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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Now That The Grapes Are In: A Look at 2008 in the Rhône

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 17, 2008 2:32pm ET

The grapes are picked and the fermentation vats are full, so I used this moment of relative quiet for the vignerons to get an early read on them for the just completed 2008 harvest. Here's a look from both the Southern and Northern Rhône Valley.

The Southern Rhône

The Southern Rhône’s string of outstanding vintages since 1998 (save for 2002) may have come to an end in 2008. It was a difficult growing season—the 2008 harvest was marked by rainy, cool weather that led to higher-than-normal disease pressures and a lower-than-normal crop.

"Spring was very wet and there was some mildew in May and June. A bad flowering for the Grenache led to very low yields," said Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Avril reported yields at his domaine of just 16 hectoliters per hectare (1.1 tons per acre), down from his estate’s typical 25 hl/ha (1.8 tons/acre).

Following the tough start to the growing season, modest rains fell in July and August along with a larger rainfall at the beginning of September. This was soon followed by a steady mistral, the region’s strong wind, which helped dry any remaining moisture in the vineyards while concentrating what grapes there were.

The amount of rain that fell during the season varied widely from sector to sector in Châteauneuf, sending vignerons scrambling to do more leaf pulling in the vineyards to ensure ripening of the grapes in the wetter areas ("My father can't ever remember pulling leaves in August," said Julien Barrot of Domaine La Barroche), as well as performing strict bunch and berry selections to weed out any rot that may have formed. (For more information on Barrot's harvest, see his WineSpectator.com harvest guest blog.)

"There were 250 millimeters (9.8 inches) of rain in Colombis," said Isabel Ferrando of Domaine St.-Préfert and Domaine Ferrando, referring to her sandy soil parcel in the western side of the appellation. "But only 100 millimeters (3.9 inches) in St.-Préfert [whose vineyards are located in the southern area]. This has clearly affected the quality of the grapes. There will be no Colombis cuvée in ’08."

Ferrando wasn’t alone in deciding to declassify part of her ’08 crop.

"2008 is definitely not for me a top vintage," said Thierry Sabon of Clos du Mont-Olivet. "I won’t make a Cuvée du Papet this year, but most of the few tanks I have in the cellar are better than expected."

Other vintners throughout the Southern Rhône struggled in ’08 as well.

"To be honest, 2008 was a difficult vintage," said Alexis Rousset-Rouard of Domaine de la Citadelle in the Lubéron. "The whites and rosé look great so far, with delicate aromas and good freshness. We are lacking the depth and structure [in reds] in comparison to 2007, but this is no surprise."

In Gigondas, which typically is among the last appellations to harvest in the Southern Rhône, an additional rain on Oct. 8 halted picking, but good weather resumed thereafter, helping to offset the additional moisture. Vignerons reported that they had to undertake severe sorting of the grapes and subsequent bleeding of tanks to concentrate the juice.

"Yields will be lower, 15 to 25 percent," said Pierre Amadieu, who runs his eponymous estate and négociant business in Gigondas. "The wines have a less tannic profile than past years, with steady color and dominant acidities."

The Northern Rhône

In the Northern Rhône Valley, which extends from Côte-Rôtie down to St.-Péray, variable weather played out as well, with growers noting that their spraying regimens were dramatically increased as they dealt with excessive moisture and a constant threat of mildew and odium.

"It was a very difficult year with a lot of rain during spring and summer," said Alain Graillot of Crozes-Hermitage. "As a consequence we had to spend a lot of time in the vineyards during August to remove leaves and then wait to get the benefits of a dry and cold second half of September. We finally started picking the reds on Oct. 2, the first time we started so late."

"Fortunately the sunshine raised its head and was accompanied by a good gusty north wind which slowed down rot," said Jean Gonon of Domaine Pierre Gonon, a St.-Joseph producer located in the town of Mauves. "When harvest began [for us] on the last day of September, it was quite easy, although long, to select the grapes and separate any rot."

"We have just 50 percent of our [normal] production in white and 85 percent in red," said Vincent Jaboulet of Domaine Vincent & Philippe Jaboulet in Hermitage.

Yves Gangloff of Condrieu likened the quality of the vintage to 2004, a year that produced a wide range of quality among red wines, from dilute and herbal to very successful, but was more successful for white wines.

Most producers noted that the stretch of good weather after a heavy rainstorm on Sept. 5 and 6 saved a vintage that looked to be headed for disaster.

"The vintage shows precise and refined aromas, with firm, lively and tight tannins," said Michel Chapoutier, whose estate and négociant business produces wines from every Northern Rhône appellation.

"Christine is very surprised about the quality, freshness and elegance for the whites," said Paul Amsellem, referring to his wife, Christine Vernay, who makes the wines at Domaine Georges Vernay in Condrieu.

