1998 and 1997 Rhone Valley Wines

Ploughing through snow in the North and enjoying brilliant sunshine in the South, I spent ten days in the Rhone Valley in late November, immersing myself in the '98s and following up on the mostly bottled '97s. In a nutshell, 1998 is a very good to excellent vintage in the Northern Rhone, and a splendid year in the South, clearly the best since 1990. The finest examples of Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas will merit active buying by fans of these wines as they arrive in the marketplace this spring.

The growing season and the wines. The 1998 growing season began with a sharp frost on the night of April 13/14 that devastated vines on the Cote-Rotie plateau, did substantial damage in Condrieu and Saint-Joseph, and also reduced crop levels in portions of Crozes-Hermitage and Cornas. The frost set the stage for a small crop in the North-for many growers, 30% to 50% below normal. But a successful, quick flowering and a warm, dry summer without the hydric stress seen in '97 allowed the fruit that remained to ripen well. Following some well-timed early September rain, the harvest was mostly dry and sunny and the grape skins remained healthy. If the window of favorable harvest weather lasted from September 16 to 25 in Burgundy in '98, it extended a bit longer in the Rhone Valley, especially in the South.

As in many red Burgundy cellars, the '98 Northern Rhone wines have all the components to be excellent medium-term agers but have been slow to reveal their personalities. In many instances, these wines have rather serious tannic structures, even if the tannins are generally harmonious and fine, owing to thoroughly mature grape skins. Although some growers describe their '97s as suppler wines, these wines do not generally have the balance of the '98s: the August heat wave in '97 tended to burn off acidity while retarding the ripening process, and when sugars mounted quickly during very warm September weather, much fruit was picked before the skins were full ripe. As a result, the '97s typically show their vintage more than their cepage or terroir.

The '98s in the North display virtually none of the cooked quality that results in loss of finesse and soil character. Grape sugars were sound, and pHs are generally lower than in '97. Even where grape sugars were lower than those of the previous year, the skins tended to be riper. Colors are healthy and deep, and aromas are fresh and complex. Growers typically describe acidity levels in '98 as average or even a bit lower than average, sometimes barely higher than those of '97. But at numerous addresses, growers also told me that the '98s appear considerably firmer than their '97s no matter what the technical analyses suggest. The '98s, they agree, communicate a minerality from the soil (an element that was frequently baked out of the '97s), and this characteristic lends firmness to tannins and brightness to flavors. The '98s will age more on their tannins than on their acids.

In the South, sugars are consistently high, sometimes in the freakishly high 15+% range. But here, too, aromas tend to be fresh, and although many wines show a jammy, liqueur-like quality that comes from thoroughly mature fruit, there's less evidence of over the top ripeness than in past great years. Maturity came from sunshine rather than from the mistral, the dry north wind that protects the fruit against rot and sends sugars soaring by shriveling the berries, but that can also quickly bring roasted aromas of surmaturite. Even the richest examples of 1998 manage to avoid heaviness. The best Southern Rhone wines have it all: dark, bright colors; sappy, nuanced aromas; impressive intensity and depth of flavor; and serious tannic support for aging. This was a year in which the grenache ripened gloriously and evenly, reaching high sugars without losing freshness or structure, but it was also a strong vintage for syrah and especially mourvedre.

Nineteen ninety-eight is unquestionably the finest vintage in the southern Rhone since 1990. Thanks to the ongoing evolution of viticultural and winemaking techniques, there will be more outstanding wines in 1998 than ever before. Although I hesitate to call any wine great until it is safely in bottle, it is already clear that 1998 will be a vintage to buy in quantity and to cellar. In addition to old standbys like Beaucastel, Rayas, Clos du Mont-Olivet and Les Cailloux, to name just a few, a host of wines less familiar to American consumers will be among the standouts of this marvelous year.

Pricing. Buyers from around the world, turned off by today's hilarious Bordeaux prices and unable to find or afford the best Burgundies, have increasingly focused attention on the Rhone Valley, putting further pressure on supplies. Prices at the grower levels will be moderately higher for the '98s-with increases surprisingly gentle considering the quality of the wines in the South-but importers, distributors and retailers will be tempted to take healthy mark-ups on these wines. Prices for wines from the same appellation and of roughly equal quality may vary wildly by the time they reach retail shelves, so careful purchasing will be essential. But when priced correctly, the best of these wines are still relative bargains in today's overheated market.

With a few exceptions, my visits in November were limited to addresses in Cote-Rotie, Condrieu, Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, Cornas, Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas. At most of the estates I visited, I have followed up last year's early coverage of the '97s 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 October, I have included notes on dozens of additional '98s tasted at the Federation in Chateauneuf du Pape as well as at the Syndicat d'Orange and the Syndicat de Gigondas.