France's Northern and Southern Rhône Valleys share a river, but are very different otherwise. And 2016 delivered two different growing seasons for them. In the south, conditions were ideal all year, with warm, dry days balanced by cool nights. Up north, a cloudy wet spring delayed the season's start, then excessive summer temperatures brought ripening in some spots to a halt. Thankfully, ideal weather in September and October gave grapes time to fully ripen.
Running Late in the Northern Rhône
The early reports are that 2016 looks like an excellent vintage, giving the north a one-two punch following 2015. But getting there wasn't easy. And yields were low in Hermitage, thanks to hail.
The 2016 growing season did not get off to a great start. Spring was marked by cloudy and wet weather—52 rain showers between March and July, according to Delas, the Tain-based négociant house. Disease pressures were high.
In addition, hail fell on Hermitage in April, just after budbreak, resulting in a dramatic reduction in yields. "We typically have 18 barrels of Rocoules," said Jean-Louis Chave of one of his parcels on Hermitage. "In 2016 we will probably have only five." Luckily, the hail was early enough and the grains were small enough that it was only yields that were hurt. There was time for the vines to recover their leaves.
Things quickly grew late. Flowering was two to three weeks behind schedule. By the end of July, the weather turned hot and extremely dry, with nary a drop of water until mid-September. Due to the drought, grapes in some vineyards stopped ripening, while some leaves turned yellow.
But sorely needed rains fell after the first week of September, allowing ripening to resume. Growers then had to wait and hope that the late-ripening crop would get the last bit of weather it needed. "We arrived in early September quite pessimistic because we knew that it would be a late harvest and the probability to have good weather until almost mid-October was very limited," said Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal in Ampuis. "Fortunately that is exactly what happened."
Indian summer conditions persisted through October, allowing harvesting to proceed at a leisurely pace. "I began picking my Condrieu on the 16th of September, with very nice quality and modest levels of alcohol," said Julien Pilon, a top producer in Chavanay who specializes in white wine.
"In spite of the strong heat of August, [potential alcohol] degrees are lower than 2015's," said Pierre-Jean Villa, who produces red and white wines under his own name. "2016 seems to be very drinkable in style, the tannins are ripe and soft."
In contrast to 2015, which has garnered considerable early hype, Chave noted that sometimes the trickier vintages like 2016 often produce the better fruit. "2015 was very consistent. The vintage had no problems during the season and it was a good crop. But while it's very good, it's not 2010," he said, matter-of-factly. "I don't think the best vintages are the vintages where something extreme doesn't happen."
An Ideal Harvest in the Southern Rhône
This year proved far less tricky in the Southern Rhône. So far, 2016 looks like a classic vintage, with most growers favoring it over 2015. Some coulure on Grenache, along with drought conditions that produced smaller berries with less juice meant lower yields, but other than that there was little to be concerned over.
The growing season got off to an earlier start than in the north, without the excessive humidity. Summer arrived earlier as well, and flowering occurred under nearly ideal conditions. The second half of the season was warm and very dry.
"The winter was not cold and we expected an early-maturing vintage," said Jean-Paul Daumen, of Domaine de la Vieille Julienne in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. "Then the season was hot and dry, but we got enough rain at the best time. During August it was hot during the day but fresh during the night."
While the hot and dry conditions persisted, the key were the cool nights, which mitigated the heat. "It will stay in our minds as the hottest summer during daytime but the coolest during nighttime," said Isabel Ferrando, who founded Domaine St.-Préfert in Châteauneuf in 2003. "Vineyards that are well-rooted resisted the drought, while the cool evenings helped preserve the acidities. Colors, polyphenols and anthocyanins could compare to the 2010 vintage. It is for me the best vintage I have seen since I [became] a winemaker."
"The temperatures never really soared, making it very different from 2003, 2009 or even 2005 and 2010," said Christophe Bristiel of Château La Nerthe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, comparing 2016 to other recent warm vintages. "The reds are extraordinary. Grenache looks like Syrah [in color] and Syrah something like Tannat!"
Producers elsewhere in the south were equally as enthusiastic. "This year we had probably the best weather conditions since our first vintage in 1998," said Walter McKinlay of Domaine de Mourchon in Séguret. "2016 looks like it could be an exceptional vintage in the Southern Rhône, and apart from some of us suffering a loss of volume from the Grenache vines, we are pleased with the potential."
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