2001 and 2000 Rhone Valley Wines

A rainstorm of near-biblical proportions in early September of 2002 put an end to Chateauneuf du Pape's unprecedented string of superb vintages, with upwards of 14 inches of water - nearly a half year's worth of precipitation - coming down in little more than a day. More hilly appellations north and east of Chateauneuf saw less crop damage, but in these areas, as well, growers will have to sacrifice much of their fruit if they are to come up with decent wine. The Northern Rhone also had its share of late summer weather problems prior to the syrah harvest, with growers in Cote-Rotie forced to pick underripe fruit in a rush before the rains triggered widespread rot. This was a vintage in which the minimum potential alcohol for the appellation was reduced to 9.5%.

On my annual November tour of the Rhone Valley, which took place in mostly mild but very wet weather, growers from Cote-Rotie to Chateauneuf spoke of the difficulties of harvest 2002. At the same time, and especially in the South, they also wanted to savor the 1998 through 2001 vintages, especially the extremely promising 2001, which for many estates is turning out to be the best of the recent string. The sheer profusion of excellent wine made in the Southern Rhone since 1998 is staggering - in terms both of the range of wines and the quantities produced. Consumers now have the opportunity to sock away the better examples from 2000 and 2001, the two vintages I tasted in depth in November.

The 2001 vintage in the North. Most Northern Rhone growers are happy with the 2001 vintage. As a rule they had slightly higher grape sugars than in the previous year, with somewhat fresher acidity. Crop levels were generous, but often a good 10% to 15% lower than those of the previous year. Following a cool July, the summer of 2001 was warm and dry into early September, when temperatures cooled. There was then some rain on three consecutive weekends, beginning on September 16. The first rain widely aided the ripening process, but more substantial rain on the 22nd and especially the 23rd compelled many growers to pick, even if their grapes were not perfectly ripe. Those whose fruit remained healthy could wait a bit longer, and these growers often brought in more concentrated grapes. Phenolic maturity came slowly and the cool temperatures often helped to forestall rot. Skins were generally thicker than those of the previous year, and grapes often smaller. In 2000, in comparison, there were more problems with drought by late August, and more problems with blocked maturity and high yields. In general, the 2000 fruit lost more acidity as it ripened in September.

If 2000 is ripe and fleshy, with moderate concentration and a tendency toward low acidity, 2001 is ripe and more obviously structured; the young '01s generally show more tightly grained tannins. Due to their firmer backbones, many 2001s give the impression of being less fat. They show more of the floral, mineral side of Northern Rhone syrah; they are more aromatically complex and classic. The 2001s appear built for at least mid-term aging, which means that Cote-Roties will probably be best suited for consumption 5 to 15 years after the vintage, and Hermitages 8 to 20. (Many 2000 Cote-Roties, in comparison, seem approachable already and should probably be consumed over the next 10 years; except for a few especially structured Hermitages, these wines should be ready to drink within five or six years.) Several estates compared their young 2001s to their '98s but noted that the '98s have harder tannins. It must be said, though, that a minority of growers told me that their 2001s will offer early drinkability. I found some similarities between the 2001 and 2000 vintages in the Northern Rhone and in the Cote de Nuits: the 2000s fleshy and accessible, the 2001s more classic, more aromatic, more shapely even when they are not particularly dense. Lesser 2001s lack richness and thrust but the best offer a classic balance of grape sugars, acids and tannins.

2001 in the South. Here the weather was very dry from mid-July until the latter third of September. The mistral in early September concentrated the sugars, but in most spots the tannins were not yet ripe. The grenache harvest generally began in mid-September, and a bit of rain on the 22nd and 23rd abetted the ripening process. Considerably more fruit was picked the following week under good conditions. Following a bit more rain on the 29th and 30th, the later pickers finished the harvest in sunny early October weather. Those who took the risk of harvesting late in 2001 were far more likely to have made dense wines with thoroughly ripe tannins.

The 2001s have been extremely promising from the beginning, though in many cellars difficult to taste. Numerous growers noted that the wines are gaining with their final months of elevage, demonstrating increasing depth of flavor while also showing more shape and harmony. In comparison, my own tasting experience suggests that some 2000s did not benefit at the same stage; many of the wines, as supple as they are, seem a bit diffuse. According to Andre Brunel of Les Cailloux, there was more drought stress during the late summer of 2000; a wine made under these conditions, he says, is more likely to lose freshness during its final months of elevage. The 2001s, in contrast, "are becoming more elegant in barrel, revealing the feminine side of grenache."

This fall, I asked several of the appellation's top producers to rate the 1998 through 2001 vintages in terms of quality, style and potential longevity. I have excerpted their comments in the following brief paragraphs.

2001: An elegant, European style, with its richness arriving slowly on the palate. Getting steadily better in barrel. Powerful and structured, but not showing the early balance and appeal of the 2000s. Strong tannins largely hidden by velvety fruit (but some say tannins are a bit obvious today). Quite dark fruit in character. Yields often down considerably from 2000.

2000: Rich fruit if sometimes a bit closed on the nose. Silky, velvety and fat, with plenty of grenache surmaturite and glycerine. Excellent balance and finesse. Thoroughly ripe tannins (but some describe them as a bit rustic). Sound colors suggest good aging potential. Some wines just miss on concentration due to high yields.

1999: Minerally, gamey wines with somewhat rustic, harder tannins. Marked by summer drought and heat, but generally sound acids give good freshness. Some wines lack density and flesh, but those that are youthfully closed now should develop slowly. Marked by spice more than by red or black fruits. Excellent mourvedre. A generally small crop.

1998: A great year for grenache, with long-term aging potential for examples that are not over the top. Powerful, deep, very rich but mostly balanced wines. Some tend toward heaviness. Classic red fruit liqueur and fruit compote flavors of grenache en surmaturite.BR>
For consumers who continue to sock away the finest full-flavored reds from the Southern Rhone Valley: look beyond Chateauneuf du Pape. Although there are more superstars in this large and varied appellation than ever before, too many estates still underperform. Yes, the wines are elegantly made, but too many offer only modest depth of flavor and are distinctly less satisfying than the best examples from so-called lesser appellations. I'm not just talking here about Gigondas but appellations like Vacqueyras, Cairanne and Rasteau. And wines simply labelled Cote du Rhones-Villages can be some of the best values of all in the ripe years.

At most of the estates I visited in November, I have followed up last year's early coverage of the 2000s with notes on the finished wines. As always, precise scores are provided for finished wines and ranges for wines still in barrel or cuve (due to space constraints, notes are provided only for finished wines rating at least 86 points). Following my brief profiles of numerous Chateauneuf du Pape and Gigondas estates visited in November, I have included notes on dozens of additional 2001 and 2000 Southern Rhone wines I sampled this fall in France and in New York. As usual, my Rhone Valley coverage is devoted largely to red wines.