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Worried About a Good Vintage

Northern Rhône vintners hope style doesn't trump substance in 2003

James Molesworth
Posted: November 22, 2005

Winemakers worry—it's part of their character. They worry about the weather, of course, along with plenty of other things like sales, the press, competition and more. I'm used to hearing about their worries; anyone in the wine business is. But on my most recent trip through the northern Rhône Valley, I found that they can also worry about a good vintage.

Worry about a good vintage? I wouldn't have thought it possible, but some of the best vignerons from Côte-Rôtie to Hermitage are concerned with how their '03s will be received by the press and consumers here in the States.

The vintage's extreme heat and its effect on the wines have now been well documented, and I've written about the outstanding quality of the top wines that are on their way here now. The vignerons don't debate the quality point. It's the style of the vintage that has them worried.

"Exaggerated," "exotic" and "atypical" are some of the words I've heard vignerons commonly use to describe the '03 northern Rhônes, both reds and whites. The wines are loaded with fruit, high in alcohol and low in acidity, all of which gives them very forward personalities. The wines are not at all what the Rhône Valley typically produces. They are flat-out a hedonist's dream. Which is just what has these vignerons worried.

"If you taste these wines now, you will not see them as Côte-Rôtie," said one vigneron. Because the copious fruit flavors dominate right now, each wine's terroir, or sense of place, is often masked or blurred. According to the vintners, the '03 wines need to be cellared for their terroir to emerge. But they know that American consumers typically drink their wine young. Especially with such delicious fruit, it will be hard for consumers to wait, which means most of the '03s will likely be consumed before they ever have a chance to show their stuff.

These vignerons are neither country rubes who dismiss New World Syrah out of hand, nor are they elitists who think their wines are the be-all and end-all. They are connected with Syrah producers around the world, and they are fully aware of and appreciate different styles of wine. If they wanted to produce fruit-forward wines, they would set up shop in California or Australia—and some, in fact, have done just that. What these vignerons understand is that the Rhône's strength lies in wines of balance and elegance. Which is why they're worried about the '03s.

They also worry that Americans—in particular, those who try Rhône wines for the first time in the '03 vintage—will be so enamored with the fruit that they will use it as the benchmark against which to judge all other vintages. Many Rhône vintners actually prefer their more typical 2004 vintage; they worry that the pure balance and elegance of '04 will be steamrolled by '03, and thus a potentially outstanding vintage may never get its due. 2003 is a once-in-a-lifetime vintage stylistically, not qualitatively, but the potential to miss that subtle distinction is high, and so the vignerons are worried.

There is also significantly less wine than usual to go around (most vignerons had crop reductions of 40 to 60 percent), which creates another headache. There will be plenty of angry and disappointed customers who get drastically reduced allotments, if they get anything at all. One top-quality producer in Hermitage told me he was considering releasing his '04 wines before his '03s. "Everything is so extreme in this vintage, even my customers," he said, noting that they were clamoring for more than their usual allotments in a year in which his production is one-third normal. "Maybe holding back 2003 will let things calm down a bit."

An exaggerated style of wine that plays into the hands of hype and early consumption, combined with small production that plays into the hands of overheated demand and high prices: It all adds up to a great vintage that has vignerons worried.

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