2017 and 2018 Northern Rhône: Birds of a Feather...with a Difference


Producers in the northern Rhône Valley endured a crazy, wholly unpredictable growing season in 2017. This included an abnormally dry and warm winter that caused a fast start to budbreak, followed by an extended cold spell, including sometimes severe frosts that delayed and stunted flowering. Beneficial rains occurred through May, and then an often brutally hot, dry summer advanced ripening at a dizzying pace and caused acidities to drop. Finally, rejuvenating rain at the end of August set the stage for a harvest that was two weeks earlier than that of 2016. Luckily, the weather held and growers were able to harvest at their leisure into the second half of October, with no more loss of acidity and a very steady sugar accumulation in the fruit. The grapes and clusters were small, meaning that the wines are well-concentrated, offering abundant dark fruit character and somewhat lowish acidity that will allow most of them to be enjoyed on the relatively young side. The wines’ concentration notwithstanding, 2017 is an early-drinking vintage. In my experience wines like these lose freshness at an increased pace compared to those from more bright, well-balanced growing seasons, so my preference is to err on the side of youth in hot years. I’ll be happy to be proven wrong!

Young vines in the granitic soils of the highly esteemed and high-altitude Les Eygats lieu-dit in Cornas

Nature Culls the Crop

Hermitage in particular was hit by uneven berry ripening in 2017, with Cornas suffering a more severe drought than most areas, as well as a great degree of berry shrivel, especially in low-lying vineyards and on young vines. As a result, the Cornas crop was down by a good third compared to 2016. Most of Saint-Joseph and Côte-Rôtie fared better than their southern neighbors, and growers there are quite pleased with the end result, many of them calling the wines classic in style and built to enjoy young or to age.

Late winter snow on the plain beneath Cornas

2018 Plays a Similar Tune, in a Different Key

In contrast, 2018 enjoyed a rainy winter followed by benign weather in the early spring, which kept the growing season moving along at a normal pace. Water reserves in the vineyards were brought back up following the drought of ’17, and budbreak and flowering went without a hitch, setting the stage for a large crop of fruit up and down the valley. Rainy weather in June resulted in some scattered mildew, which was quickly and relatively easily treated. The summer then turned warm and dry, and those conditions continued on into September, allowing for an early harvest of perfectly ripe fruit, with moderate tannins and healthy acidity levels that in many cases ran along the lines of 2016. It’s no surprise that so many producers with whom I visited call 2018 a marriage of the richness of 2017 to the energy of 2016, an assessment with which I concur. My early bet is that the ’18s will outlast their 2017 siblings thanks to their balance and relative freshness, although I also think they’ll drink well on the young side, based on those same attributes. Please note that I did not taste 2018s at every cellar, only where the producers were confident that the wines, which had all finished their malolactic fermentations, were showing themselves. I plan to taste more 2018s at the end of this year.

Late winter in the hills of Condrieu

The Pricing Pain Continues, but It Doesn’t Have to Be Acute

Prices for the most collectible (read: marketable luxury goods) northern Rhône red wines continue their steep uphill climb and, by all indications, they aren’t going to slow down any time soon. The simple fact is that there is and always will be far too little volume of these wines to satisfy an increasing worldwide demand. The good, even great, news is that there are numerous wines that deliver solid and often outstanding value. As with any other region, the most sought-after wines very often carry price tags that have nothing to do with reality, much less the “real” prices, by which I mean something resembling the opening cellar-door price set by producers. However, readers who are willing to explore the full spectrum of what’s out there may very well be shocked by the value that can be found. The Crozes-Hermitage and Saint-Joseph bottlings from the top négociants often deliver quality close to the level of the same houses’ Hermitage, Cornas and Côte-Rôtie offerings, and the same absolutely goes for grower-producers who have diversified portfolios of vineyard holdings. It’s easy to get wrapped up in obsessing over the runaway pricing of the top dozen or so wines of a region and forget that those bottlings represent far less than 1% of the total offerings in a given vintage.

Old vine Syrah above the village of Chavanay

I tasted all of the wines in this article during my visit to the regions in February and March of this year.

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