2006 and 2005 Rhone Valley Wines

If the scores assigned to a majority of wines in this article seem particularly high to long-time IWC readers, there’s a reason. In the case of 2005, we are dealing with one of the great ageworthy Rhône Valley vintages of the past 30 years. Wine-lovers who have the fortitude to put away the best wines from both the north and south for at least a decade, and perhaps longer in the case of the best syrah-based examples, will be amply rewarded. Those in the habit of popping and pouring their newly acquired bottles will not. But if holding out isn’t your strong suit, 2006 offers a slew of wines that will scratch your near-term itch. Unlike the more obviously structured 2005s, this vintage offers plenty of wines defined by their up-front, supple and sweet fruit and their typically more pliant textures and harmonious tannins.

It should also be obvious to veteran Rhône fans that, despite the inherent wildness of these wines, every new vintage brings with it more polish—bottles with less of the rusticity and, frankly, dirtiness that defined too many Rhône examples prior to the 1990s. Today’s winemakers, particularly the younger generation, are trying to make fresher, more balanced and less extreme wines, usually by harvesting for optimal rather than excessive ripeness, taking special care with extraction during vinification, dialing down the use of new oak, protecting their wines against oxidation during élevage, and bottling them before they dry out. This greater care and attention to detail should be a huge relief to those who like to drink wine rather than be beaten to a pulp by it.

The vintages in question. My November tour of the Rhône Valley afforded me my first in-depth look at the 2006 vintage, which rates as very good to excellent in both the north and south. A key feature of the growing season was a very hot and dry June and July, which raised some concerns that a replay of 2003 was in the works. But August turned extremely cool, slowing down the grape maturity, and some light rains in early September further rejuvenated the vines. A short period of heat in the north helped to increase sugar levels in the grapes. The harvest commenced in late August in the south and in the second week of September in the north and took place in a leisurely manner. In fact, picking for the later-ripening grenache and mourvèdre in the south extended well into October. As a rule, yields were slightly below normal in the south and average in the north.

The vintage shares some of the qualities that have made 2004 a favorite of many Rhône-lovers, with similarly gentle structure, good balance and noteworthy freshness. Where 2006 holds an edge is in the fruit department. I found more up-front, pliant and flat-out sweet fruit in the 2006s I tried than in the same producers’ 2004s, and the tannins are usually more deftly woven into the wines. Most 2006s will appeal to impatient drinkers who cannot defer gratification and enjoy drinking plump, sweet, juicy wines that are unencumbered by youthful tannins and noticeable acidity. The general personality of the syrahs of the north is extremely appealing, with vibrant, fresh fruit and silky texture. I did not get the impression that many producers considered 2006 to be in the same league as 2005 in long-term potential, but they were excited that the year turned out wines that can be enjoyed much earlier. In light of the fact that a huge chunk of their sales is to restaurants and to a growing number of consumers with quick corkscrews, good vintages that can be enjoyed young are increasingly important to them. “Nobody anywhere wants to cellar their wines,” one grower told me with a mixture of astonishment and disdain. “You have people now who think that their 2001s are mature wines.”

Two thousand five was another animal entirely. It was another drought year, but not one of excessive heat, and the nights were generally cool. The season was punctuated by a very hot, dry August, with plenty of sunshine, resulting in healthy, often thick-skinned grapes. Rain brought relief to the south in early September and was followed by a Mistral wind that continued virtually throughout a harvest that extended for some estates in the south into late October. The drawn-out, problem-free picking season allowed growers to harvest their various varieties and parcels at leisure. The growing season was longer than usual in the north as well, and yields were extremely low.

The generally healthy acidity levels of the 2005s, combined with their substantial and often firm tannins, has resulted in wines that will be wonderful keepers but mostly avoid the ultraripe, even roasted character found in many 2003s. Yes, there’s plenty of very ripe, deep, sweet fruit in the ‘05s, which should help see the wines through to old age. The potential knock on 2005—in my view unwarranted—is that the wines are not immediately appealing, which is increasingly viewed in some quarters as a shortcoming. But collectors who value wines that truly evolve and become more complex with extended aging will accept as virtues the exact qualities that the nay-sayers are deriding. The fact is that some wines need time to sort themselves out and actually become more wine-y—as opposed to simply super-expensive grape juice.

Patience, the disappearing virtue. I continue to be astounded by folks who pass judgment on newly released bottles from regions with which they have, relatively speaking, only cursory experience. Those who grouse about the elevated tannins and acidity of the 2005 Rhônes seem to have got the notion that if a wine fails to display wide-open, luscious fruit immediately after bottling, it must be doomed. The most consistent lament I heard from growers in the Rhône Valley this year was that Jean-come-lately consumers were rushing to open their 2005s rather than giving them the time they deserve to show their strengths and reach their full potential—and this comment was aimed more at French drinkers than at Americans. These are, after all, wines with lengthy histories of coming into their own only after ten years or more of proper aging, and then giving great drinking pleasure for another decade or three. And 2005 is a vintage that nature definitely endowed for the long haul. Please resist the temptation to pull too many of the corks on these babies anytime soon.

The bad news on pricing. American wine lovers are already painfully aware that nature couldn’t have picked a worse time to deliver must-have vintages. Thanks to the lifeless dollar, Yanks will pay twice as much for most 2005s as they paid for the same wines from the 2001 vintage. Are you ready for $75 Châteauneuf du Pape? Côte-Rôtie for $125? How about an $80 Cornas? And forget about the trophy wines, which have cruised well into the $200 to $300 range. Count your blessings if you’re sitting on top of a stash of ’01, ’99, ’98 or older Rhônes. For those not so lucky, the obvious advice is to choose very carefully right now, and maybe even probe the market for well-stored wines from older vintages. Search the IWC archives and do some shopping, soon.

Nearly all of the wines reviewed in this article were tasted during my annual trip to the Rhône Valley in November, usually in the producers’ cellars.