An exceptional vintage: opulent fruit, melting tannins, and energetic freshness
2016 is a roaring success in the Rhône. It follows the excellent 2015 whose release saw an upsurge in interest in this classic French region of diverse expression. Where 2015 produced Northern Rhône Syrahs of remarkable depth and complexity, 2016 has produced what many growers in the South are describing as the vintage of a generation. There is little doubt that the Southern Rhône will steal the limelight in the press, but the Northern wines, both reds and whites, should not be overlooked. Indeed, the whites are nigh on perfect in balance, with the weight and texture one expects from the Rhône matched by an energetic freshness, distinguishing them as amongst the best whites the region has ever made.
Increasingly, extreme growing seasons are making themselves felt across Europe, with hail, frost, and drought all causing significant reductions in yields across the continent. Indeed, the Rhône has not escaped unscathed in 2017 in that respect, however 2016, with some minor isolated exceptions, has produced excellent yields as well as quality across the whole Rhône valley.
In very general terms, the reds of the North have an elegant charm with open, ripe fruit and approachable structure, whilst the reds of the South possess a spellbinding intensity, and are generally expected to outrank their 2015 siblings in the long run. The whites in both regions are exquisite.
Rhône expert John Livingstone Learmonth has described 2016 as ranking amongst the top three vintages he has encountered since he began reviewing the region in the early 1970s. Even at this early stage, growers have been comparing it with such legendary vintages as 2010 and 1990. We anticipate demand will be the strongest we have seen in many years, and the wines are expected to sell out very quickly, so do not delay.
THE GROWING SEASON
Unlike the two vintages that flank it, 2016 was a late and long growing season. After a mild winter the sap was slow to rise in the vines during the cool spring months. Both bud break and flowering took place between two and three weeks later than normal, making the whole growing season late by modern standards. Rain in May and early June across the North brought on the threat of mildew, and growers had to act diligently and defensively in the steep vineyards of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage, however the growing season proceeded unhampered in the South.
This was followed by a steady, dry summer that saw ripening develop well across the region, and a late swell of balmy weather at the end of August and early September provided ideal conditions for veraison (when the fruit changes colour). The fruit matured in the prolonged Indian summer that saw a warm, bright sun shine down into the early autumn, accompanied by the refreshing coolness of September nights. This meant phenolic (tannin and flavour compounds) and physiological (sugar and acidity) ripeness developed in harmony. A relatively late harvest continuing into early October was undertaken in superb conditions.
As a result of the long, steady growing season, the 2016s are slightly lighter in body and alcohol than the 2015s (and than the 2017s will be), by the measure of half or one degree of alcohol depending on the region. Their slightly lower pH gives them a distinct freshness too. But these are not light bodied, under-ripe wines. In the South the length of the season allowed late-ripening varieties like Mourvèdre to effortlessly reach phenolic maturity (so look out for Clos des Papes and Beaucastel which both grow a high proportion of this variety). It was also a success story for the South’s most important variety, Grenache, whose weight and concentration comes from fruit intensity and not from high alcohol (the cool nights of the later season helped retain acidity and kept sugar levels in check). And the North’s Syrah has tannins that are fluid and melodic, with strikingly deep colours seen in some Côte Rôties. The whites across the region, from the Viogniers of Condrieu through the Marsannes and Roussannes of St Joseph and St Péray, on into the blends of Châteauneuf du Pape, are outstanding. They are lighter in weight than the rich 2015s, with graceful fruit and lithe acidity. These are whites that will stand the test of time, so don’t be afraid to cellar them.
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 (particularly true for the Northern Rhône Syrahs).
Let me expand this point. ‘Approachable’ and ‘accessible’ are sometimes used euphemistically in tasting notes to allude to a wine’s lack of concentration or shorter drinking window, but here I mean no such sleight of hand. The wines’ fruit opulence and supple tannins make them both excellent candidates for a long, fruitful, and exciting life of development, but it also makes them pure joy in their youth. If your tastes in maturity are catholic, and you relish both the charms of sweet berry fruit flavours, the spice of minerality, and the freshness of bright youthful acidity as well as the nuanced development of forest floor characters, the distinction of mature bottle age, the nutty complexity of an aged white, then 2016 is the vintage to buy. Where the excellent 2015s will reward the patient, many of the 2016s will do for now, tomorrow, the next time, and the next, ad infinitum (well, almost). Stick them in the cellar or pull the cork early: the choice is yours. They will reward across the years of drinking.