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Wine Harvest 2015: Southern Rhône Winemakers Call It a Power Vintage

A long, hot and dry growing season produced potentially great wines, but some worry about alcohol levels
Photo by: Courtesy Michel Gassier
Ripe Grenache waits on the vine as a picker moves closer in a Costières de Nîmes vineyard.

James Molesworth
Posted: November 20, 2015

Across the Northern Hemisphere, winemakers in many regions have finished one of the earlier grape harvests they've seen. They scrambled to pick fruit and find tank space, but now they are enjoying tasting the results and getting an idea of what nature provided. Wine Spectator will be providing snapshot looks at harvest in major wine regions, providing an early preview of what wine drinkers can expect.

Up next, France’s Southern Rhône Valley and Provence, where the weather was hot and dry. Grenache and Mourvèdre both ripened well and quality is good, but some producers worry 2015 will mean ripeness over elegance.

The Good News: 2015 looks like a very serious vintage, with potentially ripe, powerful wines.

The Bad News: August brought heavy rains to some spots; most growers report wines with high alcohols and lots of phenolics, but sometimes low acidity.

Promising Grapes: Grenache, Mourvèdre

Challenging Grapes: More tricky than challenging—earlier-ripening varieties such as Viognier and Syrah faced some disease pressures, which required careful vineyard work.

Analysis: As in the Northern Rhône Valley, the Southern Rhône and Provence enjoyed a long, hot and dry growing season that produced nearly ideal grapes come harvest.

“The cool nights of August kept acidity in the grapes,” said Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel and Famille Perrin, owners of more than 860 acres of organically farmed vineyards in the south. “The Grenache was perfectly ripe after the last rain, quite homogeneous and very healthy. The [late-ripening] Mourvèdre really benefited from the rain and sun and the now traditional Indian summer. They taste extraordinary. Everything is fermenting smoothly. It should be a really great vintage.”

“There was late budbreak, but by bloom the vintage had caught up with a normal year. Crop size was good,” said Michel Gassier, a top producer in Costières de Nîmes. “The summer was hot and dry, and veraison started mid-July, within the norm. It was quick on most varietals but languished a bit on young Grenache where there was pronounced hydric stress. The problem was not seen on old-vine Grenache.”

Late August rains were scattered. Heavier downfalls hit some areas, providing a hiccup before harvest. “August produced two storms,” said Gassier. “But as with most storms here, the quantity varies greatly even within a small zone. Small amounts of water were beneficial while big ones created health issues on early-ripening varietals like Viognier and Syrah.”

By the time harvest was in full swing, producers were relishing what they saw. Growers reported healthy conditions in the vineyards and a normal-sized crop as they picked the mélange of grapes that fill the area's vineyards.

“All along the harvesttime the grapes were in a superb condition. Juicy berries, ripe stems, thick and hard skins,” said Laurence Féraud of Domaine du Pégaü in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “We started picking grapes in Châteauneuf around Sept. 20. We started with Cinsault—beautiful berries, juicy, fruity and tasty. Then the Syrah, which gave amazing color and black fruit. The Grenache grapes were perfect. We didn't even need to cut little bunches from the top of the branches, we could just pull them off because the stems were so ripe.”

“We did more whole-cluster [fermentations] in all our vineyards than ever before, because the stems were so ripe,” said Perrin.

While most growers were extremely happy with the harvest, some noted that the vintage's character was leaning toward more power than elegance. “After two more elegant years in 2013 and 2014, we are back with a southern-[styled] vintage in 2015,” said Jean-Paul Versino of Bois de Boursan in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. “The reds have a very rich color and silky tannins, with low acidity, which makes me think of 2007.”

The heat and ripeness levels have some winemakers more cautious in their praise. “The Southern Rhône was much more complicated [than the north], especially for Grenache,” said Éric Texier, who produces wines in both areas. “The alcohol is totally out of control in most places and acidity historically low.”

Further south in Provence, producers were nearly as happy, with reports of slightly lower yields the only blemish on the harvest. “We had very good weather with some fresh nights at the middle of September,” said Ostiane Icard of Domaine de Trévallon. “We just lost some grapes because the vines were a little stressed [from the drought]. But the quality is good.”

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