2008 and 2007 Rhone Valley Wines

Mother Nature has been especially kind to the Rhône Valley’s winemakers for much of the last couple of decades, delivering conditions that old-timers there call the most ideal in generations. Aside from a few hiccups, such as 2002, the vineyards of the entire valley, especially those in the south, have seemingly been turning out vintages of the decade, or even of the century, every year or two since 1998. Vintages that now seem routine, like 2004 or 2006, would have been vintage-of-the-decade material up until the 1980s, in large part due to the sheer number of producers who now work at a high quality level.

The American market in particular has maintained a love affair with the rich, fleshy, fruit-driven grenache-based wines of the southern Rhône for the last 20 years, and the string of warm to broiling vintages experienced over that period has ensured a steady supply of ripe, and often superripe, wines to satisfy demand. It is not uncommon nowadays to encounter Châteauneuf du Papes that clock in at over 15% alcohol, and even those at 16%+ barely raise eyebrows anymore, at least in the United States. In France, however, things are different. Recent changes to drunk-driving laws and more aggressive enforcement on the roads have been devastating for domestic restaurant sales of high-octane wines like Châteauneuf, as just a couple of glasses at lunch will push you over the legal limit and into the hoosegow. A bottle of wine that carries 16% alcohol (that’s 32 proof) is the equivalent of over a third of a fifth of whiskey, vodka or gin, and the gendarmerie doesn’t cut any slack for wine-loving gourmands weaving out of Michelin-starred restaurants.

The latest outstanding Rhône Valley vintage—if you don't yet count 2009—was 2007, a vigneron’s dream in the southern Rhône. The vines enjoyed warm, sometimes hot but not baking conditions through the summer and harvest. Lack of rain during the summer resulted in some vine stress, but older plantings with deeper roots generally didn’t suffer from lack of rainfall. The mistral was stronger than usual in 2007, which concentrated fruit sugars without much further loss of acidity.

The same fortuitous wind also helped to preserve the freshness of the grapes in the north. The rainy spell that followed a hot spring made for a large crop of grapes, and the wind helped to burn off some of the moisture. Higher temperatures in the weeks leading up to harvest dried out the vineyards and accelerated the build-up of sugars, and a healthy and sizable crop was brought in on schedule—or even a bit later than normal, sometimes into early October. One exception was Côte-Rôtie, where vineyards in the northern Côte Brune area of the appellation were hit hard by hail on the night of June 20; some growers pulled virtually no crop from these sites.

The streak of excellent to outstanding vintages came to an end in 2008. The growing season in the south was marked by rain throughout spring and summer, which resulted in a variety of vine maladies, notably mildew. Strict selection was the rule throughout the growing season, both in the vineyards and at harvest time. The relatively cool and damp conditions slowed down ripening but clement weather throughout September, coupled with a steady mistral, allowed remaining fruit that was still healthy to achieve good maturity by late September or early October. One bright side to 2008 is that tannins tend to be soft, so most of the wines from the south will be approachable soon after release, if not immediately, which should be good news for those who like to drink their wines young.

The northern Rhône, unfortunately, did not reap the benefit of the mistral that helped to salvage the 2008 harvest in the south. The damp season took a heavy toll on vines in the north, with precipitation totals generally higher the farther north one goes. Especially heavy rainfall in early September delivered a coup de grace of rot and mildew to many vines. After growers eliminated whatever fruit was not salvageable, most were left with a tiny crop of middling-quality grapes. Many wines lack real ripeness and flesh, and thus do not possess the requisite depth of fruit to buffer—or outlast—the often strident acidity. Please refer to the separate sections on the north and south for more detail on vintage conditions in both 2008 and 2007.

Virtually all the wines reviewed in this article were tasted during my annual trip to the Rhône Valley in November, in most cases in the producers’ cellars. Coverage of the South in this issue is mostly limited to Châteauneuf du Pape reds and Gigondas. Additional bonus features on white Châteauneuf du Pape and Vacqueyras will be published on the IWC site in the coming weeks.