Cellar Notes from Rhône Domaines
On a recent trip to the Northern Rhône, I visited several top domaines to taste the 2003 and 2002 vintages. Readers who have been following along up until now know that 2002, the current release, offers little interest for the Rhône's red wines, due to the storms that hit during harvest. The 2003 vintage, still in barrel, is an entirely different story.
The torrid summer of 2003 led growers to harvest before the end of August--two to three weeks earlier than usual for this region. The top estates made some incredibly dense and exotically ripe wines, the likes of which many producers admit to never having seen before. Only Jean-Louis Chave and Michel Chapoutier mentioned the 1929 vintage; most other vignerons simply shrugged when asked to compare 2003 to a previous year.
But hold fast--this is not a blanket qualitative assessment. These same producers expressed concern over the inconsistency of the vintage, as well as the freakishly high alcohol and low acidity levels of the wines. From cellar to cellar, vignerons stressed that only the best terroirs--where old vines with deep roots could sustain themselves through the drought--were able to produce great wines. For every stunner, there will be a clunker made by someone whose vineyards were overmatched and who attempted to fix the problem in the fermenting vats.
As for the 2002 wines, which I first reported on last summer, the Northern Rhône did perform noticeably better than the south, where many vineyards were flooded. In my tastings, the best examples of the 2002 reds showed the characteristics of Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc, with cassis bush and tobacco leaf notes followed by firm, sometimes rigid tannins. The worst were dilute, green and bitter.
All is not lost in 2002, however: The white wines are very good to outstanding, as many of those vineyards were harvested early, before the weather deteriorated. There are lovely bottlings from Condrieu (which relies on the Viognier grape) as well as Hermitage, St.-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage (where Marsanne and Roussanne are the lead varieties). Wine drinkers who have yet to explore the Rhône's unique whites will be well-served with the 2002 vintage: The wines are clean and fresh with textbook varietal flavors backed by lively acidity. Despite the slumping dollar, prices are flat or even reduced due to the vintage's poor overall reputation.
The '02 and '03 wines discussed in the following sections were not tasted blind, and many '03s were in the infant stages of their élevage, so no scores are given. Furthermore, the cellar notes I give here may not represent everything I tasted during my visit; I focused on each domaine's upper-end wines. When the '03s are released, starting early this year for the whites and into the fall for the reds, they will be reviewed in blind tastings in Wine Spectator's New York offices. I'll be providing a preview report on the Southern Rhône this spring.
For those planning future travel to the Rhône, fall is a great time to visit. The weather is cool and occasionally windy, making a hike up the hill of Hermitage an invigorating affair. It's truffle season, and the region's traditional fare, matched with its wines, warms the soul quickly. With the vineyards bare of fruit and leaves, the various terroirs are on full display. Think of it as New England during fall foliage season, with the difference being that you're looking at soil instead of leaves, and drinking Syrah instead of cider.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions