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Tough Act to Follow

How do you follow the epic 2015 vintage in France's Northern Rhône Valley? Michel Chapoutier has an answer
Chapoutier and the Northern Rhône are on a run of stellar vintages.
Photo by: James Molesworth
Chapoutier and the Northern Rhône are on a run of stellar vintages.

Posted: Jul 26, 2018 2:30pm ET

The last time I stopped in at M. Chapoutier, I tasted through the range of 2015s, which at the time looked to be the best vintage in the Northern Rhône since 2010—at the very least. 2015 will indeed go down as one of the great vintages, but in the never-ending lesson on why you shouldn't rush to make a grand pronouncement, along comes 2016 … and 2017 ….

Sitting down once again with the always energetic Michel Chapoutier and his maître de chai, Clément Bärtschi, we focused on their Northern Rhônes from the 2016 vintage. Even while limiting the tasting to that selection of wines, this post will still cover two installments, with the whites first and then the reds.

As for the 2016 vintage, Bärtschi notes, "We had a rainy spring, so there was mildew pressure. But as usual these days in the Northern Rhône, we got a wonderful August and September. The wines are expressive and aromatic; 2016 is not as full-bodied as '15 for the north—2015 is the reference point now. But '16 is ripe, balanced and very fresh. The only problem at the end was some late-September rains which added a botrytis pressure, so the reds picked earlier are the better ones. There's no dilution in those wines, with fresher aromatics and shinier fruit. For the whites, they are very good, but I prefer '13 or '14 for whites, as those years were a little cooler, especially in August."

The 2016 Pic & Chapoutier St.-Péray Payrolles is super bright, with a rich and rounded feel offset by streaks of verbena, chamomile and lemon pith while pear and yellow apple fruit play out.

The remaining wines are all under the M. Chapoutier label, starting with the 2016 St.-Joseph White Les Granilites, which is very lively and sports fresh yellow apple and verbena notes that ripple along, backed by salted butter and chamomile. It has a full feel but lots of detail and freshness.

The 2016 Condrieu Invitare is bold, with white peach, anise, fennel and mirabelle notes streaming through, staying fresh and focused

"Historically the culture of Condrieu was to pick with a little botrytis," says Bärtschi. "That can be interesting, but add in new oak, lots of bâtonnage and that's a style that's good only for half a glass and then it becomes boring."

The 2016 St-Péray Hongrie is a big ball of juicy verbena, yellow apple, fennel and mirabelle plum flavors. It has density but keeps a filigreed feel on the finish thanks to its acidity.

The 2016 Hermitage White Chante-Alouette is a big wine, with ripe Cavaillon melon, yellow apple and apricot fruit draped with salted butter and warm hazelnut notes. It's broad and showy through the finish, but the acidity is there, with a flash of bitter citrus on the finish. "Hermitage was definitely the warmer spot in a warm year, and with the early hail, yields were low, so ripening was rather notable," says Bärtschi.

The 2016 St.-Joseph White Les Granits benefits from a full east exposure and it shows, as this maintains a brightness and tension from the start, showing more focused white peach and yellow apple fruit flavors, liberally laced with honeysuckle, chamomile and salted butter.

The single-vineyard bottlings of Ermitage start with the 2016 Ermitage White de l'Orée, which has notes of honeysuckle and jasmine giving way quickly to a plumper feel as creamed yellow apple and melon notes assert themselves. There's a light citrus flash through the finish but this is infused with heather and wet straw notes, resulting in a fuller feel overall.

The 2016 Ermitage White Le Méal is more honeyed in feel, with creamed yellow apple, quince and persimmon notes lending it a slightly exotic feel, while light jasmine and salted butter notes give it lift and freshness through the finish. It is very long and alluring in the end.

The 2016 Ermitage White L'Ermite is from the parcel atop the hill that was hit the most by the hail, so there are only 83 cases in '16. It is ablaze with energy as chamomile and fleur de sel notes run from the start, injecting the core of yellow apple, mirabelle and lemon curd with extra drive. A vibrant quinine note through the finish keeps the fruit echoing and echoing. It is in a class by itself again.

The 2016 Condrieu Coteau de Chery shows intense green fig, apricot, mirabelle and nectarine notes that form a large core, all caressed by warm piecrust and salted butter notes. It's a touch on the showy side, but easily pulls it off with a sense of refinement.

Check back tomorrow for my notes on Chapoutier's top 2016 Syrahs, including Ermitage Le Méal and L'Ermite ….

Follow James Molesworth on Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1, and Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

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