The Rhone Valley has been enjoying a consecutive set of remarkable vintages since 2015. According to Michel Chapoutier, 2018 has continued in the same vein and he describes it as “a terrific year”.
Indeed, the Rhone Valley followed a similar path to the rest of France in 2018. A very wet start to the year helped provide plenty of water reserves essential for what would turn into a very dry and warm summer.
2018 for the Rhone was not without its issues however, particularly in the south, where the high rainfall right up until May saw a huge outbreak of mildew, badly affecting the Grenache varietal in the Southern Rhone, Chateauneuf du Pape being the worst affected. Worth noting that mildew does not directly affect quality only volume, provided the dried berries affected are removed at sorting. Whilst Stéphane Usseglio was disappointed by the quantity he produced, he remains excited about the quality.
The Northern Rhone
By mid-April temperatures were already high, hitting a record breaking 30 degrees. With all the Spring rains followed by such heat, the vegetation shot up very quickly. Flowering and fruit-set passed with little incident as the weather continued to heat up. By mid-July the Syrah on the hills of Cote Rotie were really thriving and promising a great vintage.
The 11th August saw an unseasonal storm hit the northern Rhone but was welcomed, following three weeks of sweltering heat, the rain doing the grapes a power of good and bringing them to full maturity. Chapoutier notes that the white wines of Hermitage in 2018, despite the golden colour of the grapes, were ripening incredibly slowly, which was extraordinary considering the intense heat. However, he believes the abnormally thick skins on the grapes protected the acidity in the pulp and Chapoutier began to pick the whites on the warmer Meal slopes of Hermitage at dawn on 23rd August. By the 4th September Chapoutier was picking the Viognier grapes in Condrieu – and he was again surprised by the freshness of the pulp, despite the warm vintage.
The Quality of Northern Rhone Reds in 2018 defined by the 6th September – For Chapoutier the 6th of September was the day that made the 2018 vintage a tremendous success in the Northern Rhone. A brief rainstorm helped push the grapes through their final stages of phenolic ripening. Chapoutier states it “really set the grapes free… every day the taste sharpened… the tastings gave a clear picture of the fine tannin and good acidity levels in the reds which will be crucial for age-worthy wines whilst thanks to the heat the pulp is bringing out more and more intense colour.”
By the 11th September they were picking the Syrah first in Cote Rotie – “the refined skins and inky, purple pulp on our fingers indicate an exceptional vintage”. Next was Saint Joseph “whose pips were already roasted” followed by Hermitage. Following a short break they returned back to harvest on the 25th September to pick the Cornas – “whose grapes had ripened to perfection. Perched on the heights of the Ardeche, they had really taken advantage of the sun and heat”.
Back in the winery and Chapoutier identified that the work in the cellar had to be adjusted to avoid over-extraction and to keep the balance but was pleased with the impressive acidity levels and overall freshness allowing for wine with great ageing potential.
The Southern Rhone
2018 was nowhere near as straightforward in the Southern Rhone. Stéphane Ussegglio describes the vintage in Chateauneuf du Pape as pretty unique with what he describes as “a chaotic spring”, in which there was over 200mm of rain in May bringing with it heavy sanitary pressure on the vineyards. Stéphane states that his father had never seen anything like it in 60 years!
Initially the problem with the mildew almost went unnoticed because it had moved straight to the young grape clusters rather than the leaves. This rapid mildew attack had also been helped noticeably by the absence of the Mistral – the famous northerly wind that blows through the Rhone Valley typically helping reduce risk of disease.
Thankfully by early July the hot weather and the Mistral had returned and helped mitigate against what was turning out to be a devasting mildew attack on the vineyards of Chateauneuf du Pape.
For Stéphane, due to the mildew and the summer drought his volumes were 30% down compared to his average yield. Being organic / biodynamic he was one of the worst affected since he couldn’t protect against it as effectively using biodynamic alternatives. However, he emphasises mildew does not affecting quality, he just had to get rid of the dried berries that were touched by the mildew, but the rest of the berries were perfect.
Self-sustaining biodynamic viticulture tempers the effects of climate change
For Stéphane, like Michel Chapoutier, being 100% biodynamic did not protect against mildew, however he strongly believes his vines were able to cope better with the drought and hot temperatures of the vintage due to the self-sufficiency of his biodynamic vines. He states “the fear is always to have blocked maturities and we must preserve the circulation of the sap in the vine.” Stéphane uses mainly herbal teas in the vineyard, chamomile and yarrow, which are sprayed in the vineyard and helps the plants to face the drought. “We made the choice to make no trimming on the vines, allowing the vines to keep “investing” their energy into fruit maturity versus canopy growth.“ Almost all of Stéphane’s vineyards are goblet-trained providing a natural protection for the grapes and of the soil beneath.
Harvesting in Chateauneuf took place in ideal sanitary weather conditions, allowing Stéphane to push the maturities and reach optimum ripeness throughout his separate plots. He was tasting each plot every day and able to make several visits to the same vineyard picking sub plots at different times to get the desired levels of ripeness.
“We had thankfully invested this year in a vibrating sorting table and further to the sorting in the plot we have made a second sorting (four people including myself) to eliminate all dry grapes affected by mildew.”
Asked to sum up the quality now the wines are in bottle, Stephane states “Thanks to severe sorting and the risk we took to push maturities, we were more than satisfied with the quality of the wines in 2018. Whilst they don’t have the concentration of vintages like 17 and 16 they offer a great expression of the grapes and an excellent balance. I firmly believe that the freshness in the wine, will allow them to age gracefully”. For Stéphane it is difficult to compare with any other vintage as the combination of a very rainy spring , a very hot summer and a beautiful end to the summer is unusual for the Southern Rhone. Style wise, he describes it as a hybrid between the structure of a 2009 and the fruit expression of 2012.
Look out for the latest 2018 releases to be released this Winter/ Spring.