When the 2010 Southern Rhone red wines were released, Andrew Jefford in The World of Fine Wine (2014), quotes Rhone authority John Livingstone-Learmonth as saying the 2010 vintage in the Southern Rhone valley is: "close to the legendary 1978 at the same stage of its life." Now, with the release of the 2016s, Livingstone-Learmonth and others are comparing the quality of this vintage with 2010. Assembling various assessments by Livingstone-Learmonth, he is (in effect) saying that the four great vintages in the Southern Rhone Valley in the last 40 years are 1978, 1990, 2010, and 2016. For those vintages, I would suggest the 1990s tend to be warmer in style and less fresh than the other three. The 2016 Southern Rhone wines can therefore be thought of as among the best three vintages in the last 40 years.
The quality of the 2016 vintage in the Southern Rhone Valley:
As above, John Livingstone-Learmonth has been studying the wines of the Rhone Valley since the 1970s. He truly knows wine quality, when he finds it. Consider his further thoughts, expressed in his inimitable style (paraphrased):
“2016 is a fabulous vintage at Châteauneuf-du-Pape … a dazzle of pleasure to the eye and to all the senses. The wines are full of bounty, are aromatic, possess certain content, ripe tannins, and, hallelujah, are BALANCED … 2016 aligns itself with 1978 more than 1981, and notably with 1990, which was a sun-filled vintage with a high yield, just like 2016. However, winemaking was more rudimentary in 1990 … This is therefore a vintage that will give enormous amounts of pleasure and will live extremely well.”
Livingstone-Learmonth goes on to quote some of the leading winemakers in the district. This provides a wonderful insight into why this vintage is so good:
• Louis Barruol of Ch Saint Cosme: “For me, 2016 here resembles 2010. The balance is super, and the wines are more openly fruited than 2015 … the 2016s have better balance and structure … they have ripeness, a lot of freshness, good texture, architecture, and come without a high degree.”
• Francois Perrin of top Chateauneuf-du-Pape Ch Beaucastel: “2016 is juicy, on fruit, ripe fruit without excess. It is a Grande Vintage – everything is good. It’s among the top years of Beaucastel – 1989, 1990, 1978.”
• Vincent Avril of Clos Des Papes, perhaps the leading challenger for the top wine of the district: “the pHs were very, very good in 2016, which was an advantage, and the tannins are very ripe. The pH is often 3.80 to 3.90, but this year it’s 3.70; it’s superior to 2010’s, by the way.”
And for another English view, Matt Walls in Decanter: “I’ve tasted nearly 1,500 wines from the 2016 vintage, and it’s clear that this is a very good year in the northern Rhone – and truly great in the South.”
And for an American view: James Molesworth, Wine Spectator, referring to the Southern Rhone Valley specifically: “I've now tasted 15 vintages in the region's cellars, and 2016 is hands down the best young vintage I have seen.” But he also quotes Southern Rhone Valley wine consultant and specialist Philippe Cambie, who consults to many wine-estates in Chateauneuf-du-Pape and the wider district: “2016 has tannin, fruit, freshness and power … It’s the best vintage of my life.”
And James Suckling, formerly of Wine Spectator, now running his own wine website, considers: “I tasted almost 500 wines ... the Chateauneufs 2016 are quite simply the best wines this region has seen in a very long time. The overcooked fruit, the excessive extraction and the obsession with excess seem to be over for most producers.”
For a more partisan view, the Syndicat de Gigondas states: “The 2016 vintage was truly unique, with perfect climatic conditions for our Rhône varieties and an exceptional harvest. ... First tastings indicate that this will be an exceptional vintage, with pronounced aromatic intensity, great concentration, perfect balance and good structure thanks to the perfectly ripe tannins.”
A more detailed examination of why the 2016 Southern Rhone Valley red wines are so exciting in 2016, comes from Catherine Petrie, MW, of Justerini & Brooks (UK). She writes in November, 2017 (but I have added the sub-sections):
“What marks the 2016s apart is three key elements:
# the first, and most significant, is the density and opulence of fruit richness. I do not mean heady alcohol and heavy body here, I mean intensely rich, luxurious flavours. ‘
# This richness is matched by the second defining element: supple, melting tannins. In many cases the 2016s have equally high (sometimes even higher) tannic content compared with the 2015s, but their profile is distinctly different. These are small, sweet, silky tannins, where the 2015s had an edge of firmness and structure (meaning the Syrahs from that vintage, in particular, may require some time).
