2012 and 2011 Northern Rhone Wines

Winegrowers in the northern Rhone Valley have enjoyed a virtually unbroken string of good to legendary vintages (with 2002 being the bad guy) since the early 1990s, a run of luck that is unprecedented in this often-cool continental climate.  The weather closely tracks Burgundy, which shouldn't come as a surprise given the fact that Ampuis is only 100 kilometers south of Macon.  Add the altitude of the better vineyards here and things can get pretty wintry in the northern Rhone, as two snowstorms during my trip in the middle of November will attest.

Recent vintages.
If it wasn't for 2010 and 2009, 2012 would be looked at as a great year by many winemakers in the region. "It was warm and dry at the start of the vintage, then a lot of rain through the spring and into summer gave healthy and vigorous vines, sometimes too vigorous," said Caroline Frey of Paul Jaboulet Aine.  There was steady warmth throughout the growing season, with some extreme heat spells in August and normal rainfall through the summer.  Sugars jumped quickly as a result of the warm spells but then slowed down and flattened out in September, which was mild, with cool nights.  Those conditions preserved acidity in the grapes.  A number of producers commented that in an ideal world the grape skins would have been thicker, thus giving more tannins, but this was no cause for serious gnashing of teeth.  The best wines from 2012 are elegant in style and balanced to age, quite unlike the ripe 2009s and the structured, more masculine 2010s.  According to Jean-Paul Jamet, "the 2012s have harmonious tannins already; they'll probably be enjoyable younger than usual but they don't lack structure.  They're not as forward as 2009, they're more friendly than the 2010s, and they have more depth and sweetness than the 2011s."  That view was echoed by Pierre Gonon, who called the '12s "classic and charming, like an improved 2006, with the fruit ahead of the tannins and not imprinted by the climate, as in hot vintages like 2009 or 2003."

In 2011, patience in the vineyard was rewarded, if not essential, and a number of producers harvested into the second week of October, which has become a rarity in these parts.  A cool but dry summer slowed down the ripening but kept acids healthy, which was a cause for concern as the summer wound down because ripeness was lagging behind schedule, even though the fruit was "impeccably clean," according to Brigitte Clusel-Roch.  There was also a tendency for vines to be especially energetic in some vineyards, which Chapoutier's Pierre-Henri Morel said "meant that you had to do a lot of de-leafing to keep the vines' energy focused on the fruit."  Going into September, growers noticed that acidity levels weren't dropping appreciably so many decided to wait for further ripeness, which turned out to be a good strategy.  Generally speaking, the 2011s are fresh and incisive but not shrill, with an emphasis on red fruits and bitter cherry rather than the dark fruit character found in most 2012s, not to mention the '10s and '09s.  "It's a purists' vintage," according to Rene Rostaing, "with an emphasis on terroir over ripe fruit."  Rostaing, like a number of his colleagues, describes 2011 as "like a mix of 2004 and 2001, with strong minerality and definition to the wines."

As for the wines of 2010, which are becoming the modern-day benchmark for greatness here, I've noticed that their balance makes many of them surprisingly drinkable now, but most of the top wines are dominated by their structure today, which tells me to keep my hands off for now.  The 2009s have always been warm and approachable, with dark fruit character, often with roasted notes, and broad tannins.  Overall, they can't match the 2010s for vivacity, but many fans of rich northern Rhone wines will love them.  There are elements of 2003 in play but the fruit is more on the red side, and there's less overt ripeness and weight, relatively speaking.

The biggest issue facing collectors of northern Rhone wines has always been scarcity, since very few wines are made in substantial volume outside of, say, Guigal's Cote-Rotie Brune et Blonde and a handful of others.  Limited supply has always been a problem but it is becoming exacerbated by a significant uptick in worldwide demand for the region's wines, top to bottom.  I can't think of any small grower that I visited who had more than a handful of '11s to sell, if any at all, which would not have been the case with a "little" vintage even five years ago.  My advice:  comb the market for 2010s and, if you like the style, 2009s, and jump on the best '11s and '12s as soon as they're released or take your chances on finding dribs and drabs later.