It's now been a few weeks since I made my annual pre-spring trip through France’s Rhône region, tasting wines from nearly four dozen domaines during a 10-day stretch. Based on that trip, as well as the dozens of bottled wines I've tasted since I've been back in the office, I can report that it’s a mix of good and bad news right now.
First, the good news. The Rhône stands alone among French wine regions that had a successful 2007 harvest. The vintage offers excellent quality, particularly in the south. The euro has slid back against the dollar, which should result in more attractive pricing and a plethora of values from lesser appellations at a time when consumer interest in the region is higher than ever. And, though the 2008 vintage that sits behind 2007 is not an outstanding year, crop levels are markedly lower, which means down the road producers won’t have to struggle to move a large amount of less-than-outstanding wine.
Now, the bad news. A world economy that is still very shaky means there’s a shrinking marketplace that can absorb the wines from the well-hyped 2007 vintage. Vignerons know they are sitting on a big one, but are nervous their time in the sun will be undermined by the current financial crisis—some are feeling it already as orders have dwindled to nothing at some domaines, despite the excellent quality. And while there should be good quality coming even from lesser appellations such as Côtes du Rhône, this country’s three-tier distribution system still results in anti-consumer pricing.
And to top it off, and this may come as a shock to some, 2007 is not the vintage of a generation for the Southern Rhône. While 2007 is unquestionably an excellent vintage, as many vignerons as there were that expressed a love for the vintage, there were an equal number who voiced a clear preference for the classic, cellar-worthy, tannin-driven 2005s.
How can 2007 not be a great vintage, after a growing season marked by a season-ending mistral that let the grapes hang into October for some domaines, and resulted in wines with vividly ripe fruit and lush, succulent textures? That mistral helped, but didn’t completely offset the effects of two fairly significant September rains that resulted in higher yields—noticeably higher than in the four previous heat- and drought-influenced years.
The slightly higher yields in 2007 and plush, sweet tannins make the wines imminently enjoyable and flattering, but not quite in the same long-term league as 2005. The 2007 vs. 2005 vintage scenario is similar to 2000 and 1998, two vintages that produced blockbuster, ripe harvests that were both highly lauded out of the gate. But 2000’s slightly higher yields have resulted in wines that show just a diffuse hint around the edges as they approach their prime drinking window now, while the 1998s are only just hitting their stride a decade later and still have a ways to go in terms of their development. While 2007 is balanced and loaded with fruit, I suspect its higher yields will probably put the wines on a slightly faster track of evolution, even if just by a bit.
There are of course some prodigious wines in the 2007 harvest. In Châteauneuf, where Grenache is king and the grape achieved previously unheard of ripeness levels, those who achieved balance did so through the grace of their old-vine terroir, or the liberal use of Mourvèdre, which provides needed structure and grip. Domaine St.-Préfert, Clos des Papes, Château de Beaucastel and Bois de Boursan made stellar wines, while the appellation’s new wave—Domaine Giraud, Clos. St.-Jean, Olivier Hillaire and Domaine La Barroche, among others—saw the vintage’s ripe style play into their hands. Outside of Châteauneuf, Louis Barruol’s Château St.-Cosme has produced wines that will likely set a new high water mark for the Gigondas appellation, while the micro-négociant Tardieu-Laurent has potentially produced its best wines to date.
In addition to its remarkable fruit, the 2007 harvest offers terrific consistency. From domaine to domaine, appellation to appellation and variety to variety, quality is extremely high. Wines from the lesser appellations such as Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône-Villages will merit buying by the case for their expression of both fruit and terroir. Assuming the euro continues to drop against the dollar (currently at 1:1.32, down from 1:1.5 just several months ago) there will be excellent buys to be had in these economically difficult times.
But nonetheless, I don’t find the overall quality level of the 2007 Southern Rhône harvest is enough to merit "vintage of a generation" status. It’s wedged between the quality of 1990 and 2005 for me, which isn't too shabby, but it's not better than either of those vintages in my opinion. But while I hate to be the bearer of this little bit of hype-deflating bad news, I think the region has more than enough good news to offset it.
Mark Reinman — NJ — April 14, 2009 9:19pm ET
James Molesworth — April 15, 2009 9:21am ET
Karl Mark — Geneva, IL. — April 18, 2009 7:57pm ET
Richard Hirth — Michigan — April 20, 2009 9:45am ET
James Molesworth — April 20, 2009 9:49am ET
Italo T Lombardi — New York — May 1, 2009 10:41am ET
Mark Reinman — NJ — May 6, 2009 12:23pm ET
James Molesworth — May 6, 2009 12:28pm ET
John Ide — May 18, 2009 4:01pm ET
James Molesworth — May 18, 2009 4:06pm ET
Mark Reinman — NJ — June 13, 2009 9:34am ET
James Molesworth — June 13, 2009 9:59am ET
Mark Reinman — NJ — June 13, 2009 1:23pm ET
Daniel Posner — New York — July 16, 2009 10:11am ET
James Fothergill — Virginia Beach, VA — July 17, 2009 9:33am ET
James Molesworth — July 17, 2009 12:57pm ET
Tom Nelson — Horseshoe Bay, TX, USA — October 11, 2009 10:03pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — October 12, 2009 9:02am ET
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