Rhone 2017: small but excellent

The Rhone Valley is experiencing a real heyday at the moment with a spectacular vintage in 2015 (particularly in the Northern Rhone) followed by a sensational 2016, (particularly for the Southern Rhone appellations). Both vintages produced fantastic ripeness levels due to long, dry, warm (but not over hot) summers. Combine this with distinctly cooler nights, slowing down the ripening whilst keeping acidity and freshness high, and you have all the hallmarks of a top vintage.

Based on early insights from producers throughout the North and South, it looks like after 2015 and 2016, 2017 will complete the set of three great vintages in a row. However, the story of the vintage was far from straightforward with some erratic weather throughout the season. Like much of Europe in 2017, the vineyards were plagued by devastating frosts in late April / early May. This was followed by extreme heat and humidity in the spring badly affecting the flowering and fruit-set, Grenache suffering in particular, leading to a significant drop in volume in the Southern Rhone. There was then a six month drought throughout the remaining growing season. It has been reported as the driest growing season since records began. Premature budburst, early flowering and rapid vine growth early in the season however meant for a very early harvest beginning mid-August. The early harvest saved many vines from the hydric stress caused by the drought. The very dry weather meant for another disease free growing season and the cool dry nights retained the acidity levels and freshness despite the ongoing drought.

The result overall seems to be a small but excellent vintage. With another small harvest recently confirmed in 2018 the combination of the two has led to plenty of talk regarding price rises.

Isabel Ferrando of Saint Prefert describes the 2017 vintage as one with a lot of fruit and freshness but with less tannin than in 2016, giving an overall more elegant and quite Burgundian style. Quantities are significantly down due to erratic weather during flowering. Some of their cuvees are over 80% down on production.

Chateau de la Beaucastel (part of the Perrin Family) was also punished by hail and frost which plagued much of France in 2017. Whilst the harvest started early the fine weather meant they were able to pick at their leisure right through to early October when they picked their “magnificent and memorable” Mouvedre – the harvest lasting a staggering eight weeks! They compare the vintage to the fantastic 2007 vintage “with no lack of tannic power, but also seductive velvety texture and firm honest acidity”.

For Stephane Usseglio 2017 is a vintage marked by an extremely low yield with the conjunction of two factors : first a very strong “coulure/millerandage” on the Grenache affecting the fruit set and second the severe drought during the summer of 2017. However the low grape load induced by the coulure acted to reduce the hydric stress on the vines in such a dry year enabling an optimum ripening.  The fear was another 2003 with blocked maturation and harsh tannins but thankfully due to the low yield it is not the case.

For Stephane, although it is difficult to compare with other vintages, it looks like a 2009 with more elegance, somehow a cross between 2009 and 2010. In the cellar, minimal intervention was the rule with perfectly ripe grapes and the need to favour soft diffusion / extraction to protect the freshness.

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