1999 and 1998 Rhone Valley Wines

My annual tour of the Rhone Valley in November was unencumbered by the usual obstacles: no snow in the North, no flooding in the South, no striking truckers blocking gasoline deliveries and making travel on the autoroute an adventure. And the wines this year were more pleasure than work to taste, as the '98 and '99 vintages are very good to outstanding up and down the Rhone Valley, with a highly promising 2000 vintage right behind them.

Rhone Valley wines are hot today. Increasingly, private customers and wine merchants alike, driven out of the Bordeaux market by prohibitively high prices and unable to latch onto much in the way of topnotch domain Burgundy, have descended on the best Rhone addresses in search of world-class wines at affordable prices. With a few notable exceptions, price hikes for Rhone wines continue to be moderate: the mostly healthy size of the '99 crop and the 2000s to come are generally keeping ticket increases to reasonable levels. The recent strength of the dollar is a further boon to American fans of these wines.

A brief look at the '99 and '98 vintages. As a rule, vintage 1998 was strongest in the South, especially in Chateauneuf du Pape, which typically harvests earlier than Gigondas. The farther north you climb, the less sugar-rich the grapes tend to be in '98, and the firmer the tannins. But in the North, too, the fruit was ripe and concentrated, owing in part to the crop-reducing effect of April hail that did serious damage on the Cote-Rotie plateau and was also a major factor in many vineyards in Condrieu and Saint-Joseph. From Cornas up to Cote-Rotie, many classic, firmly structured wines were made.

In contrast, the 1999 vintage appears to have been at its strongest at the north end of the vast Rhone Valley growing region (really two distinct regions: Cote-Rotie, for example, is as close to the Cote de Beaune as it is to Chateauneuf du Pape). The Cote-Rotie crop, held down in size by an early June hailstorm just prior to the flowering, ripened early and reached record grape sugars. As a result, some extraordinarily rich and heady wines have been made, although with their lofty levels of alcohol the more extreme examples test the limits of Cote-Rotie typicity. South of Condrieu, however, yields were generally much higher than those of the previous year, in some spots literally twice as high. A heavy rainstorm on September 25 affected the fortunes of many Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage growers, who still had some of their best fruit hanging. Still, in Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas, 1999 tended to bring more thoroughly ripe and refined tannins than those of the previous year, so the wines are likely to be more accessible in their youth. In these appellations, some growers prefer their densely packed, cooler, classically structured '98s, which may be better built for the long haul, while others favor their often spectacularly rich, sweeter '99s. But thoroughly ripe skins rich in phenolic material should enable most '99s to age well, even where acidity levels are low. And the white wines, thanks in part to the temperate growing season, show surprisingly sound sugar/acid balance.

In the South, the '98 vintage was a great one, a year in which the area mainstay grape, grenache, could reach glorious ripeness despite the hefty crop size. Crop levels were lower in '99, but the growing season and harvest conditions were not so ideal as those of the previous year, and rain in mid-September affected some later harvesters. Numerous producers mentioned that careful elimination of less-than-ideal fruit was critical. While grenache was not quite as splendid as in the previous year, 1999 was an excellent vintage for later-ripening syrah and mourvedre.

Today's wide-ranging styles of wine. Apart from growing season conditions and crop level disparities, differences in winemaking technique from estate to estate have become increasingly important in Rhone Valley wine. The ways in which growers address numerous key variables in vinification and elevage have brought about a wider range in wine styles than ever before. These variables include the following: destemming vs. vinification with whole clusters of grapes (vendange entiere); use of a pre-fermentation cold maceration; type and extent of extraction during the alcoholic fermentation; use of the lees during elevage; barrel size and age (barriques vs. demi-muids-typically 500 or 600 liters-or larger foudres, and percentage of new wood used); and frequency of racking. More than ever before, winemakers in the South as well as the North are rethinking their racking strategies. For example, although syrah is a variety with a strong reductive tendency and therefore in need of some oxygenation during its time in wood, many growers are sharply cutting back on the number of times they rack their wines, and a few are even using microbullage, or micro-oxygenation [the carefully controlled injection of oxygen as needed] in place of traditional racking to avoid tiring the wines. In extreme cases, Northern Rhone syrah-based wines are being left on their fine lees, virtually undisturbed, until they are assembled for the bottling.

Similarly, a growing number of winemakers in the South now describe grenache as a variety whose aromatic qualities can be compromised by excessive handling. Here, too, smaller barrels, or even new ones, are often used to preserve fresh fruit and to provide controlled oxidation, and wines are racked only when they require it, rather than automatically at regular intervals. The newer style of minimally handled, fruit-driven, grenache-based wines is as different from the older style as today's new-age Barolos and Barbarescos are from the traditional wines that spent five or more years in large old ovals. True aficionados of Rhone Valley wine owe it to themselves to taste the best examples of the classic and the modern styles; my notes on the following pages should make it clear which is which.

With a few exceptions, my visits in November were limited to addresses in Cote-Rotie, Condrieu, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Chateauneuf and Gigondas. At most of the estates I visited, I have followed up last year's early coverage of the '98s by offering notes on the finished wines. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel. Following my brief profiles of numerous Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas estates visited in November, I have included notes on dozens of additional '99s and '98s tasted at the Federation in Chateauneuf du Pape as well as at the Syndicat d'Orange and the Syndicat de Gigondas.