2009 and 2008 Northern Rhone Wines

It’s always telling when producers pour their finished vintage before the one in barrel, which was the case with the red wines I was shown in virtually every cellar I visited in the northern Rhône Valley in mid-November. Presenting their 2008s before the 2009s was a not-so-tacit admission that 2008 was “a difficult” vintage, in gentle parlance, or “a disaster,” as some of the more frank producers admitted. It was a cool, rainy year, with plenty of vineyard maladies to fight throughout the season. The grapes struggled to ripen and in many cases, especially in low-lying sites, they simply never got there. That problem became more exaggerated the farther north you went, according to a number of growers, which means that the vintage favors Cornas, as well as Saint-Péray.

With sardonic understatement Jacques Grange, the winemaker at Delas Frères, told me that things might not have been so rough in 2008 “if it weren’t for an awful lot of poorly timed rain just before the harvest and the mildew that followed it.” That rain amounted to over 300 millimeters in less than 24 hours at Hermitage on September 3 and 4, which is about 50% of what the area normally gets in a full year. According to Agnès Levet, “years like 2008 make the case that terroir is paramount.” René Rostaing used virtually the same words, adding that “there’s a reason why some vineyards are just better than others, and in ’08 you needed proper exposure for ripeness, air movement and drainage. It’s the difficult years in which the grand crus prove their worth and the lesser sites show why they aren’t great. And even with great sites you still had to make severe selection.” Rostaing is one of a number of producers who sold off a lot of juice before eventually bottling a single wine, which includes the fruit from his very best-situated and oldest vines.

As with any vintage, a few of the best producers were able to pull off an upset and make wines that are bright and delicious, if not destined for a long life. A number of ‘08s are quite tasty right now and remind me a lot of the 2004s, but with lighter body. “But you need to look out for angular acidity in 2008,” said Jean-Louis Chave. “It isn’t so apparent right now but it will show up more clearly in a couple of years.”

The white wines of the northern Rhône fared better in 2008 than the reds but are still generally light in body and high in acidity, with less of the exotic appeal that most consumers expect, especially in their Condrieus. Some of the more optimistic producers believe that the wines will gain weight with a little bottle age, especially those who admit that their palate favors a less extroverted style of white wine, like Rostaing. “The 2008s have firm structure and pronounced minerality,” he said. “So if you’re drinking them any time soon you really should decant them as they need some time to open up and gain flesh.”

A whole ’nother thing in 2009. There have been rumblings that 2009 is a watershed vintage for the red wines of the northern Rhône, and while a number of wines are flat-out outstanding I’m not yet ready to concur. Neither are the producers, by the way, especially those who believe that adequate structure for aging rather than flamboyantly ripe fruit is a key criterion for defining greatness. Two thousand nine was a hot year and many of the young wines I tasted, while undeniably alluring, show a ripeness and openness, not to mention moderate acidity and soft tannins, that makes me suspicious of their long-term promise. “It’s a rich vintage in the north and south and you really should have picked early to get a balanced wine,” Philippe Guigal told me. “You had to make sure that the sugars and subsequent alcohol didn’t get away from you. That’s also an issue with the white wines; a lot are very high in alcohol: 15% is pretty much the average for Hermitage and plenty of Condrieu is at 16%.” That opinion was echoed by Christophe Bonnefond, who said, “2009 was a hot and dry year, with many of the wines having very high alcohol and low acidity. That’s not the best thing if you like to age the wines but it does give them immediate appeal and they are definitely exuberant and flashy.” Bonnefond is especially wary of cellaring 2009 Condrieus and thinks that they should be drunk soon, “for all that exotic character.” Lionel Faury piled on, expressing the opinion that “it’s important to watch carefully for high alcohol in 2009, especially with the white wines. There were a lot of seriously ripe grapes brought in.”

If your inclination is to enjoy your wines on the young side and you enjoy ripe, fleshy fruit and soft tannins, 2009 is a definite must-buy. Said Brigitte Roch: “These wines are going to make a lot of people happy but they’re really about fruit expression, sometimes at the expense of structure. Depending on how and when most people like to drink their wines, that probably isn’t really an issue.”