Northern Rhône enthusiasts will find plenty to celebrate in this millésime solaire, where Syrah’s ripe black fruit character sings. Grenache fans must tread more carefully in the South, and whites are on the heady and rich end of the scale, though the successful ones harness the luxurious nature of the vintage to their advantage.
Across the greater Rhône region growers had to deal with an onslaught from nature. Though some appellations were touched by frost and hail, it was the heatwave and drought of the long summer months that left their deepest mark on the vintage. 2017 will go down as one of the driest summers on record, and also one of the smallest vintages in the Southern Rhône. A complicated flowering period reduced yields dramatically in the South. The North fared better and yields there are not much down on an average year despite the extreme drought conditions.
The massive and devastating frost across Europe in April 2017 has meant many French regions have notably small volumes in 2017. Whilst the Rhône’s fortunes were hampered by other plights of nature, it too follows the national trend for small volumes, and consequently, pressure on prices and availability.
It would be sage to keep in mind the 2018 vintage, which, for very different reasons, was even shorter in volume than 2017. The pressure on available stock will be felt across the region, but perhaps hardest in the South.
After a mild and dry winter ground water reserves remained low. An unusually early spring meant the vegetative cycle got off to a precocious and healthy start, and growers in the North were grateful for the rain that arrived in March. The widespread frost in late April that struck vineyards across Europe did reach its claws as far south as the Rhône, but most of the major appellations were left unscathed. Early and rapid flowering in May took place in turbulent conditions where unseasonably cool weather was followed by an extreme heat spike. This temperature turmoil meant the region suffered a complicated fruit set with widespread incidences of coulure. Coulure is the result of abortive flowering, and it reduces the numbers of viable berries per bunch. Grenache and Viognier are particularly susceptible to this phenomenon.
Except for Condrieu, the North was less troubled by coulure, although a little rain around flowering in Hermitage meant some growers, like Bernard Faurie, report a 20% loss in yield. In Côte Rôtie yields look close to average, and those that lost a little as a result of the summer heat are only down around 10%, which is a stark contrast with the neighbours in the South, many of whom lost 40% – 50%.
The summer months were extremely warm, dry, and windy. The Mistral blew its ferocious hardest during the late summer and intensified the drought stress. Whilst wind and heat are limiting factors for quantity, they do also mean low disease pressure in the vineyards, which is always great news for a vintage’s quality. Thus the small crop was able to ripen with relative ease and evenness. Some drought stress did threaten to block maturation, but most growers report that harvest brought in healthy grapes with excellent ripeness. For some it necessitated a long harvest period, but given that the rain held off until October this was feasible.
As with the entire season, the harvest was extremely early, with whites starting in mid-August. The Perrins of Château de Beaucastel had to recall staff early from summer holidays to bring in the first Viognier on 17th August, and most pickers in Côte Rôtie were well under way by the second week of September.
Small volumes will be the leading discussion point of the vintage. But it is imperative to acknowledge that what reduced the volume had little impact on quality. Indeed, the later part of the growing season was a high-quality one, and many of the wines show the greatest facets of their terroirs and varieties. There is a telling consistency in the Northern reds, where Syrah has its archetypal black fruit, graphite, cassis, black olive, juicy, saline finesse on full display. Its wines share much in common with the magnificent 2015 vintage, although the tannins feel softer and creamier than the more robust and muscular tannins of 2015. There is plenty to celebrate in the Northern Rhônes reds, and fortuitously, not too great a reduction in volume.
Whilst the reds of the North are monocépage Syrahs, the South’s great advantage when facing a difficult season is its wide range of varieties and its tradition of blending. Strawberry scented Grenache with its rich body and soft creamy tannins is the backbone of Southern blends. In 2017 it suffered heavy losses and this impact is felt in the wines, many of which have a slightly reduced proportion of the variety in their blends. But there is more to the Southern Rhône than Grenache, and supporting varieties like Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan and Syrah, stepped up, and have been blended to produce robust, spicy wines. They also help to moderate alcohol levels, and these wines do not show the heady extravagance of a high-alcohol year. The quality of tannins in the South feels bigger and more muscular than the supple nature of the North, and some less successful wines feel rustic and over-extracted. But the best are truly excellent, and should cellar well.
Whites in the North and South, generally, weigh in on the heavy side in comparison with 2016. Condrieu is not universally successful, and careful choices are needed here. Viognier’s sugar levels rose rapidly at the end of August, and winemakers needed to act extremely quickly. Those who dallied have produced unbalanced, fat wines with little to recommend them. Further south in St Péray, Marsanne has weathered the difficulties well, and the whites have bright charm alongside their ripe notes and seem in better balance than the bigger Marsannes and Roussannes of Hermitage. In the South, it is hard to generalise about the whites. Picking dates and house styles mean they range from watery and alcoholic to full-flavoured and satisfying, and we have offered according to our preference for the latter.
Overall, 2017 is less consistent than either 2015 or 2016. As a result, there are some small changes in our selection of wines this year, offering a slightly tighter list. Crucially, although records will show this was a warm vintage, the reds do not carry a heavy feeling of alcohol. The warmth has manifested itself in the maturity of their tannins rather than high sugar ripeness. It may lack a little acidity in places, but this is not unusual for the Rhône. Growers there have had centuries to understand that freshness is not exclusively dependent on acidity. The dried herb, savoury accent of Southern blends and the peppery spice of Northern Syrah give the wines verve and drive, and their own style of energy and freshness. Despite the small crop the majority of our growers have maintained prices from 2016. As ever, the Rhône offers excellent value.
Catherine Petrie MW, Rhône Buyer