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Rhône Valley: No Clear Winner Between North and South

Overall quality is uneven, but vintners who picked at the right time will do well.

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: January 2, 2002

 
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To make top wines in 2001, Rhône Valley winemakers had to show nerves of steel and harvest unusually late, despite warnings of poor weather in the fall.

"Harvest this year was a nerve-racking experience," said Philippe Guigal, enologist at the négociant firm E. Guigal, which was harvesting in the Côte-Rôtie appellation into the first week of October. "But we are happy, and very lucky."

A drought defined much of the summer, with no rain from mid-July until September in either the northern or southern ends of the valley. The scorching heat blocked photosynthesis and thereby slowed the maturation of the grapes, indicating that growers should delay the harvest until the fruit was truly ripe. But those who picked in late September and early October encountered rain, and had to battle the spread of rot in the vineyards.

Still, many wines from both the north and the south show promise, according to some leading winemakers. For example, the vintage should produce some very fine whites, especially from Condrieu and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, as the Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier grapes were picked ripe, before any rain fell.

All the producers agree, however, that the overall quality of the vintage will be uneven.

Merchants who make wines both in the south and the north found it unusually difficult to say which area did better in 2001. Normally, the Rhône has a clear winner. In 1999, the north -- which includes the Côte-Rôtie, St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas and Hermitage appellations -- prevailed. In 1998, it was the south, where the leading names are Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and the Côtes du Rhône.

In the southern Rhône, Grenache picked early may taste light. But according to Michel Tardieu, of the négociant Tardieu-Laurent, top 2001 reds from Châteauneuf-du-Pape show power and ripe character, but not the concentration of the wines from the classic 1998 vintage.

"It was extremely important this year to take the risk and harvest as late as possible," said François and Jean-Pierre Perrin, who co-own Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. They started harvest unusually early, on Aug. 29, as some varieties ripened quickly in the heat. But the Grenache took longer than normal to ripen, and the estate finished the harvest on Oct. 5.

Likewise, Daniel Brunier, co-owner of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Domaine Les Pallières in Gigondas, picked late. But he had to interrupt the harvest for a couple of days after big showers on Sept. 22 and 29. Brunier pointed out that yields were fairly low in his vineyards, at 2 tons per acre in Gigondas and 2.2 tons per acre in Châteauneuf. And the grapes were harvested at potential alcohol levels of 14.5 percent to 15 percent.

In the northern Rhône, the overall quality might be very good, as it was in 2000, but winemakers agreed that the year was below the quality of the classic 1999 vintage.

Vintners spoke glowingly of the Viognier-based whites from the Condrieu appellation and some Syrahs from St.-Joseph, but Côte-Rôtie was a mixed bag.

"We had the feeling that we might redo 1999 in Côte-Rôtie," said Jacques Grange, winemaker at the négociant Delas. "But then it rained, we had some rot, and it was important to eliminate the bad berries."

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