2007 and 2006 Rhone Valley Wines

The 2007 vintage in the southern Rhône has been the subject of intense scrutiny and sometimes overheated rhetoric virtually since the grapes landed in the presses. For the most part, the hype is justified. But perhaps the most pleasant surprise on my annual November tour of the Rhône Valley was the often superb quality of the wines of the north, particularly the reds.

The refrain that I heard most often up and down the valley was that the winds of September ensured impeccably clean grapes and a healthy harvest. An extended growing season, with little in the way of heat spikes and capped off by moderating breezes and cool nights in September, allowed for the steady build-up of both grape sugars and skin maturity, yielding wines with balance and complexity. For the most part the 2007s feature abundant but not excessive alcohol levels. The charm of the vintage lies in great part with the seductive upfront appeal of the wines, but the best of them are built to last and improve in cool cellars.

Winos who prize immediate gratification will go nuts for the 2007s from the southern Rhône Valley, while those collectors who gravitate toward more classically styled wines that are slower to reveal themselves will be a bit more discriminating about the wines they buy. As for the question of whether 2007 is “the greatest vintage ever” in the south, I’m averse to such sweeping generalizations as a rule and think that such a proclamation discounts the consistent greatness of, for example, 2005 and 2001, two vintages that produced a wealth of outstanding wines. It’s a sounder policy, I think, to balance a cellar with a range of vintages, and I hope that IWC readers can resist the temptation to stack their cellars with 2007s at the expense of the elegant 2006s and 2004s and the powerful 2005s that are still available, in most cases at lower prices than the 2007s will command.

Meanwhile, the high-quality, classically structured 2006s appear poised to fade into immediate oblivion in the American market. Sandwiched as they are between the ’07s and ’05s, they are likely to be overlooked by cash-strapped American buyers. For smart consumers, there will probably be plenty of buying opportunities as the 2006s are dumped by importers, wholesalers and retailers in an effort to generate cash to pay for the soon-to-arrive, and hopefully easier-to-sell, 2007s. A similar fate befell most 2004s, which are proving, as a group, to be lovely wines, with plenty of short- to mid-term appeal but also the balance to reward extended cellaring.

The South. The 2007s from the southern Rhône are accessible and captivating wines with pure, sweet fruit and harmonious tannins. It’s easy to see why so many people have been going ga-ga for them since they were grape juice, and many growers that I visited in November wonder if the wines will ever go through a dumb stage. Part of the allure of the 2007s may be a result of many wines finishing with three or four grams of residual sugar, according to Thierry Faravel of Domaine La Bouïssiere in Gigondas. Faravel also told me that a large number of wines finished with relatively high pHs, which also gives them an early seductiveness. Yes, they’ll hit the wino’s G-spot right now, but with rare exception the ’07s possess the balance and freshness necessary to maintain structure and focus. To my palate, most of these wines will show their best while moderately young—say between 2012 and 2020, or perhaps a few years longer. I doubt that they will evolve as slowly or last as long as the best 2005s, but for the vast majority of today’s wine-drinkers that’s hardly an issue. As Thierry Usseglio told me, “you won’t have to defer gratification with the 2007s. But the 2005s should carry a warning label about drinking them too young.”

In the south, the damp spring of 2007 was followed by a dry, warm summer that was marked, as in the north, by strong, steady winds, especially through the month of September, which helped prevent vine maladies and kept the vineyards cool enough that they could “sleep at night,” in the words of more than one producer. Not much more than an inch of rain was recorded at Beaucastel between mid-June and mid-September, Marc Perrin told me, and this extended dry spell was followed by a quick 20 millimeters of rain between the 16th and 18th of September, which Perrin said rejuvenated the vines. The mistral picked up on the 18th and skies remained clear through the end of the harvest. Those winds ensured a steady increase in grape sugars, and cool nights ensured an unhurried maturation of the grapes and subsequent complexity for the wines. Overall harvest levels were right around the legal 35 hectoliters-per-hectare maximum for Châteauneuf, so there will be plenty of wine to go around.

According to Bastien Tardieu, “another big factor in the high quality of 2007 is that the fruit had 120 days on the vines between flowering and harvest instead of the typical 100, so there’s the potential for great complexity.” The absence of heat spikes results in supple grape skins rather than leathery ones, which can yield wines with hard tannins. In 2007 it also meant that the growers could pick slowly and carefully, when they and the vines were ready, rather than under pressure from the elements. Tardieu also pointed out that the 2007s in general have very low levels of volatile acidity, so with most wines there’s nothing to get in the way of their pure, sweet fruit.

The North. While availability of northern Rhône wines is always sketchy due to the limited quantities produced of most of the best wines, the 2007s from Côte-Rôtie will be an even tougher catch than usual. A devastating hailstorm attacked the Côte-Brune on June 21, and many producers had their yields slashed severely. Fortunately, the hail came early enough in the season not to trigger rot or to have an impact on wine quality. And the June storm spared the Côte-Blonde, so producers whose wines are sourced from the southern end of the appellation were spared the misery of their neighbors to the north.

René Rostaing, a leading grower in Côte-Rôtie, describes himself as very contented with the quality of his 2007s. “The season ended particularly well for us,” he told me, “with a hot September that allowed sugar levels to rise and contributed to good concentration.” He believes the wines will drink well young and be at their best through what he calls their middle age: up to their tenth birthdays. They are wines, he thinks, that should be enjoyed for their sweet fruit. Further south, in the Saint-Joseph and Hermitage neighborhoods, Bernard Faurie noted that “July and August make the grapes, while September makes the wine, and we had a classic summer, with a cold August that slowed things down, followed by a warm and incredibly windy September, which allowed sugars to rise steadily but not rapidly, so I guess that you could call it almost perfect.” Those views were echoed by Caroline Frey of Paul Jaboulet Aîné, who added that the unseasonably chilly August and cool nights in September and through the harvest “gave a very appealing freshness and elegance to the wines.”

As in the south, most 2007s from the north will offer considerable up-front charm thanks to their well-integrated tannins and healthy but not excessive acidity. These wines provide much more immediate appeal than the 2006s did, and while I’m betting on the ‘06s to age gracefully, the 2007s will provide greater pleasure in the short and medium term.

Virtually all of the wines reviewed in this article were tasted during my annual trip to the Rhône Valley in November, in most cases in the producers’ cellars. Due to space constraints, coverage of the South in this issue is mostly limited to Châteauneuf du Pape reds and Gigondas. Additional bonus features on white Châteauneufs and Vacqueyras will be available to on-line subscribers in the coming weeks.