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Rhône Valley: The North Edges Out the South
By Per-Henrik Mansson
In the Rhône Valley, the quality of the 1999 wines should range from sublime to mediocre. While experience and a commitment to quality were key factors to success, so were good timing and luck.
Winemakers singled out Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, in the northern quadrant of the sprawling Rhône Valley, as the vintage's quality leaders. Some of the wines from these appellations could be among the best that have been made in the past 10 years, according to vintners, but few other appellations enjoyed such success.
Compared to the high-quality 1998 vintage, 1999 was a much more uneven year. Some wines might be better in the North, but a good number of wines -- from both the South and the North -- will be worse.
The 1999 vintage can't rival the exceptional quality of '98 in the Southern Rhône. While the South had the upper hand in '98, the North has an edge in '99, according to winemakers. But the '99 vintage in the Southern Rhône is still superior to the quality of 1996 and 1997, vintners agreed.
Rain at harvest and large yields -- two factors that usually lower wine quality, especially when combined -- played a key role in 1999. Nevertheless, the vintage also had the potential for producing fine wines at wineries that managed to avoid the worst rains or that harvested a crop of reasonable yields.
"We find very good wines when the grapes were harvested before the rain," said Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal, which produces wine from the Rhône Valley's major appellations. E. Guigal picked 95 percent of its top vineyard sites before the bad weather hit, according to Philippe, son of well-known vintner Marcel Guigal. But when the grapes were harvested after the rains, the younger Guigal said, the wines could be mediocre, partly due to rot on the fruit.
Large yields alone apparently didn't hurt quality in some areas. The vineyards in Côte-Rôtie produced twice as many grapes as in 1998, yet maturity levels from natural sugar in the grapes ballooned. As a result, the entire appellation's growers asked French wine authorities to allow them to increase the permitted strength of the wine from 13 percent alcohol to 13.5 percent -- a very rare request in France.
"Nature was amazing and it linked quality with quantity," said Michel Tardieu, co-owner of Rhône négociant Tardieu-Laurent, whose bottlings include Côte-Rôties. "It's a bit like '82 Bordeaux. You had high yields yet it made great wine."
In the Condrieu appellation, the high maturity levels in the grapes led Guigal to do an early harvest of Viognier grapes, only to find himself with the equivalent of a late-harvest wine.
Likewise in Cornas, winemaker-enologist Jean-Luc Colombo harvested grapes of such ripeness in his vineyard that he didn't have to boost the alcohol level through chaptalization (adding sugar during the fermentation, which is legal in the region). "It's the first year we didn't put a gram of sugar in our wine," said Colombo. "1999 produced some of the best wines of the 1990-2000 decade."
Unfortunately, rain caught some wineries in Hermitage, Cornas and Crozes-Hermitage -- three leading appellations in the Northern Rhône. Rain was also a problem in the Southern Rhône, and wineries had to interrupt the harvest around September 19 to let bad weather pass.
But in the South, at least part of the crop was harvested before the rain came, as was the case at two leading Châteauneuf-du-Pape estates, châteaus La Nerthe and Beaucastel. Both estates had lower yields than in 1998, and the results appeared good. At Beaucastel, the Perrin family described '99 as a great year for whites, adding that the reds should be on the same level as the '98s. At La Nerthe, director Alain Dugas said, "The '99 is even better than '98. It has density, but the tannins have great finesse."