Rhône Boom

The 2015 vintage is classic in both the north and south

Excerpted from the Nov. 30, 2017, issue

For the first time since 2010, both the Northern and Southern Rhône Valleys saw superlative growing seasons that yielded classic quality. Marked by large cores of rich, expressive fruit flavors, the 2015 reds are must-have wines for any serious Rhône lover. Led by the stunning success of Côte-Rôtie, the north is a step ahead overall, with the wines showing better drive and definition. But the south is close behind, with the top appellations churning out a wave of superb wines.

“You know it is an outstanding vintage in terms of quality and quantity when growers and winemakers are still smiling three weeks into harvest,” says Claire Darnaud-McKerrow, who alongside Jacques Grange handles the winemaking at Delas, a top négociant.

Since my last report (“Hard Knocks,” Nov. 15, 2016), I have reviewed nearly 925 wines from this large, sprawling region via blind tastings in our New York office. Of these, more than 60 percent score 90 points or higher on Wine Spectator’s 100-point scale, including 88 wines in the classic range of 95-plus.

The 2015 vintage dominates the report, with more than 475 wines overall, about two-thirds of them rating 90 or more points. This is one of those rare vintages where consumers can almost buy with abandon: Based on my tastings, I rate the 2015 vintage 99 points for the Northern Rhône and 97 points for the Southern Rhône.

A number of late-release 2014s are also included, primarily from the north, as well as some early-release 2016s, mainly from the south. In general, the 2016 vintage should be an impressive follow-up to 2015, but flipped in terms of quality. The south soars, while the north, though certainly exceptional, falls a bit short of its achievement this year.

The Southern Rhône

Leading the way overall is the Domaine St.-Préfert Châteauneuf-du-Pape Collection Charles Giraud 2015 (99 points, $93), which captures the essence of the vintage perfectly. Showing heady ganache and Turkish coffee aromas, followed by dense, fleshy layers of fig cake, steeped plum and warm blackberry confiture, this is a wine built to reward decades of cellaring, with juicy energy through the finish for balance. Made from a blend of 60 percent Grenache and the rest Mourvèdre, it’s the best wine to date from owner and winemaker Isabel Ferrando.

Of the 62 2015 Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds in this report, 24 of them earn classic ratings, a sterling performance. Just behind the St.-Préfert, the Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2015 (98, $109) delivers a drop-dead gorgeous core of cassis and raspberry pâte de fruit flavors along with notes of Lapsang souchong tea, anise, incense and shiso leaf. Also at 97 points, wines from Domaine de Beaurenard, Domaine de la Janasse, Domaine Giraud, Le Clos du Caillou, Roger Sabon & Fils and St.-Préfert fill out the lead pack. Other classic-rated wines come from Paul Autard, Clos St.-Jean, Domaine de la Solitude, Château de Vaudieu and Le Vieux Donjon.

The 2015 growing season was marked by ideal spring conditions that allowed for a healthy crop set. That was followed by warm and dry conditions through July, but without extremes in temperature or dryness. There were scattered rains in August that led to minor disease pressures and affected earlier-ripening grapes such as Viognier and Syrah. But a long stretch of Indian summer weather through September and into October allowed the late-ripening Grenache and Mourvèdre to excel.

“2015 was dry, but no drought. Warm, but not hot. There was no excess of anything, not even mistral,” says Frédéric Coulon, who runs Domaine de Beaurenard along with his brother Daniel. The Coulons’ Châteauneuf-du-Pape 2015 (94, $55) is a no-brainer for aging in the cellar.

Overall, the 2015 reds are rich, ripe and full of powerful fruit, in the style of 2009 and 2007, but with better definition. If they lack anything, it’s the more resolute spine of a vintage such as 2010 or 2005. Consequently, I expect the wines to provide ample pleasure in their first decade or two, though I do not think the vintage matches 2010, the current benchmark for the Southern Rhône.