Yields also look to be low in the north in 2008, as quality-conscious growers performed severe selections on their crop. With many vignerons noting that their reds are checking in at 12 to 13 percent alcohol, consumers should expect lighter-styled, more perfumed Syrahs in 2008.

"We don’t have to compare 2008 with 2002," said Jérôme Coursodon, another St.-Joseph vintner based in Mauves. "I place 2008 between 2004 and 2007."


Jason T Pett
Baltimore, —  November 18, 2008 9:17am ET
James: Well, we had a great five-year run from 2003-2007. My wallet won't mind sitting one year out!
John Osgood
New York, NY —  November 18, 2008 1:38pm ET
James - are you of the opinion that 2007 is the extraordinary vintage that others are saying right now?
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  November 18, 2008 2:07pm ET
This is a bit off topic but at least it concerns the Southern Rhone. We visited Domaine de Mourchon near Seguret a few years back (it was pinnacle of an exhausting bike ride for my wife) and so I pick up their wines when I see them. Fortunately you've liked them. But I'm a bit confused on how they'll age. To my taste, most CdRs should be able to sit for at least 5 years from the vintage. For their 2005 C¿tes du Rh¿ne-Villages S¿ret Tradition, you said "Has lots of stuffing. Should age nicely. Drink now through 2009." The review came out in mid 2007. So why does a wine that should "age nicely" also get a recommendation to drink within 2 years? (For another nice wine, the Alamos Malbec Mendoza Selecci¿n 2007, you had a 1 year recommended window. I've tried both wines and thought both could sit w/o harm, but that's besides the point.)
James Molesworth
November 18, 2008 2:19pm ET
John: It's a very promising vintage in the southern Rhone - less so in the north. But I'm not going to rush to make a grand pronouncement and feed the frenzy, that's just not my style. You can check out my early vintage analysis here:

http://www.winespectator.com/Wine/Features/Premium/0,1197,4489,00.html

I've tasted some great '07s, and others that looked to be burning the candle at both ends, due to their extreme ripeness. It's a very stylistic vintage, without the classic structure and grip of the '05s.

The proof will be in the pudding as major wines start to be released in the spring and through next year. As usual, I'll continue to report from the field, but will always follow up with official reviews based solely on from-the-bottle tastings...

It will be interesting to see who pops for the wines as futures though, with cash at a premium these days. Despite the euro coming back down, there doesn't seem to be any price relief at the retail level right now - but that may change. Those who wait to see what happens always run the risk of missing a particular wine - but there is always plenty of other wine out there.
James Molesworth
November 18, 2008 2:24pm ET
Russell: Yes, both could sit, without harm. That's what I call 'enduring'. Assuming a well made wine and proper storage, most can endure....

But do many wines really improve over that time? Most don't in my opinion. They may change some, but not necessarily improve. My drink recommendations don't mean the wine implodes as soon as it hits the end of the time frame - it just means I think the wine will be at its best during that time. Those who like to age them are more than welcome to...

When I visited Mourchon once, my car ran out of gas going up that road. You're a brave fellow to bike up there...! Walter McKinlay and his team are doing a fine job - super wines at a very fair price.
Brian
costa mesa, ca —  November 18, 2008 2:34pm ET
James what's your take at this point on '07 Rhone? Parker has obviously flipped his lid for the vintage. Do you share a similar sentiment?
James Molesworth
November 18, 2008 2:49pm ET
Brian: see above...
John Osgood
New York, NY —  November 18, 2008 5:54pm ET
James - thanks for the thoughtful insight as always. I certainly won't be giving my money to that certain retailer who takes an uncertain amount of time to get wine in stock. Not playing that game anymore. I was happy to get ahold of a few 06 Clos des Papes and will be tasting one over the holidays. I've had the 06 Mon Aieul and it is terrific.
James Molesworth
November 18, 2008 5:59pm ET
John: I can't comment on retailers, but I can plug the '06 Rhone vintage, which I called out of the box as being exceptional (but overlooked) in the south, and terrific for the whites in the north....enjoy!
Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA —  November 19, 2008 6:11pm ET
James: thanks for the clarification. I'm intrigued on your view that many wines don't improve over time. It's a question and skill, namely predicting whether a wine get better when tasting a young bottle, I'm still grappling with.

On related note, I think often overlooked area is the diversity of tannins and how their impact differs greatly from person to person. E.g. I used to unanimously love Rosenblum wines, but now I often find a dusty tannin that only I seem to taste. And theirs are wines that don't improve at all from aging, in my view, so they would be "drink now" with your terminology. Ah, the terminology is starting to make even more sense now. In short, the vagaries of tannin perception are the most common reason I disagree with the recommended "drinking window" of reviews.

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