Spared the devastating record frosts that struck Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne this spring, the 2017 vintage in France's Northern Rhône Valley was marked by an early start, erratic flowering and warm and dry conditions that resulted in smaller crops and an earlier-than-usual harvest.
A mild winter with warmer-than-usual February and March temperatures set the stage. The Rhône was relatively unscathed by the April frost, and May rains were quickly followed by increasing temperatures; the season then ran ahead of schedule through harvest.
"Very small clusters and very small berries," reports Jean-Louis Chave, one of the region's elite Hermitage and St.-Joseph producers. "A very dry season, but we had just the right amount of water at the very best time, at veraison and [again] two weeks before harvest. As a result, huge concentration and high alcohol potential, around 15 degrees for Hermitage."
While growers reported quality grapes coming in, yields were notably down. Some springtime rains hampered the flowering, particularly for Viognier, while the dry conditions resulted in smaller berries.
"Not too bad a yield in Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne, but 20 percent [short] in Viognier," says Yves Cuilleron, a Condrieu-based vigneron and partner in Les Vins de Vienne. "I find the style [of the 2017 vintage] between 2015 and 2016: More concentrated than '16, more elegant than '15."
"The harvest is [small] for me because of two factors," says Franck Balthazar, a vigneron in Cornas. "First, the flowering for old vines on hillsides was hurt, less so for young vines (which flower earlier and avoided the May rains). The second factor is related to the drought, as we had a [water] deficit of 50 percent since Jan. 1."
Northern Rhône vintners began picking Sept. 4, a full two weeks ahead of the 2016 harvest and nearly the same time as their southern counterparts. With the warm temperatures and dry conditions ripening the smaller berries at a fast pace, the key in 2017 was to wait for full phenolic maturity, rather than picking on the early-rising sugars. This proved a test, as the vineyards were flagging in early September.
"We were not so confident in early September. We thought that the berries were a little bit confit and tired," says Jean Gonon of Domaine Pierre Gonon, a top St.-Joseph producer. "Thankfully we had a little rain and, after the weather changed, very nice days but cooler nights. We preferred to wait. For us, picking is not summer work; it's fall work."
"It was a matter of distinguishing vineyards with very good and high ripeness from other vineyards needing more time to mature," says Philippe Guigal, of Ampuis-based E. Guigal, one of the region's most prominent producers. "Whites are balanced with correct acidities and a nice maturity. The reds are ripe, sometimes with a lack of acidity, but an incredible phenolic ripeness that should allow for good aging potential and a serious expression of Syrah."