Roaming around the Rhône


Photograph: Jason Lowe

As the region’s 2015 wines are released en primeur, Oliver Barton reports on a trip to the region – tasting the wines and talking to the people who made them

A very good vintage in the Rhône valley is long overdue, as we have been waiting for one since the all-round winner of 2010. Well, it is finally here. As we discovered on our trip across the region last month, both North and South are hitting high notes.

The weather was wonderful in the Southern Rhône, reaching 22°C in Gigondas when we got there. The backdrop of the Dentelles de Montmirail above the flowing vineyards, with the almond trees in flower was a wonderful sight to behold. Of course most of our time was spent tasting in dark, cool underground cellars, such is the nature of the task.

The vintage itself was generous in quality as well as quantity which is important for the customer on many levels; the quality will provide wines which are ideal for cellaring and will reward from the simplest of Côtes du Rhônes all of the way up to the Châteauneuf-du-Papes and Côte Rôties over the next decade or two. The quantity means there is more for all, but also avoids any severe price increases – a saving grace in this time of turbulent exchange rates.

The quality is very good across both the North and the South, although yields were better in the latter. The reds are marginally better than the whites overall, with a risk of not-quite-perfect acidity levels in grapes such as Viognier.

To go through each producer visited on our trip would be long-winded, but also a particularly repetitive affair – with far too many notes of “ripe, dark berry fruit”, “great structure” and the reoccurring “must buy this one”. But there were a few highlights that are worth mentioning.

The first day heralded a visit to Domaine de la Janasse. The winery is understated and you may well encounter the whole family as they wander through the cellar. The wines, by contrast, have a big structure, with generous, silky tannins. But, as with many of their contemporaries, it is the fresh, balancing acidity that defines the vintage here. One of my top wines of the trip was their Vieilles Vignes: stunning, fresh with cassis fruit and liquorice, their 80- to 100-year-old vines yield beautifully concentrated fruit.

Another producer punching well above their weight was Domaine de Marcoux. The two sisters Catherine and Sophie Estevenin have excelled again in producing dark, rustic wines reminiscent of other top-level estates in the area. Their Lirac, which receives no oak aging, shows great potential and their Vieilles Vignes is a wonder to behold if you like your Châteauneuf-du-Pape opaque and as full-bodied as it gets.

After years of negotiations to achieve Cru status for Cairanne, 2015 is the first vintage for Domaine de l’Oratoire St Martin with the new appellation. Frederick Alary produces outstanding wines with a hallmark mineral finish and high percentages of Mourvèdre that provide dark bramble fruit. The prices aren’t bad either.

Driving up the valley into Hermitage and then Côte-Rôtie, many famous names are visible on the slopes – like billboards on American highways, advertising the big players such as Guigal and Chapoutier. René Rostaing, now working with his son Pierre in the winery, compares his 2015s to the great vintages of the 1990s. Coursodon, down the road in St Joseph, showed us dark reds which were embellished with a touch of new oak, while Domaine du Tunnel has produced wines which will be incredibly long-lived.

We ended this heady tour with a visit to Stéphane Ogier in his large, very modern winery which he built a few years ago. The tasting room look out over the most important slopes of Côte-Rôtie, allowing one to observe the vineyards from which the grapes were grown while one tastes.  Stéphane’s work on vinifying parcels individually, creating an even broader palette with which he can work, has allowed him to produce truly stupendous wines – complex but generous, textured but balanced. A word to the wise, things are only going to get better at this domaine: Stéphane is one to watch very closely.

Tasting the length of the valley, the quality of the vintage is undeniable. An “easy” vintage in the eyes of the growers, 2015 has provided excellent wines at all price points and will provide enjoyment for years to come. It really is one not to be missed.

Browse Rhône 2015 en primeur on