2010 and 2009 Southern Rhone Wines

The southern Rhone's winning streak continued through the generally outstanding 2010 vintage, with some estates having produced the best wines I've yet tasted from them.  According to Christophe Sabon of Domaine de la Janasse, "balance is the word for 2010.  Okay, maybe it's really two words:  balance and freshness."  He went on:  "The acidity levels are high in the '10s but the fruit is ripe, almost like 2007 or even 2003 in some cases.  But there's no roasted character.  When those two elements are in harmony the wines are classic, classic Chateauneuf."

At Clos du Caillou, winemaker Bruno Gaspard, who makes no secret of his preference for wines of finesse over blockbusters, told me that 2010 shows the best aspects of 2008--"its bright fruit, but with greater depth and intensity"--and describes the year as a vintage "that will appeal to fans of both power and elegance."

The growing season did not have an auspicious start, as early spring frosts induced coulure, which in some cases severely reduced potential yields. But it was mostly smooth sailing after that, with warm but not excessively hot weather throughout the entire season coupled with cool nights that helped the fruit retain acidity and freshness.

A major factor behind the southern Rhone's success in recent years has been the concentration of the wines, which almost necessarily comes at the expense of yields.  For example, while the maximum harvest allowed at Chateauneuf du Pape is 35 hectoliters per hectare, the average yield in 2010 was reportedly just 27 hectares per hectare, and that's taking into account every producer in the region, not just the ones who achieve low yields by design. 

Daniel Brunier of Vieux Telegraphe (as well as Les Pallieres in Gigondas) bemoaned the pitiful quantity of grapes harvested in recent vintages, telling me that at Gigondas "we got 20 hectoliters per hectare in 2009 and only 15 in 2010.  It's especially painful to have such high quality and almost no wine.  It's the constant irony of wine-growing."  Brunier's sentiments were shared by Thierry Usseglio, who noted that what he thinks makes 2010 such a special year is that "because of the concentration from the low yields the flavor impression can move toward darker fruits, but not dark as in heavy or roasted, like 2007 can be, so you have both masculine and feminine character at the same time:  structure and power as well as elegance." 

Two thousand nine, as I wrote last year, also enjoyed a beneficent and notably warm growing season, with almost no rain.  There were some serious heat spells in August during the lead-up to harvest, which resulted in thicker grape skins and thus more tannins.  As the producers I visited in November told me, the 2009s are wines that will require cellaring to harmonize and round into drinking form.
While 2008 appears destined to live in the shadow of the superior 2009 vintage, '09 itself is already falling off the radar of some merchants and consumers as interest in the 2010s heats up.  Good to very good vintages like 1999, 2004 and 2006 are often neglected as the market runs off after a more-hyped or simply superior follow-up year, but 2009 might be the first genuinely outstanding set of wines that will suffer such a fate.  Anecdotal evidence from producers, importers, wholesalers, retailers and consumers (in other words, the whole spectrum of the wine market) indicates that this is already happening. 

And sommeliers that I speak with regularly are generally far more keen on the bright, elegant 2010s and even the well-priced (i.e., discounted) 2008s than they are on the broad-shouldered and often tannic and darker 2009s.  Many of those 2009s are in the process of shutting down, by the way, which will only serve to make them a tougher sell over at least the next few years.  In the current churn-turn-and-burn market a few years is an eternity, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see many 2009s, even some of the best bottlings, getting closed out before the 2010s arrive here.  As a matter of fact, many 2009s from southern Rhone appellations other than Chateauneuf, including even Gigondas and Vacqueyras, are already being discounted, and many have only been in the country for a few weeks!

And speaking of value, I'm seeing some amazing deals on 2008 southern Rhone wines lately, especially from Chateauneuf.  We're talking about 50% or even more off suggested retail for wines from some of the top producers, like Pegau and Vieux Donjon, so careful shopping can be richly rewarded right now.