RHONE 2019 VINTAGE REPORT
2019 signals another impressive vintage in the Rhône Valley. Fruit and warmth best define 2019, a glorious millésime solaire that offers intricately structured wines with dazzling energy and balance.
Critics are calling it the “phantom vintage” as, due to the pandemic, hardly anybody has been able to taste. We too were unable to visit the region this year, so the Rhône came to us. Growers kindly sent barrel samples to our offices in London where we could taste at a leisurely pace, pausing over wines and even revisiting them.
Prolonged high temperatures were the biggest challenge for growers in the Northern Rhône, but thanks to some well-timed August rain, the overall results are full yet racy wines with good fluidity and freshness.
In the South, growers welcomed a healthy Grenache crop with open arms for the first time in two years. The wines therefore have a much higher proportion of Grenache in the blends compared to their 2017 and 2018 counterparts and are a return to the typical Southern Rhône style. They have personality and wonderfully expressive fruit.
THE GROWING SEASON
The beginning of 2019 saw a cold, dry winter in both the North and South. A cold snap is always beneficial for the vines, ensuring they stay dormant and that no pests survive the winter. While there was very little rainfall during this period (less than 60mm in the South and 100mm in the North), water stores which had built up over autumn were more than adequate. Budburst was even and took place about ten days later than the previous year across both regions. The delayed budburst allowed the grapes to withstand the intense summer heat and prevented them from becoming overripe.
The first week of April brought with it some light frost in the Northern Rhône, but nothing critical, and once the cold subsided some much-awaited rain swept through the region and temperatures finally started to warm up. Flowering and fruit set passed with little incident in the warm and well-ventilated vineyards of the Southern Rhône. After the damp and mildew-ridden 2018 and 2017 vintages, growers were thrilled to see their beloved Grenache vines prosper and bear plenty of fruit.
It was a similar happy story in the North but for two sad exceptions. A violent wind on 26th April rattled through Hermitage and shook the leaves off some of the still young tendrils, particularly in the Méal and Bessards plots, which restricted vine growth and affected yields. Growers in Crozes-Hermitage suffered even bigger losses when, on 14th June, a freak hailstorm lasting just twenty minutes, wreaked havoc in the vineyards. Hail the size of golf balls fell across the appellation and winds clocked 60km an hour. Many domaines lost as much as 80% of their crop.
From May onwards, the heat set in across the North and South and rain was incredibly sparse. It was the beginning of the hot, dry summer that would mark the style of the 2019 vintage. Thanks to good growing conditions up until véraison, the vineyards were healthy and well-prepared to handle the summer heatwave. Nonetheless, with the mercury climbing to 44°C in parts of the Southern Rhône, managing the heat and drought was the biggest challenge for growers in 2019.
In the North, soils with a higher content of water-retaining clay, such as Rochins in Côte Rôtie, fared best. Good canopy management was crucial, and most growers chose to do little or no leaf thinning to protect the grapes from blistering in the sun while they ripened. Rain finally fell in late August and early September, just in time to avoid hydric stress and freshen the vineyards before harvest. However, this rain was not evenly spread, with Côte Rôtie receiving the most and Cornas the least.
Growers were also happy when they came to pick their Viognier in Condrieu. The cool, wet spring in the appellation gave a low fruit set which proved a blessing for the early-ripening Viognier: it encouraged the vines to mature more slowly and therefore better manage the long, hot ripening season. White vineyards further south in St Joseph experienced a slightly warmer spring which delivered a bountiful crop of healthy and ripe Marsanne and Rousanne grapes.
Some September rain provided relief in the Southern Rhône although harvest was already well underway for many at this point. However, the hardy local varietals coped well with the rain-bereft summer and picking of the later-ripening varietals carried on into October.
THE GROWING SEASON
When we visited the growers in September last year, they were busy bringing in the 2019 harvest. The grapes were beautiful and the long, hot summer had given slightly thicker skins than usual. Gentle pressing was important so as not to extract too much skin tannin and the 2019s have a brilliant concentration of colour that is hugely inviting.
In the Northern Rhône, many growers found that the stems achieved such a desirable ripeness that they chose to include more whole clusters during vinification. The uneven August rainfall also had a big part to play in influencing the style of the 2019s across the Northern Rhône appellations. The slow, gradual showers that seeped into Côte Rôtie have produced thrilling wines that are lacy, flowing and fresh. The solar and more densely packed Cornas wines show beautiful ripe fruit and are a reflection of the shorter bursts of rain that quickly passed through the vineyards. Regardless of appellation, the wines of the North all wear the ripe and exuberant yet fresh personality of this delightful vintage.
At last, Grenache in the Southern Rhône gave generous quantities and we see a return to more typical blends compared to the previous two vintages, with a much higher proportion of Grenache. This is therefore an excellent year for lovers of classic Châteauneuf du Pape where wonderfully expressive red fruit comes to the fore. The more northerly and higher altitude appellations such as Gigondas have also given us some high-quality wines in 2019, with plenty of freshness and detail.
We can confirm that the quality of the 2019 vintage shines across the board. Many of the growers we have spoken to compare 2019 to the excellent 2015 and 2009, and there are evident parallels with these two warm vintages. But the 2019s are fascinating in their own right: generous, fleshy, and sometimes flamboyant, they have the balance and structure to age gracefully. It is a bewitching performance from the “phantom vintage”.