Rhône 2018

Rhône 2018

Monday 7th October 2019
by Giles Burke-Gaffney

Generalising about the 2018 Rhône vintage is difficult. Where it was a small crop it was tiny and where it wasn’t it was big!

Equally paradoxical is the style of the wines – some of which are really attractive and seductive now, others are blockbusters that will require great patience.  Nor do these differences divide neatly into the Northern or Southern Rhône.   What is clear, though, is the pattern of the season: 2018 started with an intolerably prolonged wet period in Spring that was ended by a long bout of hot, dry weather that began at the end of June; there was an extremely hot August and finally a harvest period that was very warm throughout. One grower I spoke to described 2018 as “tropical.”  Low yields or high, 2018 produced rich, ripe grapes that were in tip top health. Alcohols and tannic structures were relatively high and acids low. There are plenty of delicious wines to seek out, but whether they are for keeping or drinking before 2017s, 2016s and 2015s varies from Domaine to Domaine – I have given a general idea below and will go into even more detail in our Rhône offer that will be launched on the 20th November. 

The South

A see-saw vintage began with incessant rain in Spring. If you had not started your vineyard treatments by May you were in trouble. Mildew pressure was at its worst in the Southern Rhône, largely because Grenache is so susceptible to it, and like nothing growers had ever seen before.  Vincent Avril remembered starkly “ I have never seen mildew attack bunches so quickly and so directly, usually they get to the leaves first and you have time to do something about it. Literally overnight bunches were ruined”  For Vincent and other 100% organic domaines, as well as ones that did not treat enough or at the right time, 2018 is a tiny crop, one of the smallest ever.  This can be said of Clos des Papes, Beaucastel, St Prefert and Versino. Here paltry yields of between 8-12 hl/ha were recorded.  In many cases this has meant the blend has diverted from the norm - traditionally Grenache-dominant blends are often more characterised in 2018 by the beautifully floral, dense and velvety Mourvedres.  Even for those Domaines that came through unscathed late spring and early summer “ was no walk in the park” as Pegau aptly put it.  Julien Barrot of Domaine La Barroche was one such happy chappie who produced a full crop:  “ 2018 was one of the most satisfying vintages we have done, considering the work and stress we had at the beginning of the season.  Wines of floral qualities, juicy open fruit and good structures. It is more than just a pretty vintage, the wines have middle and density behind them too.”  The plateau of Chateauneuf, where Mont-Redon are based, escaped much of the mildew attack and yielded good quantities, as did Clos des Cazaux whose large-scale Vacqueyras and Gigondas are true vins de garde.  At Chene Bleu, high up in the Dentelles de Montmirail, Grenache escaped mildew and yielded some of the Rhône’s finest examples. The Syrah did suffer millerandange (poor fruit set) so the berries were highly qualitative but very low yielding as a result.

August was fiercely hot and vintage conditions were warm in September.  In the end vintage began early to mid September, about a week later than the very precocious 2017.  The key to success seems to have been working hard early in the season (cutting down grassed rows as well as treating early and constantly) bringing in as cool fruit as possible into the winery at harvest time (either by refrigeration or picking early in the morning) and not using too many whole bunches given the lower bunch to juice ratio in the vats.  In most cases some opulent, fragrant and attractively open-knit reds have been made, sitting somewhere between 2015, 2009 and 1999 in the style. Wines of juice and ripe fruit. Clos des Papes, Mont-Redon, St Prefert and Yannick Feraud’s Tradition all firmly fit into this category.  Feraud’s Raisins Bleus, on the other hand, is a beautifully textured but intense vins de garde.  Whilst Barroche’s wines are also highly age-worthy. Stunningly-balanced they combine structure, openness and elegance.

The whites are ripe, round and fleshy. They have lots of juice to them, ripe flavours but lowish acidity and as such should be for early drinking.

 

The North 

Mildew was much less the story in the North. Spring had been very wet but Syrah is more resistant.  Summer was fiercely hot and dry.  Some rain brought respite in mid and at the end of August to varying degrees, Hermitage being one of the areas that benefited, allowing ripeness to continue unchecked. Heavily granitic, water-stressed sites such as Cornas suffered a little more.  The main challenge however was picking date, as Bernard Faurie noted “potential alcohol degrees rose very rapidly - 1.6 degrees in 10 days - from 13.6 to 15.2.” The combined total of his cuvees in the end averaged 14%.  Paying close attention to ripeness and mobilising quickly to pick at just the right time was key. As was cooling down the crop as it came into the winery.  Harvest began in the first few days of September carrying on until 15th September in cooler areas such as Chavanay.  Many growers who are used to harvesting late found themselves among the first to pick, Jean-Louis Chave being one of these – whose wines also averaged 14% - in order to retain some elegance, balance and freshness in the final wines.  Faurie, Chave and Domaine du Colombier have all yielded juicy, ripe-fruited and well-rounded Hermitages of great charm and allure that will be on the earlier drinking side.

A little further north in St Jean de Muzols Bastien Jolivet has made some smooth, complex wines that, despite higher alcohols, he feels are more balanced than the less juicy 2017s.  At the northern end of St Joseph, Andre Perret has made blockbuster reds from one of the healthiest and biggest crops he has ever experienced.  They are impressive and unusually large-scale for him, they will require several years’ bottle age to be at their best.  Depending on your picking policy Cote Rotie can either be profound, dark-fruited and full-bodied or silky-textured, red fruited and charming. Rostaing sitting in the former category and Clusel-Roch the latter – with a whole degree of potential alcohol between them.  Whatever the style or wherever the vineyard, though, this brazen 2018 vintage certainly did not produce shy and retiring wines.  In contrast to the reds, I felt the whites, though rich round and clearly the product of a warmer vintage, were fresher and more balanced than their 2017 counterparts.  I think this was down to bigger, juicier berries.  They are fragrant, smooth and joy-filled already. Less heavy and intense than the 2017s but much prettier and more enjoyable in their youth.  

 

In short, 2018 is a difficult vintage to categorise or generalise about. There are a wide range of styles and ageing capabilities but there is common thread of ripe, generous, expressive flavours in the wines and plenty of them are well worth seeking out.