The grapes are picked and the fermentation vats are full, so I used this moment of relative quiet for the vignerons to get an early read on them for the just completed 2008 harvest. Here's a look from both the Southern and Northern Rhône Valley.
The Southern Rhône
The Southern Rhône’s string of outstanding vintages since 1998 (save for 2002) may have come to an end in 2008. It was a difficult growing season—the 2008 harvest was marked by rainy, cool weather that led to higher-than-normal disease pressures and a lower-than-normal crop.
"Spring was very wet and there was some mildew in May and June. A bad flowering for the Grenache led to very low yields," said Vincent Avril of Clos des Papes in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Avril reported yields at his domaine of just 16 hectoliters per hectare (1.1 tons per acre), down from his estate’s typical 25 hl/ha (1.8 tons/acre).
Following the tough start to the growing season, modest rains fell in July and August along with a larger rainfall at the beginning of September. This was soon followed by a steady mistral, the region’s strong wind, which helped dry any remaining moisture in the vineyards while concentrating what grapes there were.
The amount of rain that fell during the season varied widely from sector to sector in Châteauneuf, sending vignerons scrambling to do more leaf pulling in the vineyards to ensure ripening of the grapes in the wetter areas ("My father can't ever remember pulling leaves in August," said Julien Barrot of Domaine La Barroche), as well as performing strict bunch and berry selections to weed out any rot that may have formed. (For more information on Barrot's harvest, see his WineSpectator.com harvest guest blog.)
"There were 250 millimeters (9.8 inches) of rain in Colombis," said Isabel Ferrando of Domaine St.-Préfert and Domaine Ferrando, referring to her sandy soil parcel in the western side of the appellation. "But only 100 millimeters (3.9 inches) in St.-Préfert [whose vineyards are located in the southern area]. This has clearly affected the quality of the grapes. There will be no Colombis cuvée in ’08."
Ferrando wasn’t alone in deciding to declassify part of her ’08 crop.
"2008 is definitely not for me a top vintage," said Thierry Sabon of Clos du Mont-Olivet. "I won’t make a Cuvée du Papet this year, but most of the few tanks I have in the cellar are better than expected."
Other vintners throughout the Southern Rhône struggled in ’08 as well.
"To be honest, 2008 was a difficult vintage," said Alexis Rousset-Rouard of Domaine de la Citadelle in the Lubéron. "The whites and rosé look great so far, with delicate aromas and good freshness. We are lacking the depth and structure [in reds] in comparison to 2007, but this is no surprise."
In Gigondas, which typically is among the last appellations to harvest in the Southern Rhône, an additional rain on Oct. 8 halted picking, but good weather resumed thereafter, helping to offset the additional moisture. Vignerons reported that they had to undertake severe sorting of the grapes and subsequent bleeding of tanks to concentrate the juice.
"Yields will be lower, 15 to 25 percent," said Pierre Amadieu, who runs his eponymous estate and négociant business in Gigondas. "The wines have a less tannic profile than past years, with steady color and dominant acidities."
The Northern Rhône
In the Northern Rhône Valley, which extends from Côte-Rôtie down to St.-Péray, variable weather played out as well, with growers noting that their spraying regimens were dramatically increased as they dealt with excessive moisture and a constant threat of mildew and odium.
"It was a very difficult year with a lot of rain during spring and summer," said Alain Graillot of Crozes-Hermitage. "As a consequence we had to spend a lot of time in the vineyards during August to remove leaves and then wait to get the benefits of a dry and cold second half of September. We finally started picking the reds on Oct. 2, the first time we started so late."
"Fortunately the sunshine raised its head and was accompanied by a good gusty north wind which slowed down rot," said Jean Gonon of Domaine Pierre Gonon, a St.-Joseph producer located in the town of Mauves. "When harvest began [for us] on the last day of September, it was quite easy, although long, to select the grapes and separate any rot."
"We have just 50 percent of our [normal] production in white and 85 percent in red," said Vincent Jaboulet of Domaine Vincent & Philippe Jaboulet in Hermitage.
Yves Gangloff of Condrieu likened the quality of the vintage to 2004, a year that produced a wide range of quality among red wines, from dilute and herbal to very successful, but was more successful for white wines.
Most producers noted that the stretch of good weather after a heavy rainstorm on Sept. 5 and 6 saved a vintage that looked to be headed for disaster.
"The vintage shows precise and refined aromas, with firm, lively and tight tannins," said Michel Chapoutier, whose estate and négociant business produces wines from every Northern Rhône appellation.
"Christine is very surprised about the quality, freshness and elegance for the whites," said Paul Amsellem, referring to his wife, Christine Vernay, who makes the wines at Domaine Georges Vernay in Condrieu.
Yields also look to be low in the north in 2008, as quality-conscious growers performed severe selections on their crop. With many vignerons noting that their reds are checking in at 12 to 13 percent alcohol, consumers should expect lighter-styled, more perfumed Syrahs in 2008.
"We don’t have to compare 2008 with 2002," said Jérôme Coursodon, another St.-Joseph vintner based in Mauves. "I place 2008 between 2004 and 2007."