# The third component is their energy and freshness. The long, late growing season with warm autumn days and cool nights aided the development of phenolic ripeness (silky tannins and rich colours) alongside retention of vibrant acidity and low pH.
These three elements combined have a dual result: the wines have the classic elements for a long development, but they are also strikingly accessible and approachable in their youth.”
For a final thought on the 2016 red wines of the Southern Rhone Valley, back to John Livingstone-Learmonth: “... it is right to rejoice in the mighty bounty of a vintage such as 2016. THESE YEARS DO NOT COME ALONG LIKE LONDON BUSES – THREE AT A TIME! Balance and harmony, and deep filling - it’s as much as one can wish for, so these wines should be stocked somewhere in your cellar ...”
Following on from my first batch of 2016 Southern Rhone wines evaluated (report here), I consulted some importing merchants to see what other wines are available in New Zealand. Both Wine Direct (Auckland) and Caro’s (Auckland) had a few, but Maison Vauron, founded by Jean-Christophe Poizat and Scott Gray, had a veritable cornucopia of them … by New Zealand standards. After a little thought, and further reading (summarised in the quotations above), it seemed sensible to get a good cross-section of the wines down to Wellington, and review them in a single, carefully-prepared, blind tasting.
For the wines, there is little more that needs to be said, given the views of experienced Northern Hemisphere tasters quoted above. They are much closer to the Rhone Valley than we are, in New Zealand. But it is the freshness and fragrance of these wines that appeals to me. Many of the better ones are clearly floral, as well as being zingy on the the aromatic savoury-herbes garrigue character, which reminds of salvia, lavender, or even rosemary (when a bit strong). The only qualification one needs to make in the more technically-informed southern hemisphere, is that northern hemisphere winewriters rarely attempt to dissect the wine. It is not so much that they suppress information on faults: rather it is that with a few exceptions, they fail to recognise and identify them accurately. This becomes a matter of acute importance in the case of reduction, where rather many people are clearly sensitive to the dulling effects of reduced sulphur in a wine, and don’t like such wines, even if they can’t say why. For them, wines exhibiting reduced-sulphur characters are a no-no for purchase.
I urge wine-lovers to buy as many of the better 2016 Southern Rhone reds as they can afford. This is an investment in future pleasure – and a virtually guaranteed one. They are wines which will be enchanting with conventional food, notwithstanding that alcohols are higher than in 1978, the great previous vintage a few older reviewers make reference to. For younger tasters, 2010 is the best reference vintage, for those who seek freshness, subtlety, and varietal accuracy and finesse in their Southern Rhone Valley red wines, as opposed to size.
In a world of ever-inflating wine scores, my top wines in this exhilarating tasting genuinely merit gold-medal ranking. They show various facets of the delight to be found in Southern Rhone Valley red wines, in a fresh and fragrant year such as 2016. From the left, 2016 Domaine des Espiers Gigondas Les Grames, superbly fragrant but lighter as befits its higher-altitude location, 18.5; 2016 Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe Télégramme, the in-effect second wine from younger vines, darker and more aromatic than the senior wine, again floral, exquisite purity, 18.5 +; 2016 Domaine de Beaurenard Chateauneuf-du-Pape Boisrenard, a bigger and darker 'reserve'-level wine, and some new oak too, needing significant time in cellar to unfurl, 19; 2016 Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe, much lighter than some earlier Télégraphes, supreme red-fruits fragrance, 19, and 2016 Domaine Le Sang de Cailloux Vacqueyras Cuvée de Lopy, deep, dark and mysterious, darker than I would normally endorse, yet magical, 19.
Acknowledgements & References:
In the reviews below, the brief ‘admin’ section depends almost entirely on the now-indispensable Rhone Valley reference website:
ww.drinkrhone.com = John Livingstone-Learmonth, J. L-L below, subscription needed.
Supplementary detail has been gleaned from far and wide, but mostly winery websites and:
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, but the 2016 Southern Rhone mostly Richard Hemming MW. Subscription needed for reviews
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and associates, vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
www.winespectator.com = James Molesworth Rhone Valley, vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
THE WINES REVIEWED:
The reviews below result from a carefully randomised fully blind tasting. The cepage details given are indicative, averaging recent vintages, not specific to 2016.
