2009 was a promising year for the Rhone, which has enjoyed extremely favourable weather conditions.
"What can I say?" said Isabel Ferrando of Domaine St.-Préfert and Domaine Ferrando
. "This is a vintage that was tailored for Châteauneuf-du-Pape."
This year there is a very real sense that vignerons are resigned to perfection. The South, which has enjoyed great success in recent years, is braced for what is set to be a most remarkable vintage; however, yields are far lower than usual (by as much as thirty per cent) and so competition among buyers will be fierce.
Winter was, as might be expected, cold and wet. This is important, as it allowed the wines to conserve energy and the water tables to rise – crucial, given how dry the growing season proved to be. There was negligible rainfall from June through to August, with a fortnight long heat wave to boot. Warm evenings resulted in some shrivelled canopies and concentrated, smaller berries.
"The easiest year I've ever seen," exclaimed Éric Texier
, a small Beaujolais-based négociant who produces both Southern and Northern Rhône wines. "You could harvest early with bright acidities and very good phenolic ripeness, or harvest late and get huge concentration, alcohol levels and dark as hell wines."
"Due to the high temperatures, the ripening of the grapes was accelerated," explained Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel and Perrin & Fils
, which own 600 acres of vines throughout the Southern Rhône. "Not because of phenolic maturity, but because of dehydration." Luckily, a freshening rain fell in mid-September, giving the vines a needed respite from the heat and allowing them to continue ripening their fruit through harvest.
"The key was that the heat wave came after veraison," commented Philippe Cambie
, an influential consultant who works with dozens of producers throughout the Southern Rhône, including St.-Préfert, Tardieu-Laurent and others. "So the maturity was not blocked, the grapes were concentrated and the acidity and structure was balanced."
Grapes were in exceptional condition, thanks to the conditions. Dark, ripe and expressive fruit together with substantial tannic structure make for very alluring wines indeed – it comes as no surprise that expectations are running high among growers, merchantmen and buyers alike.
The conditions are so striking as to stand head and shoulders above the series of glorious vintages from 1998 (with a few interruptions); some are going much further back in order to draw an accurate comparison: “Since 1974, we have never seen such beautiful grapes at the end of the season”, said Frederic Coulon of Domaine de Beaurenard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape
. Similarly: "2009 in Vinsobres is big, nice color, good balance, great acidity, great body," said Hubert Valayer of Domaine de Deurre. "Some talk [about comparing to] 1978."
It is a similar tale in the north. Warm and dry conditions were ubiquitous, resulting in plump, ripe grapes across the board:
"I knew that it could be great, but I had two worries," said Maxime Graillot of Equis in Crozes-Hermitage
. "Will we have enough acidity and how will the tannins ripen with the lack of water? I got my answer at the end of the alcoholic fermentation: The tannins are beautiful; the acidity great."
"We were fortunate to have a rain around the 15th of August which helped with the continuation of ripening," said Philippe Guigal of E. Guigal
, located in Ampuis. "The result was very early harvests for Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie, followed soon after by Hermitage, St.-Joseph and Crozes. I don't believe a late harvest was necessary—we had high alcohols, superb phenolic ripeness and low acidity."
Others were even less reserved in their lauding of this vintage. "The first feelings give us shivers," piped an enthused Jean-Michel Gerin
, one of the top small producers in Côte-Rôtie. "For our part, we have a wine with balance we haven't seen since 1961."
In addition to the quality, Northern Rhône growers didn't have to contend with the smaller yields that dogged the south. "Quality and quantity," observed the sage Michel Tardieu
, whose Tardieu-Laurent négociant operation produces wines from throughout the Rhone region. "The fruit is ripe like 2003, but with good pH, abundant tannins and great freshness."