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Growers in the Northern Rhône hail 2020 as another fantastic vintage.
Many think they’ve made their best wines ever, producing Syrahs with the ageing potential that has given this variety, and this small region, world-beater status on fine wine leaderboards.
And excitement extends beyond the reds, too. The whites are the most vivid and vibrant of recent vintages.
It’s a story not unlike that of Burgundy in 2020. And that’s no surprise, given how geographically close the two regions are. The hot summer has produced ripe flavours in wines that boast almost unbelievable freshness.
The Northern Rhône also shares with Burgundy, as with most of the rest of France, a drastic tale of frost damage and catastrophic losses in 2021. So it was with one eye on the great vintages of the past, and with one on the near future, that we indulged in the excitement of the current 2020 releases on our recent trip, relishing their balance, freshness, density, and beauty.
This is the first year we have decided to separate out the Northern and Southern Rhône. This is because we feel they are two such distinct regions, equally deserving of the spotlight.
In January we spent a week in the Northern Rhône tasting the 2020s. Starting in Ampuis with the growers of Côte-Rôtie, our interest was piqued from the outset. The ‘roasted slope’ certainly lived up to its name in 2020.
A string of great vintages have let growers here hone their craft. Many, like Domaine Rostaing, have taken the opportunity to celebrate single vineyards, whilst others, like Domaine Burgaud, find endless nuance in blending.
Both approaches have yielded exciting wines. And what’s more, there’s so much to explore in the vineyards beyond Côte-Rôtie’s hallowed ground, in the hills above Ampuis and across the river in Seyssuel.
Perfect ripeness and brilliant acidity have meant these lesser communes have shone in 2020, and there’s many a bargain to be found from the likes of Domaine Graeme & Julie Bott, for example.
Condrieu has romped to victory in 2020. We loved the 2019s, but were a little distracted when tasting them last year by growers who were jumping about with excitement for their 2020s. At the time, we put it down to their joyful enthusiasm having just finished harvest. But after tasting the 2020s in January, I now understand why they were so thrilled. These are an absolutely top class set of wines, with complex aromatic profiles and delicious mineral freshness. I can’t think of a better balance being struck here.
St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage are both considerable appellations, and quality can vary. But some of the most fun wines we tasted all week came from the handful of growers we work with here. They don’t come with the weighty grandeur of Côte-Rôtie or Hermitage, but offer up a fragrant, red-fruited, sapid energy.
And so on to Hermitage itself. Here the famous names of Jaboulet and Chapoutier haven’t put a foot wrong, while Bernard Faurie could not have been gifted a finer vintage to round off a remarkable career.
Special mention is reserved for Cornas and Saint-Péray, who sit at the southern frontier of the Northern Rhône. They are hotbeds of talent, with the likes of Stéphane Robert at Domaine du Tunnel making some of the most dramatic and effortlessly pure wines in the region.
So, why buy 2020 Northern Rhônes? They are the next step in a sustained sequence of great vintages, equally as good as the best in the past decade. But what sets them apart?
Many growers singled out the purity and ageing potential the young wines are showing. More than one drew comparison with 2010. Given what good value the Rhône still represents at en primeur, this is incentive enough to add some to your cellar.
Dipping a toe into the past by checking in on some older vintages whilst we were in the region - like a fabulous 2006, and surprising 2003, and a sensational 1982 - was a reminder of how deliciously great Syrahs age.
But it’s also worth considering 2020 in the context of its time. We know that 2021 is a tiny harvest. Indeed, the frost was so bad in some parts of the Northern Rhône that growers are pessimistic about the yield potential of 2022 yet to come.
Whilst prices have begun to creep up, they show none of the vertiginous acceleration we see in Burgundy. The time to buy is now.
These wines come with a ringing endorsement.