Ruby, carmine and velvet, one of the deeper wines. Bouquet is deep, dark and mysterious, yet floral too in a midnight-deep way. Blind, you ask, is this high mourvedre ? The fruits are dark, but there is none of the clumsy blackberry of over-ripe syrah some of these wines show. It is all uplifted by trace fragrant garrigue aromatics, plus a little spirit. In mouth the depth of fruit is astonishing. This wine is richer than Telegramme. There is not quite the tannin structure of some of the other highly regarded wines in the set, and little sign of new oak, but the balance of berry to grape tannins, and the dry extract and length of flavour, are all sensational. This is a glorious (but darker) example of the 2016 vintage in the southern Rhone Valley, which will lighten up in cellar. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, the lightest wine in the set. The first thing to say is, this is a much more understated wine than some Vieux Télégraphes of yesteryear. It is almost a Chateauneuf-du-Pape for pinot noir-lovers, though there is inevitably a little spirit. The bouquet is nearly floral, pink and red roses, a lovely garrigue lift, on all red fruits. Grenache dominates here totally, the minor varieties quite in the background this year (actual cepage for 2016 not known). Palate has succulent fruit richness, made even more fragrant by subtlest newish oak, and great length, deceptively so for a wine so light in total impression. Fruits include the raspberry of grenache, cherry and some red plum, plus cinnamon complexity. This is a beautiful fragrant wine, to cellar 10 – 35 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, the third deepest wine. This is another midnight-deep wine, but again there is wonderful purity and freshness, in its fragrant dark berry. Here too the wine escapes the clumsiness of blackberry, and makes you wonder about high mourvedre. In mouth the alcohol does show a little, but even though there is some fragrant new oak, it is harmoniously merged with dark omega plum and berry, some blueberry, great length and richness. More than some, it needs time to harmonise and display itself, when it will earn its high score. This is a wine to cellar for the long haul, when garrigue subtleties and beauty only now implicit will emerge. Glorious wine, with superlative tannin structure, to cellar 20 – 40 years. GK 05/19
Good fresh ruby, appreciably deeper than the Vieux Télégraphe proper, still one of the lighter wines. In a rigorously blind tasting of 21 wines, with time to check, and cross check, and then check again (unlike pressured commercial judgings where there is a perverted status in being the first to finish), it is quietly gratifying to find at the unveiling stage, that you have these two closely related wines totally adjacent, contiguous. Yet this Télégramme is quite different from its senior wine. It is darker and more aromatic, and syrah and mourvedre play a larger part. Like Vieux Télégraph, it is nearly floral, roses again but almost a hint of red carnations too, as if syrah is speaking. Purity is exquisite. Palate is aromatic, also darker, not quite as rich but still lovely, and again unbelievably pure and long-flavoured. These two Vieux Télégraphes make a remarkable pair of wines, infinitely covetable. Cellar Télégramme 10 – 25 years, maybe longer. GK 05/19
Ruby, some velvet, fractionally older than some, above midway in depth. This wine is definitive: it simply cries out Southern Rhone Valley, with its beautiful floral and garrigue lift on fragrant mostly red fruits, subtlest oak complexity, and wonderful typicité. As with nearly all these wines, there is more spirit than one would wish, with food, but this is one of the subtler ones. The flavours simply continue the beauties of the bouquet. It is not one of the bigger wines, but the aromatic quality and length of the flavour, and the gentleness and lack of weight in some ways make it the most enchanting of all the more highly-rated wines. This wine shows both the excitement of the vintage to perfection, and the merits of not de-stemming. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, the second deepest wine. This wine needs double decanting, to reveal a deep, sensuous, dusky bouquet with mourvedre and syrah in the forefront. There is a lovely garrigue lift on the dark berry, almost a hint of cassis even, then dark omega bottled plums. Alcohol is extraordinarily well concealed, but a little is noticeable. New oak is not apparent. Palate is saturated with skin-tannin flavours rather than old cooperage, and both the depth of berry, and the quality of the mourvedre component, are a delight. This will need maybe 10 years, to crust in bottle, when a totally different, lighter, more lissome wine will emerge. At the price, a case of 12 is the minimum to consider, then don't touch it for 10 years. Cellar 10 – 30 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, some carmine and velvet, a lovely colour, midway in depth. This wine benefits from double decanting, to reveal a subdued but highly typical bouquet, some florals, light garrigue complexity, a mix of red and darker fruits, and light oak, probably from bigger cooperage, but some of it not too old. Palate is dry, rich, seemingly significant syrah and mourvedre along