and, in the north, between the fresher 2016s and the more powerful 2015s.   Overall almost every grower I spoke to placed 2017, stylistically, between these two vintages.  A superb year of generous wines full of effusive ripe fruit but with strong structures robust enough to ensure good ageing potential.