This high quality spans all appellations, somewhat surprising for a region that covers almost 150 miles. No one appellation outperforms the other and, despite a challenging growing season, there are some excellent wines from both the North and South. However, vignerons might lament the 2018 vintage due to the tiny crop it yielded. This small quantity of wine is nevertheless of exceptional quality.
Vintages such as 2018 separate the wheat from the chaff. Location, terroir and careful vineyard management come to the fore. Once again, the most dedicated and talented producers have proven their worth, crafting truly excellent wines.
The essence of all great northern Rhône wines is Syrah, a varietal that thrives in heat and sunshine. 2018 delivered both in abundance and devotees will get great pleasure from this vintage. White wine lovers will find that alcohol levels are trimmed down compared to 2017 so the wines are arguably truer expression of their origins and grape varieties.
In the South, growers made the most of other varieties permitted in their appellations to tone down the natural exuberance and ripeness of Grenache in the final blend. The wines are stylish and approachable but maintain a core that will allow them to age as well as the finest vintages.
The year can be divided into three parts. Firstly, there was a period of consistent rainfall in spring and early summer followed in most parts by a severe lack of rainfall in mid-summer. Finally, late summer provided plenty of warmth and sunshine.
Following the 2017 harvest, the Rhône Valley experienced a mild, dry autumn and winter that lasted until March 2018. This can concern growers as it can cause early bud break, putting the vines at risk of harsh spring frosts. Thankfully this didn’t happen. There followed an awkward three months of persistent rainfall across most appellations. Tain l’Hermitage experienced slightly less rain than the more northerly vineyards of St Joseph and Ampuis. In the South the story was much the same, Gigondas escaped the worst of the rain and while the famed Mistral wind did much to ventilate the vines and improve budding conditions, it could not entirely prevent the onset of mildew. This was arguably the most crucial period for growers in the 2018 cycle and vigilance in the vineyards, staying ahead of the game, was vital to minimise the loss of crop. In the South, it was almost impossible to escape this completely which contributed to the tiny crop. In the North, Côte Rôtie, which was affected so badly in 2016, was totally free of disease and reported wonderfully healthy vineyards, as did Condrieu and Crozes Hermitage.
Thankfully, the end of June saw the last of the rain and brought with it hot, dry weather. This made for perfect conditions from the 1st July through to harvest time in the North. Likewise, in the South, apart from on August 15th when there was one heavy rainstorm refreshing the vines around Châteauneuf du Pape, weather conditions were ideal all the way through to the early harvest at the end of August for the white wines and beginning of September for the reds.
In the end, whilst a number of our growers may have a few more grey hairs, 2018 will be remembered with positivity and warmth. René and Pierre Rostaing feel that in Côte Rôtie there is a similarity with the warmth of 2009 and the structure of 2015. André Perret, most definitely a glass-three-quarters-full person, genuinely believes that 2018 is the best combined vintage for both red and white since he started back in 1983!
There are two styles of red wines in 2018. The more senior appellations in the region such as Côte Rôtie, Hermitage and Châteauneuf du Pape have made very high quality, focused wines, which are open and expressive with a gorgeously appealing fruit profile. The combination of small yields, ripe fruit and tannins also means that these wines have the ageing potential of the best years. In contrast, the Côtes du Rhône Villages and Crozes Hermitage wines focus on ripe, sweet fruits, perfect for early drinking. Enjoy them in their youth and they will give huge pleasure.
The 2018 whites are thought provoking. They are certainly food wines par excellence. From the North, the wines of Condrieu and St Joseph express a dense richness of fruit. They are bold, but considerably less alcoholic than the 2017s, and therefore more composed and finer-tuned. They possess lovely aromatics and are glorious examples of Marsanne and Viognier. In the South, the Châteauneuf du Pape whites will as always inspire much discussion. They should be enjoyed either in their youth during their first 5 years in bottle, prior to entering what can be a somewhat awkward period of development or, if you hold your nerve, once they have come out the other side. These can be some of the most rewarding old white wines from anywhere in the northern hemisphere. Demand for these whites is often confined to the serious Rhône lover, but ignore them at your peril!
To conclude, it is three years since I have written this offer and visited our growers so comprehensively. My week in September tasting these wines served as a timely reminder of what a sensational part of the wine world this is, how very special the wines themselves are and how warm-hearted and genuine our growers in this great region are.
I hope you enjoy this high calibre vintage.
David Roberts MW