with grenache, some oak tannins shaping, the flavour long. This will cellar very well, and in eight or so years be more fragrant than it is today. La Bouissiere make attractive wines. Cellar 10 – 30 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, the second to lightest wine. There is nothing light about the bouquet, however. Like the Espiers, this wine beautifully sums up the most fragrant, nearly floral, side of garrigue complexity, salvia and lavender florals, on red fruits. The bouquet has great zing, partly alcohol-driven. There is even a hint of the beautiful manool fragrance found in New Zealand pink pine, which I associate with grenache. Palate is remarkably fine-grained, grenache dominant, furry tannins but also with a hint of vanilla in mouth … making one wonder if a fraction of the wine sees new oak – even if none is admitted to. Though a little bigger, this is closest in style to the Espiers Gigondas, both exhilarating wines which almost make you salivate. It will be marvellous at table, though (as is so common now) it would be better if the alcohol were lower. Only that factor kept me out of gold medal level. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 05/19
Good ruby, the third-lightest wine. Bouquet is very fragrant, another with great typicité, beautiful garrigue aromatics suggesting thyme and lavender, red fruits more than black, and, glory be, one of the least fumey-alcoholic wines in the set. Palate is equally charming, still a little young, not a big wine in this company, but showing beautifully aromatic berryfruit, and good freshness and length. This is going to be accessible much sooner than many. Another wine suited to pinot noir lovers, yet clearly Southern Rhone in provenance. Cellar 5 – 15 or so years. GK 05/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, well above midway in depth. This is the wine I repeated from Pt 1 of my 2016 Southern Rhone evaluations, one of two to calibrate the tasting. I did not recognise it, but at the unveiling stage it was pleasing to find the score within half a mark of the previous batch. The bouquet is sweet, fragrant, nearly floral and lightly garrigue-influenced in a dusky way, typical of the better wines of the region, and attractive. Like most, it is a little spirity. In mouth the tannins seem all grape-derived, beautifully fine-grained and potentially velvety. In its furry rich tannins, the wine reminds me of 1971 Ch Tahbilk Shiraz, a highly-regarded wine in its day. This is one of the great values of the tasting. It needs to be cellared for five years or so, and will be good for 20 – 25 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, fresh and deep, above midway in depth. Freshly opened, this wine is very aromatic, garrigue almost to a fault, crushed rosemary etc. With air it breathes up to reveal powerful and fragrant berry, as if syrah were prominent in the cepage, the wine seeming more spirity than the given alcohol. Palate is wonderfully clean, rich, velvety, juicy berry, more oak than many including some newish [later, confirmed], in many ways a modern winestyle. This should cellar very well, and come to a more restrained harmony in 10 years. It absolutely needs to rest a while. Looking ahead, the present score may be too low, particularly for those who favour modern, more oak-influenced wines, rather than the traditional approach. Cellar 10 – 25 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, some velvet, fractionally older than some (implying more barrel exposure), below midway in depth. Bouquet is classic Southern Rhone, not quite as fresh and zingy as the most exciting of these wines, but fragrant, some garrigue lift, red and darker fruits, older oak, all just a touch leathery. In mouth a suggestion of lavender creeps into the fumey side, with attractive berry fruit, older oak, and good length. It is not quite so much a typical 2016 in style, this aspect somewhat in contrast with the Boisrenard label. I imagine with its hint of leather, it would sit well with many 2015s. Cellar 5 – 25 years. GK 05/19
Good ruby, just below midway in depth. Bouquet is clean, fragrant, grenache more prominent in this one, lightly aromatic on garrigue notes, hints of dark plum below the red grenache fruits. Palate is attractively balanced, not as spirity as some, the older oak exquisitely balanced / subtle to the point of invisibility, yet it would be a much simpler wine without it. At the blind stage you feel this is ‘ideal’ quality Cotes du Rhone, not as serious as some, immensely drinkable, and will give much pleasure. Cellar 5 – 15, maybe 20 years. GK 05/19
