Tastings of more than 600 Rhône wines by the JamesSuckling.com tasting team proved that drinkability comes in spades, with recent warm vintages resulting in a broad movement back to balance and order.
When I arrived in Châteauneuf du Pape at the beginning of March, the new winery buildings gleamed in the brilliant sunshine of early spring. Clearly, a lot of money has flowed into France’s second-largest wine region and most famous wine town of the Rhône Valley since the end of the last century, and some producers have started to imitate the architecture of their counterparts in Bordeaux: smooth-as-silk limestone walls, large wrought-iron gates and marble floors have all become part of the landscape.
However, I quickly discovered that most of the leading winemakers still have their feet planted very firmly on the ground. Philippe Bravay of Domaine de Ferrand insisted on taking me out into the vineyards in his rattling old Citroën 2CV to show me the ancient vines that give the grapes to his Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Antique Vielles Vignes 2019, which was our highest-rated wine from the regional appellation. Côtes du Rhone is mostly associated with warm and round reds for everyday drinking, but this wine’s stunning balance of richness and gentle tannins is an ideal introduction to high-end red Rhône wines.
Out in the vineyard, the thoughtful Bravay hit the nail on the head when he described the fundamental challenge facing winemakers in the Rhône, where the weather is often strongly influenced by the Mediterranean to the south. “The problem here is not getting the grape maturity,” he told me. “The problem is getting drinkability.” Welcome to the Rhône reality check.
His shoot-from-the-hip manner was no exception, either. Collectors around Planet Wine fight for every bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape from Domaine de Pegau, but the winery looks like a regular farm. In the slightly chaotic cellar, co-founder and winemaker Laurence Feraud almost fell off a precariously balanced ladder while drawing a sample of wine from a large old wooden cask. I’m glad that didn’t faze her, because that meant I got to taste the mind-blowingly concentrated and complex Domaine de Pegau Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée da Capo 2020.
Another Rhône reality check is overdue. Plenty of consumers still seem to believe that the red wines of Rhône are packed with jammy fruit. However, of the more than 600 wines I tasted from the region, surprisingly few matched that stereotype. The string of mostly warm vintages that began with 2015 have resulted in a broad movement back to balance and character.
Nowhere is that clearer than in the highest-rated wine in this report, the perfect M Chapoutier Ermitage l’Ermite 2019 – a pure Syrah from the Hermitage appellation in the northern Rhône. Yes, it’s an enormously concentrated red with gigantic tannins, but they’re very fine, and it also has great stony minerality. Only a hint of oak adds complexity.
Winemaker Michel Chapoutier’s great masterpiece is a career highpoint, but not totally unique. We were stunned by his three other amazing single-vineyard red Ermitage wines of the 2019 vintage and rated them all very highly. Tasting them was one of the most exciting sessions ever in my home tasting room. It made clear why the Rhône has long had a global fan club.
Aside from a few appellations in the north like Condrieu, which specialises in whites from the viognier grape, dry whites are in a small minority in the Rhône. However, the best of them are very impressive, and a few are extraordinary. That was certainly true of the M Chapoutier Ermitage de l’Orée 2019, a pure marsanne that was the highest-rated dry white in this report.
We love the breathtaking deep floral honey, stone fruit and brioche character of this rich yet super-precise wine. All these single-parcel wines from Chapoutier are made from biodynamically cultivated grapes, compared with the just 10 percent of all Rhone vineyards that are cultivated organically or biodynamically. Furthermore, they share outstanding balance with all 73 wines we rated 95 or more points. And we found excellent harmony among the latter, though what exactly that means varies depending on which of the more than 30 appellations you’re in.
In the southern Rhone the picture is quite complex because of the many other grape varieties cultivated alongside the dominant grenache. In all, 13 grape varieties are approved for production in Châteauneuf du Pape, but even in the new climatic situation, the role of each at any particular property exerts a major influence on the wine. Château de Beaucastel, for example, has long been committed to the mourvedre grape (known as monastrel in its Spanish homeland). It helps gives these wines their impressive dark colour and muscularity, as the Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape Hommage à Jacques Perrin 2020, the second highest-rated red in this report, brilliantly shows.
It’s also an excellent example of what we find so exciting about the 2020 vintage. Like 2019, it was a warm, drought year with almost no summer rainfall. However, the fruit is often brighter and more expressive in the 2020s than in the more structured 2019s. In spite of that, the 2020s have a lighter feel, which together with the fruit often gives a very satisfying whole.
Now, every good winemaker in the region is thinking about freshness and balance, with an increasing number getting close to the centre of that target. The Rhône has undergone a reality check and is on a roll.
Five highest-rated Rhône wines:
M CHAPOUTIER ERMITAGE L’ERMITE 2019
Incredibly dense elderberry fruit with raw-meat, smoked-bacon, balsamic-vinegar, mushroom and tar aromas. But there are plenty of other nuances in this astonishing Hermitage!
DOMAINE DU PEGAU CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU- PAPE CUVÉE ELLA 2020
So sensual, yet so precise, this has extremely deep forest-berry fruit that a touch of bitter chocolate counterpoints beautifully. Extremely creamy and succulent on the palate.
M CHAPOUTIER ERMITAGE BLANC DE L’ORÉE 2019
Stunning nose of floral honey and brioche with a smoky tension. Enormous concentration of dried stone fruit, but also super-precise on the wide-screen palate.
CHÂTEAU DE BEAUCASTEL CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE HOMMAGE À JACQUES PERRIN 2020
Enveloping nose of super-ripe orange, pomegranate and cigar leaf that’s still very youthful and needs time to reveal its myriad nuances. Enormous concentration, silkiness and finesse on the expansive palate.
DOMAINE DU PEGAU CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU- PAPE CUVÉE DA CAPO 2020
Incredibly complex leather and forest-floor character, as well as great wild-blackberry fruit, make this enormously concentrated and powerful Châteauneuf du Pape irresistible.
This article first appeared on Prestige Hong Kong