“In 2015, you have the maturity, there’s no question about that,” says Châteauneuf-du-Pape producer Mounir Saouma with a smile. Though I’ve yet to rate his ’15s, his late-release Rotem & Mounir Saouma Châteauneuf-du-Pape Omnia 2014 (94, $111) is a highlight from that much trickier vintage.

“2015 was not a complicated vintage to manage. Some areas had longer maturation, and I actually like that, because the wine is deeper,” says Jean-Paul Daumen of Domaine La Vieille Julienne. “It’s difficult to say ‘normal’ today, as the climate is changing, but it was not an abnormal vintage for sure. We often get extreme conditions at some point, but we didn’t get that in 2015. Just some very small rains in the middle of harvest, which helped the later-ripening areas.”

Growers were also excited about the size of the crop, since 2015 saw an even flowering and a standard crop size for the first time since 2011. Daumen explains: “2012 was good, but lower yields. 2013 [was] more difficult and with very low yields. In 2014, we selected out 50 percent. Over those three years, we lost the equivalent of one vintage in volume. So 2015 is very, very welcome here.”

Another star in 2015 is Gigondas, led by the appellation’s flagship estate, Château de St.-Cosme, whose Gigondas Le Poste 2015 rates 98 points ($115). Sourced from a single parcel located on limestone soils, this Grenache-dominated cuvée is marked by a precise chalky spine that effortlessly carries dark fig, blackberry and red currant paste flavors. All five of vigneron Louis Barruol’s 2015 Gigondas bottlings earn classic ratings.

“The gap between Châteauneuf from ’15 to ’16 is big,” Barruol says of the nearby appellation with which he has a friendly competition. “The gap between ’15 and ’16 in Gigondas is not as big. And for me, I think Gigondas is a bit better than Châteauneuf in ’15, but in ’16, Châteauneuf is a bit better.”

Comparisons like these are indicative of the compelling quality of both vintages. I spent time in the region this summer, tasting the ’16s from barrel at a number of estates. It’s still early, and the bulk of the wines won’t be bottled and released until next spring and summer, but the potential is clearly there for 2016 to surpass 2015. (See “Next Up: 2016.”)

“2015 and 2016 in the south is like ’09 and ’10. In ’15, you have explosive fruit. In ’16, you have structure and minerality,” says Julien Bréchet of Domaine des Bosquets, whose Gigondas La Colline… 2015 (96, $65) and Gigondas Le Lieu Dit… 2015 (95, $50) are two beautiful expressions of Grenache. Bréchet’s work with consultant Philippe Cambie has helped refine the style here, with the duo choosing to destem the fruit and use less new oak than when Bréchet started in 2006. The resulting wines show silky textures and very pure raspberry and boysenberry fruit flavors inlaid with fine minerality.

Nearly all of the 2015 Gigondas I tasted earn 90-plus ratings in the outstanding or classic range, including bottlings from Domaine Brusset, Dauvergne Ranvier, Gabriel Meffre and Pierre Amadieu. In fact, the vintage is so strong that even as you go down the hierarchy into less prestigious areas, there are a bevy of choices for consumers, with more than half of the nearly 275 2015s from the Southern Rhône rated outstanding or higher. The Philippe Cambie Vacqueyras Halos de Jupiter 2015 (91, $27) is a prime example, delivering solidly ripe kirsch and boysenberry paste flavors at an excellent price.

Many more good values abound in the broad, generic Côtes du Rhône appellation. Bottlings such as the Clos du Mont-Olivet Côtes du Rhône Vieilles Vignes 2015 (90, $21), Jean-Louis Chave Sélection Côtes du Rhône Mon Coeur 2015 (90, $20) and Domaine de Mourchon Côtes du Rhône 2015 (89, $15) are all rock-solid.

Between the 2015s now available and the 2016s on the horizon, it’s an embarrassment of riches for Rhône lovers these days. Your toughest decision is likely to be not what to buy but how much.

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

For the complete Rhône Valley tasting report, including scores and prices for top wines from the Northern Rhône, read the full article, “Rhône Boom,” in our online magazine archives.