The 2016 Vintage in the Rhône

2016 is a really good vintage in both the northern and southern Rhone. Unusually pride of place has to be given to the southern Rhone, with Matt Walls for succinctly describing 2016 as ‘one of the best vintages of the past few decades for the southern Rhone – don’t miss it’. Right across the southern Rhone, all the appellations and most unusually all the different grape varieties produced excellent wines. And whilst patience will definitely be repaid if you are interested in the south’s top wines, the northern Rhone offers wines in a most elegant style that will show well in their youth, probably not go through a closed period, and keep on giving lots of pleasure as they age.

The quality of southern Rhône wines in 2016 is exceptional right across the board, with similarities to the late ripening, higher yield, exceptional vintage of 1990. John Livingstone-Learmonth (JLL)hopes that perhaps 2016 will be the vintage that re-establishes CNDP as the source for serious well-balanced wines after the power years of the 1990s and 2000s. He writes on his website, ‘2016 is a fabulous vintage at CNDP. The royal appellation of the southern Rhone can truly strut its multi-colured robes this year, a dazzle of pleasure to the eye and all the senses. The wines offer a cornucopia of varied delights on the bouquet, with red rather than black fruits, testament to the balance of the wines, and an underlying brightness, harmony’. Emmanuel Reynaud at Chateau Rayas sums up the exceptional qualities of the vintage, ‘2016 will be very good, a very grand vintage blessed with fruit, tannins and alcohol. It will be very long lived. You need a year like that so that our children and grandchildren can drink them and discover wine’.

In the north the late ripening harvest took place in the last week of September and well into October. There was a good crop in most areas with the exception of Hermitage where an April hailstorm knocked off the buds reducing yields by 40%. The grapes ripened fully, there are no green notes, there was no need to chaptalize, and alcohols are in the perfect 12.5 to 13.5% range depending on the appellation. Sometimes when a wine merchant uses the phrase ‘elegant’, one might intimate they really mean a bit light, but looking at my notes on all ‘elegant’ vintages of the last decade, I’d place 2016 in the north right up at the top, ahead of vintages such as 06,07,11,12,14 – the wines have pitch perfect balance to make them of serious interest. I believe that the wines of Bernard Faurie in Hermitage, Guillaume Gilles in Cornas and Pierre Gonon in St Joseph are all just as good, possibly even better than 2015, and you don’t need to wait an age for them to mature in bottle.

The Southern Rhône

As regards the growing season, spring was dry and not very warm. Flowering was thankfully successful with very little coulure. July, August and the first half of September were dry and warm, so very few treatments against mildew etc were needed. Thankfully the nights of July and August were cool, and it was still super fresh in the morning, which according to Philippe Bravay at Dom de Ferrand helped to keep the skins stable with no cracks. Rain was needed and thankfully it arrived on September 15th, with a band of 1.6 inches sweeping across the region. The very dry terrain (before the rain started) then a warm mistral helped to dry out the vineyards quickly and no mildew was provoked. More helpfully the rain helped to unblock the ripening process, fully ripening the skins that were not phenolically ripe before the rains, and also reducing the alcohol a little. The harvest recommenced in the last week of September and into October, in fine warm conditions. Pips were brown, and stalks were starting to go yellow. Yields were healthy, on the whole higher than in 2015, although some areas in CNDP pulled in a larger crop of grapes, but with less juice. Quality was very heterogenous – all the grapes ripened ideally, with Ph levels excellent at 3.50, acidities good, polyphenols and anthocyanins at record levels.

JLL likens the year most to 1990, another exceptional, sun filled, late ripening year with a good crop – and various of the leading growers like Clos des Papes too. The wines have fantastic aromatics, they are full of fruit and richness, plenty of mixed herbs and spices seasoning the flavours, the tannins are well embedded and the wines are long. 2016 is an exceptional vintage at CNDP and very good indeed elsewhere. Whites are good too, combining clear cut fruits with a touch of southern gras and freshness. It is a vintage that will give an enormous amount of pleasure but at the same time repay patient cellaring, and JLL advises that however gourmand the wines may be in their immediate youth, they will become more stimulating, provocative and complex as they evolve.

The Northern Rhône

In 2016 there was a cold, wet start to the year. June was wet but the flowering was successful. Thankfully the weather started to improve in July, then August and September were both warm and dry. The harvest started on Sep 20 in Cote-Rotie, three weeks later than 2015. The acidities are slightly higher than 2015 and the alcohols at least half a degree less. Yields were full in most appellations except for Hermitage – averaging 40hh, and the grapes were harvested in an exceptionally healthy condition. Alcohols are in the perfect 12.5 to 13.5% range. A quick view from the leading growers gives an accurate impression of the vintage. Bernard Faurie comments that ‘it is rare for Hermitage to have so much finesse’. Chave thought that ‘in 2015 everything was good – in 2016 certain wines are superb’. Clape in Cornas mentioned that the ‘belle matiere comes from superb balance’ comparing the vintage to 1991, ‘typical but with a certain elegance and great fruit’, and Jamet praised 2016 ‘elegance rather than power... it’s got persistence and freshness, what I love in Cote-Rotie’.

JLL summarises, ‘My first impression in 2016 Northern Rhone is that we are greeting a year of harmony. The reds possess charming open fruit and core with a Burgundian abilty to amplify and blossom over time. I regard this very good, probably under-rated vintage as one that should be bought and cellared nice and patiently. The wines have balance and freshness and enough body to evolve well, and will really fill a room with their perfumed charm, subtlety and delicious fruit’.

The best whites in the vintage are a big step up on 2015, when many struggled from too high levels of alcohol(especially true of Condrieu). Every appellation has given noticeably fresher, balanced wines, with good purity of fruit and a nice definition of terroir from individual vineyards. Very much W.O.W. as JLL would say: