We will be tasting 2017's soon on our tours - here is the Jancis Robinson verdict on the vintage...promising!

The following from Jancis Robinson’s excellent site - sign up here:https://www.jancisrobinson.com

It was all the right weather, but not necessarily in the right order, to misquote English comedian the late Eric Morecambe. One year on, the end results of the 2017 vintage in the southern Rhône are clearly of the highest potential quality, but in significantly restricted volume. 

The word potential is important, because while the weather produced grapes that were undoubtedly capable of creating fantastic wine, it was equally possible to spoil this potential, most often through over-extraction or overripeness, and possibly both. It could be convincingly argued that this is a scourge of many a wine region these days, although the warm climate and naturally powerful varieties of the southern Rhône exacerbate the problem – as did the weather patterns of 2017.

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The season started out mild, which accelerated growth and resulted in early and enthusiastic flowering. Then, however, came a period of cooler, wetter weather which meant the vines suffered from high levels of coulure, which is when incomplete fertilisation results in reduced fruit set. At this point, it was all but inevitable that the 2017 yield would be low, made worse by a warm, dry summer with less than half the usual rainfall. The grapes were therefore smaller than usual, and ripened quickly because the crop load was low and temperatures were high.

Consequently, the harvest started in late August – much earlier than normal. Fine, dry weather meant that the fruit was in excellent sanitary condition, and that little or no selection was necessary. However, it became clear that the desired levels of sugar and acidity did not necessarily mean sufficient ripeness of flavour. There are no green, underripe notes in these wines, but there are many examples of nondescript fruit with bitterness on the finish. 

Furthermore, the naturally high proportion of skin to juice can result in an exaggerated, unbalanced structure, where acid is too low (especially in whites) and alcohol is too high. The bravest growers let their grapes stay on the vine to maximise flavour development, and the best winemakers were careful to handle the fermentations gently. In these instances, the finished wines fulfil the excellent potential of the vintage.

In terms of volumes, every appellation recorded lower yields than in 2016. Vacqueyras had an average of 27 hectolitres per hectare, compared with their usual 36. Vincent Avril at Clos des Papes made only 40% of his usual volume, and most of his neighbours in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (whose stony terroir is pictured below) faced similar shortages. 

A curiosity of the Châteauneuf-du-Pape tasting notes is that there are more Cuvées Spéciales than Traditions (102 of the former, 74 of the latter). The smaller number of the traditional bottlings doesn't logically reflect the smaller vintage because the same number of these wines are made each year, just in varying volumes, whereas the fashion for Cuvées Spéciales is likely a reflection of producers making more ambitious and therefore expensive blends. 

It seems to be an important way for producers to differentiate themeselves from the competition. At their worst they are like concept cars – attention-grabbing, but at the cost of their fundamental utility: drinkability and enjoyment. At their best, they are genuine reflections of an interesting variety or terroir, although you could argue that even the best examples sacrifice classic Châteauneuf typicality in this pursuit.

The general characteristics of the best 2017 southern Rhône reds are full body, concentrated fruit, mellow tannins and low acid. This makes them attractive to drink young, but with the intensity and structure that should age well. The whites are similarly full and ripe, but acid seems more obviously lacking, resulting in high viscosity and low refreshment.

It is certainly a year that has produced some exciting and delicious wines, and is definitely worth buying, although I would not say it is definitively 'better' than the very good 2016 vintage. As ever, the producer's capability and the drinker's personal preference are as important as the weather conditions of the growing season. 

However, an additional factor worth considering is that the 2018 vintage is likely to be even smaller than the 2017, so devotees of the southern Rhône may want to buy while they can, especially from the most sought-after estates.

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Here are 17 wines that are some of my most favourite 2017s from the southern Rhône, providing plenty of buying options across all prices and styles.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition

  • Ch Rayas – an absolute standout, with a level of complexity that leaves most other Châteauneufs in its shadow

  • Dom du Banneret – fantastic example of the classic Châteauneuf style, including the typical 'garrigue' scent

  • Le Bastide St-Dominique – delivers the ripeness of the vintage while retaining nuance and complexity

  • Mas de Boislauzon – 50% Mourvèdre makes this darker, chewier and spicier than the usual Châteauneuf style

  • André Mathieu – from one of the better-value producers, with well-integrated acidity

Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvées Spéciales

  • Dom de la Vieille Julienne, Réservé – modern, rich, ambitious and convincing

  • Dom de la Présidente, Nonciature – heavily oaked, but with enough fruit to score highly when tasted blind

  • Paul Autard, Juline or La Côte Ronde – the 50% Syrah gives excellent peppery spice to both these cuvées

  • St-Paul, L'Insolite – atypically, this is 100% Syrah but it captures the wild savoury nature of the grape brilliantly

  • Dom de Panisse, Confidence Vigneronne – there is a stemmy, sappy element to the aromatic range which I enjoy

Other southern reds

  • Ch de Fonsalette, Côtes du Rhône – stunningly good stuff from the Rayas stable

  • Famille Perrin, Clos des Tourelles – the expertise of Beaucastel weaving their magic in Gigondas

  • Le Couroulu, Classique or Vieilles Vignes – two wonderful wines from Vacqueyras, which age brilliantly and are terrific value for less than £20

  • Moulin de la Gardette, Ventabren – a great expression of Gigondas terroir

Southern whites

  • Ch de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape – I gave this the same score as their (much more expensive) Vieilles Vignes Roussanne. Nuff said!

  • Dom Barville Roussanne, Châteauneuf-du-Pape – pretty good value for this honeyed, peachy varietal

  • Le Sang des Cailloux, Floureto, Vacqueyras – the richness and structure of Hermitage at a fraction of the price

Chene Bleu Rosé a reference wine?

Spotted this in my copy of “The Week” this week- Bruce Palling, their wine editor promotes a selection of wines from around the world which can be bought through the magazine: from his comment around the rosé selected, seems our very own local “Chene Bleu” rosé is being talked about in the same breath as Domaine Ott ( surely the world’s most expensive rosé - the favoured tipple of many a Saint Tropez yacht owner). Not saying Chene Bleu doesn’t merit this recognition- many of my guests will know I select it as a lunchtime wine when we are at Verger des Papes at Chateauneuf du Pape where it is a staple on the wine list- its an undeniable class act - but just a little surprised at its elevation to the “peerage”here! Congrats to Nicole Rolet the owner and her team.

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The "prix malin" ( bargains) of the Northern Rhone

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Been spending a fair bit of time in the Northern Rhone of late - had a lot of fun, met a lot of “sympa” winemakers - but oh my God are these wines wickedly pricy! Most top end Cote Rotie/Hermitage is beyond my usual budget and Condrieu/Saint-Joseph/Cornas not far behind. Us Southern Rhone wine fans are thoroughly spoilt by the terrific price/quality ratio we are used to….even if we shop at Chateauneuf du Pape. However, increasingly it seems NR vignerons are creating economies of scale by introducing entry level wines ( at IGP/Vin de France level) to their ranges at modest prices - €10 to €15 is typical. These are from vines planted usually on the plateau above the hills , or on the flat near the river. Many of these are fabulous “little Cote Rotie” Syrahs or “little Condrieu” viogniers like the “La Champine” pictured from serious Cote Rotie/Condrieu man Jean-Michel Gerin. His neighbour Guillaume Clusel is making a juicy Gamay based red from the Coteaux Lyonnais ( pictured = “Traboules”), a little known outpost of Beaujolais actually south of Lyon just before you hit the Syrah slopes. Easy on both the palate and the pocket these wines.

It's Découvertes time again at the Palais du Papes!

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All signed up and badged up for the biennial mega Rhone tasting session that is the “Découvertes en Vallée du Rhone” , four days ( April 15th to 18th) of Rhone hedonism in the magnificent setting of the Palais du Pape. With more than 600 exhibitors showing their wines, turning up without a clear strategy of whose wines you want to taste is likely to leave you completely bewildered - where the hell do you start? The event is super well organised have to say and this year hoping to get to a couple of the Matt Walls /Andrew Jefford hosted masterclasses in as well.

Les 3 Barbus

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Recently we visited maverick winemaker Stanislas Wallut of Domaine de Villeneuve at Chateauneuf du Pape, we were amused by his label ( “Les Trois Barbus” = bearded ones) for the collaboration he has going with two other bearded gentleman in the Northern Rhone , Mathieu Barret of Cornas, and David Reynaud at Crozes Hermitage, a fine blend of Stanislas’s old vine Grenache and Syrah from the North. At Stanislas's recommendation I caught up with David last month at his caveau on the plains of Crozes Hermitage – very nice guy, an excellent bio-dynamic producer of Crozes and a very fine looking beard to boot!

Another great Truffle & Wine Tour

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Last week we took our guests out for another of our seasonal ( January or February) Truffle & Wine tours - really lucked out yet again with the weather , bright blue skys and no frost to deter the dog, Junior, from doing his work - found more than 400g in around 50 minutes ( and at €800 per kilo thats good going!). With Nicolas Monnier’s fab truffle cooking , a slap up 5 course truffle dinner at Fleur Bleu ( merci David) , and winery tastings at Solitude, Escaravailles, Saint-Amant and with an “on great form” Philippe Gimel of Saint Jean du Barroux ,a good time was had by all.

An “over the motorway” wine from the Northern Rhone: Rhone Wine Tour top tips

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Many of my Rhone Wine Tour guests will remember me acclaiming what I call “over the motorway” wines made by Chateauneuf du Pape producers, the wines given humble Cotes du Rhone designation as they are from grapes grown on the land just “over the motorway ( the A7 to be precise) from the illustrious Chateauneuf terroir of their owners – examples are Beaucastel’s Coudolet, Janasse’s Terre D’Argile, the Vielles Vignes from Cristia etc. These are invariably wines that punch well above their weight showing much of the character of a Chateauneuf for a fraction of the price, after all almost identical terroir, same climate, same fanatical attention to quality from the wine maker….a bargain for those in the know. Well, the other day I came across this little gem which must be the Northern Rhone’s equivalent -a simple Cotes du Rhone ( a Syrah dominant Syrah/Grenache blend) from the great (greatest?) Hermitage producer J L Chave -the name of the cuvée”Mon Coeur”. This a very serious CdeR, dark mature black fruit, big ripe tannins and lovely glossy smooth mouthfeel, the 2013 absolutely ready to drink now. A bottle of Chave’s famous Hermitage is going to set you back a pretty penny – at least €240 a bottle. The Mon Coeur costs £13.50 ( £162.00 per case) at Rhone specialist merchant Yapp Brothers in the UK. Bargain, enough said!

Herer’s some more technical info on this wine from J L-L ‘s excellent site ( so it turns out its from an assemblage of Southern Rhone grapes!)purchased wine, usually 40-50% Grenache, 40% Syrah, 5-15% Cinsault, 5-10% Mourvèdre, 0-5% Carignan from, in order of amount, Cairanne (Grenache notably), Vinsobres (Syrah from the plateau), Rasteau (Grenache notably), Visan, destemmed, 3 week vinification, pumping overs, aged vat, 4-6 year old 228 and 600-litre oak casks 12-15 months, fined, filtered, several bottlings, 150,000 b (up from 90,000 b early 2010s, 60,000 b mid-2000s, and 40,000 b 2003-04), several bottlings, “I like a little wild side to my Côtes du Rhône”

Christmas wines at la Madelene

Kicked off the Christmas specials with these beauties on Christmas Eve: the house Larmandier-Bernier “Vertus” 2009 Champagne, steely mineral gorgeousness to get going, one of my fave Condrieus from Christophe Pichon; a Santa Duc Gigondas “Prestige des Hauts Garrigues”2007 – still very young, dark and brooding; two great CNPs – Mont Redon ’98 and Jaufrette ’06, the latter actually the more successful of the two wines in spite of the reputation of the vintages. Happy Christmas drinking to all our friends!

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