Standing in Their Shadow

The Rhône Valley’s 2011 vintage may not reach the heights of 2009 or 2010, but don’t overlook this outstanding year

Excerpted from the Nov. 30, 2013, issue

In the 2011 vintage, both ends of the Rhône Valley saw success despite a less-than-perfect growing season. The wines arrive quietly—without the power and bombast of the richly ripe 2009s or the density and structure of the 2010s. Instead, the vintage delivers fresh, racy fruit flavors and textures, with the balance from lively acidity rather than forceful tannins.

The best wines will age well, while many others will provide delicious mid-term drinking as you wait for the ’09s and ’10s to fully mature. Despite its lower profile, this is a vintage worth exploring.

Overall, the Northern Rhône leads the way in 2011, showing more consistent quality among its reds—made from Syrah, the north’s only red grape—while delivering excellent whites made from Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne.

In the south, quality is more heterogeneous. Grenache, the Southern Rhône’s lead red variety, relishes heat. It struggled to catch up through a patch of cool, wet weather in the spring, resulting in uneven ripening. With harvest running late into September and October, Syrah and Mourvèdre, key players for southern reds, performed well, giving cuvées that rely on those grapes an edge. Later-ripening areas, such as Gigondas and Vinsobres, excelled; neighboring Vacqueyras also performed well.

Though they represent only a small fraction of the total production in the south, white wines made from a mélange of varieties—including Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Bourboulenc, Picpoul, Clairette and more—are delicious in 2011, with bright stone and tropical fruit flavors allied to crunchy acidity.

Since last year’s report on the Rhône Valley, I have reviewed nearly 1,200 wines in blind tastings in our New York office. The vast majority of these, nearly 850, come from the south, which represents the lion’s share of production in the Rhône.

More than 500 wines in this report are from the 2011 vintage, which is now beginning to dominate retail shelves in the United States. The report also includes a good portion of late-release 2010s, especially from the north, that merit consumer interest, as do the initial releases from 2012 (primarily whites and rosés). All told, nearly half of the wines earned outstanding ratings of 90 points or higher on the Wine Spectator 100-point scale. The Southern Rhône teems with value: Nearly 150 reds and whites from 2011 earned at least 85 points while costing $20 or less per bottle.

In Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the Southern Rhône’s preeminent appellation, quality is heterogeneous in 2011, but the top wines are delicious, with succulent fruit flavors and racy finishes. The wines should drink well in the near to mid-term, with a few bottlings that will age well past 15 years.

“2011 was really a vintage of contrast,” says Marc Perrin, whose family owns Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape and the large Famille Perrin operation that produces wine from throughout the Southern Rhône. “A warm spring, followed by a cool, wet summer, especially in July, turned an early harvest back into a normal harvest, time-wise. Then we had the Indian summer. But the two main issues were uneven ripeness, even within the same bunches, and then some mildew pressures. It was a vintage of hard work and sorting.”

Of the 81 red Châteauneuf-du-Papes from 2011 in this report, 64 rate outstanding or higher, led by the Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape (95, $128) and Roger Sabon & Fils Châteauneuf-du-Pape Le Secret des Sabon (95, $230), the only two red Châteauneufs to earn classic ratings so far in the vintage.

“The wines are better than we thought at the beginning, with superb freshness, a nice expression of terroir and fine tannins,” says Isabel Ferrando of Domaine St.-Préfert and Domaine Ferrando, two top Châteauneuf-du-Pape estates. “The Grenache is full of fruit, and the Syrah and Mourvèdre are deep and tannic, but not as tannic as 2010.”

Ferrando’s Domaine St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Collection Charles Giraud 2011 (94, $75) is one of the vintage’s top wines, with a hefty dose of Mourvèdre showing in the warm ganache and smoldering charcoal notes. Other top red Châteauneufs from 2011 include bottlings from Domaine de Marcoux, Bosquet des Papes, Domaine de la Charbonnière, Clos St.-Jean, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine du Pégaü, Domaine Vacheron-Pouizin and Château de Vaudieu.

Several top producers did not release their 2011 bottlings in time for this report. Yet with the bulk of the wines now bottled and released, I rate the 2011 vintage in the Southern Rhône at 91 points.

There are also some late-release 2010s from top producers. The Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2010 (96, $120) is a blue chip that any serious Southern Rhône fan should have in the cellar.

While the great 2009 and 2010 vintages cellar until maturity, the racy, pure and fresh 2011 vintage provides wines ideal for drinking. Once again, the Rhône offers a bounty of elite bottlings along with solid values, covering a range of reds, whites and rosés. It’s a region with something to offer every wine lover.

Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator‘s lead taster for the wines of the Rhône Valley.

For the complete Rhône Valley tasting report, including the Northern Rhône and other southern appellations, read the full article, “Standing in Their Shadow,” in our online archives.