Good ruby, older than most, one of the lighter wines. As noted, Guigal Cotes du Rhone ‘had’ to be included, since this is the best-known Cotes du Rhone in the world, and it defines the style. Sadly the 2016 is not yet available in New Zealand, hence the vintage mis-match. Bouquet is fragrant, complex, winey, showing the complexity that big old-wood elevation brings to these winestyles, in this district. There is also a savoury venison-casserole note bespeaking a little brett, which adds to the wine’s attraction. Palate is wonderfully harmonious, not one of the richer wines, but delightfully food-friendly and enjoyable. Red fruits are dominant despite so much syrah in the cepage, plus hints of cinnamon and spice too, and the alcohol is lower than most. When you consider the quality here relative to the volume now made, some 3 million litres or 333,000 x 9-litre cases, it is obvious why this wine is so popular, worldwide. It is the mourvedre that keeps the magic in the wine, now that the ratio of syrah is higher than last century. Cellar 5 – 20 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, some carmine and velvet, an attractive colour, below midway in depth. Bouquet is sweet, ripe, lots of berry both grenache with its raspberry and cinnamon, but also darker plummy fruits, and a hint of blackberry implying over-ripe syrah. Palate is soft, rich, fresh, not too alcoholic, a touch of newish oak maybe adding spice (they wouldn't use chips, would they ?), good fruit length, just a little on the juicy / simple side. This too will give much pleasure, and has good richness, at the price. Cellar 5 – 15 years. GK 05/19
Ruby, some carmine and velvet, midway in depth. This is interesting wine, at first beguiling, later seeming a bit obvious. It smells big, juicy, and tending modern, all a bit fumey, very ripe berry, some new oak spice, but not a lot of garrigue complexity. Flavours are even riper, syrah including blackberry notes, plus the main grenache red-fruits body, the alcohol drawing attention to some drying tannins. Attractive, in a simpler, more obvious style. Once one knows the identification, and the cepage, I correlate the obvious blackberry and drying tannin comments with the carignan component. Cellar 5 – 20 years, to harmonise. GK 05/19
Ruby, some carmine and velvet, just below midway in depth. This wine needs double decanting, to dispel a whisper of reduction. That reveals a simpler kind of Cotes du Rhone, big, ripe, juicy, not a lot of spice or berry complexity, not much charm from grenache, more dark plum and some blackberry from sur-maturité. There are some alcohol fumes, helping lift the bouquet. Palate emphasises the simple blackberry fruit even more, quite rich, good length, but drying tannins to the tail. Straightforward rather than exciting Southern Rhone wine, to cellar 5 – 15 years, to soften. GK 05/19
Good fresh ruby, below midway in depth. Bouquet is a bit old-fashioned on this one, the wine benefiting from double decanting, but still showing a rustic character. There is good rich brambly berry, another wine suggesting warm-climate syrah is becoming more prominent in these affordable Southern Rhone reds. Palate adds trace brett to plummy and blackberry flavours, with some older oak tannins. This is a quite rich, but more hearty / rougher and gamey kind of Cotes du Rhone style, which will soften in cellar, 5 – 15 + years. GK 05/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, the deepest wine by quite a margin. Bouquet is clean, pure, but grotesque in terms of desirable Southern Rhone Valley winestyles. It smells caricature Californian from the ‘80s, much too much new oak, exacerbated by the high alcohol. It is hard trying to penetrate the initial vanillin impression on bouquet, but there is huge, ripe to over-ripe fruit, blackberry more than anything. No garrigue, no complexities. Palate is likewise hugely rich, oaky, and very strongly flavoured on rich dark berry and noticeable alcohol, but subtlety, charm and ‘drink-me’ appeal are all lacking. In its style it is very well made, but this is a misconceived and too-modern wine, hopefully a once-only aberration in its excess of oaking – until you read the American reviews (up to 95+ points), which express little respect for grape florality, subtlety or tradition. It should cellar for 30 – 40 years, should anyone wish to, and time will tame it somewhat. GK 05/19
Good ruby, some carmine and velvet, just above midway in depth. This wine needs pouring from jug to jug several times, to dispel noticeable reduction. It gradually opens to a veiled fairly big red, smelling as if there is a lot warm-districts syrah in the blend, the dominant fruit note being dulled blackberry. Palate follows logically, some drying tannins and slight bitterness from the reduction, good fruit and all perfectly sound, but no Southern Rhone complexity or charm. Cellar 10 – 20 years, maybe, if the style appeals. GK 05/19
Ruby, carmine and velvet, well above midway in depth. This wine needs pouring from jug to jug splashily many times, say 10, to try and clear the grey blanket of reduction. It is really sad, because (after a lot of air) underneath there is some fragrant (and good, not over-ripened) syrah trying to get out. Palate has good fruit, but is pretty severely clogged, and the reduction makes the tannins taste coarse, drying, and nearly bitter. This will cellar for ages, being so reduced, but rather than improve it will go leathery. For the many tasters sensitive to reduced sulphurs, it is important to note that of the northern hemisphere winewriters referred to, only one, Livingstone-Learmonth, provides a hint (for the L’Estévenas only) which is too subtle for most: “Decanting essential.” For the other writers, there is no suggestion of this key defect, significant reduction, in these last two wines, once bottled. Nor, needless to say, in the other less seriously reductive wines in this review. Scarcely worth cellaring. GK 05/19