2011 and 2010 Southern Rhone Wines

Following the general hype for the 2010 vintage in the southern Rhone, the good to very good 2011s had an impossible act to follow.  I predict that even the best wines from the newer vintage will go begging for attention when they are released over the course of this year.  And that's a shame, because fans of fruit-forward, accessible wines will find plenty to like from '11, which looks to be an ideal candidate for restaurants as well as for wine lovers who lack the facilities or patience for long-term storage. 

The growers I visited on my annual November tour of the southern Rhone Valley described 2011 as a year in which "summer was in spring and spring was in summer."  According to Julien Barrot of Domaine La Barroche, "the year started out fast, with lots of vegetation, but the cold weather in July and August slowed everything down, to a point where some people were beginning to panic."  It was a vintage that had the potential to produce a very large yield, thanks to the robust spring and early summer, and with that came the temptation to keep as many clusters as possible, even if there had been uneven ripening because of the cool weather in summer.  That temptation was exacerbated by the fact that the yields of the previous three harvests had been smaller than average.

Warmer weather returned in late August but patience was essential.  The usual mantra in this vast region is that grapes harvested too early retains natural acidity but show incomplete fruit maturity, while grapes harvested too late gain ripeness but lose acidity.  Yet in 2011, many growers who kept their secateurs holstered into autumn didn't see a significant drop in acid numbers or a jump in pHs, so it was possible to harvest late, even very late, when fruit ripeness levels came into balance with acidity and pHs.

It was a vintage that favored later-ripening varieties like syrah and "especially mourvedre," according to Barrot and Beaucastel's Marc Perrin.  The favorable weather allowed many estates to wait until the second half of September to pick, and some continued harvesting through the end of October, or even into early November for mourvedre.  Bruno Gaspard of Clos du Caillou told me that all of his estate's fruit came in at above 15% potential alcohol, with some lots hitting 18%.  So this isn't a wimpy vintage by any measure, even for a region that reliably produces some of the world's most potent, heady red wines.

The key to success in 2011 was strict attention in the vineyards, especially a willingness to do draconian green-harvesting.  Perrin said that "it was essential to limit your yields, otherwise you have dilution in the wine.  The fruit can be clean and bright but the danger is a lack of concentration."  He pointed out that the Famille Perrin Gigondas, their entry-level bottling from that village, was made from a yield of less than 22 hectoliters per hectare, and the result speaks for itself.  It's ironic that thanks to such severe, even extreme crop-thinning and selection at harvest, what could have been an abundant vintage actually turned into one that was smaller than normal at some estates.  Perrin described it as "a man-made low yield, which was necessary for quality.  It would have been a mistake, though, to try to get too much extraction, especially from young vines.  The hallmark of the best 2011s is flavor intensity without too much weight."  Like most of his colleagues, Perrin believes that it will be the rare 2011 that will improve with extended cellaring. 

I was very pleasantly surprised by the vivacity of many of the 2011s I tasted during my cellar visits and found myself making mental comparisons to the 2006s and 2004s produced in the region.  Fans of graceful, fruit-driven Rhone wines will find plenty to like from 2011 and, as was the case in 2008, 2006 and 2004, I suspect that many excellent wines will generate limited interest at their release prices.  With the exception of a handful of limited-production special cuvees and the wines from the cultiest of the cult producers I'll bet that virtually all 2011 Chateauneufs will hit U.S. shelves and internet offerings at steeply discounted prices, especially with the often outstanding 2009s beginning to back up in the market.

A second look at 2010.  There's not much to say about 2010 that hasn't been intensely discussed already.  It's almost universally regarded as one of the epic vintages of this generation, with growers comparing it to legendary years like 2005, 1990, 1978 and 1959.  It's pretty hard to go wrong in choosing a 2010 because "it was a year that gave everybody everything they needed to make great wine," according to omnipresent consultant Philippe Cambie. 

A caveat to bear in mind, though, is that 2010 produced wines with serious tannins to go with their intense fruit, and those tannins are beginning to assert themselves.  In many cases the window of youthful appeal is closing or has closed for these wines, based on what I tasted in November.  A number of producers, including Paul Avril at Clos des Papes and Thierry Sabon at Clos du Mont-Olivet, told me that their wines were far more expressive in September than they were when shown to me in mid-November.  As a result, these producers fear that if people crack open their '10s when they begin to hit our shores in the next few months, "they'll wonder what the big deal is," as Sabon put it.  Louis Barruol at Saint-Cosme predicts that the wines won't be as forebidding as the 2005s at the same stage "because the fruit is more intense and the tannins less hard," but he also hopes that wine lovers don't dig deeply into their 2010 stashes too early.

Prices are relatively high for the best 2010s and show no signs of dropping back.  But there are bargains to be found if one looks a little further down the wine chain, especially for the "basic" bottlings that producers often refer to as "Tradition" or "Classique."  My mailbox is still being flooded with offers for very good 2010 Chateauneufs and Gigondas in the $25 to $40 range so savvy buyers still have plenty of options for the vintage. 

Even more appealing, though, are prices for the many outstanding 2009s that went begging almost immediately after the market got a whiff of 2010's "vintage of a lifetime" potential.  My recent tastings of 2009s have been consistently impressive, and most of the producers with whom I tasted in November opined that it's a vintage that will probably always give great pleasure without the risk of shutting down.  That said, the 2009s should also enjoy relatively long, graceful evolutions in bottle.  "It's easy to drink them now and always has been," Isabel Ferrando of Saint-Prefert said, "and that might make people think that they need to drink them young, but they're more than that."