Next Up 2016: Greatness in the Southern Rhône

The nascent vintage promises classic quality in the Southern Rhône

Excerpted from the Nov. 30, 2017, issue

The 2015 vintage in the Southern Rhône is a classic. The reds are open and expressive, with ripe, rich fruit. They’re already approachable and should continue to drink well for decades. The vintage is similar to 2009 and 2007, though with better definition. And yet, as good as it is, it’s hard not to look ahead. That’s because 2016 appears to be even better.

This is a rare one-two punch of classic vintages for the south, besting the high-water marks of 2009 and ’10 and 1989 and ’90. I currently give the 2016 vintage a preliminary rating of 96-99 points, pending my official blind tastings of the finished wines in bottle.

“2016 is a dream,” says a beaming Isabel Ferrando of Domaine St.-Préfert. “I’d like to have it every year.”

In late June and early July, I spent nearly two weeks in the Southern Rhône, meeting and tasting with vignerons. The wines are still at various stages—some have not been blended and most have not been bottled. So yes, it’s early. But I’ve now tasted 15 vintages in the region’s cellars, and 2016 is hands down the best young vintage I have seen. I’m not alone in this thought, either.

“2016 has tannin, fruit, freshness and power,” says Philippe Cambie, the influential consultant who works with dozens of Southern Rhône estates. “It’s the best vintage of my life.”

The growing season was delayed by a very cold winter. But as spring arrived, the vineyards were blessed with ideal conditions for flowering, leading to a normal- to plus-sized crop of homogeneous clusters. The growing period saw warm weather during the day offset by particularly cold nights. This larger-than-normal diurnal swing led to grapes that ripened extremely well without losing acidity. Harvest occurred under dry and moderate weather conditions, allowing producers to pick as they wanted.

“Just incredible,” says Marie Giraud, who runs her family estate in Châteauneuf-du-Pape with her brother François. “It’s the first time I’ve seen a vintage like this. Warm days and cold nights, so the wines are dark in color but still very fresh. When you taste them, you think the wines come from vineyards at elevation. It’s as rich as ’15, but fresher. All the cépages did well and we had a normal-size crop.”

Châteauneuf-du-Pape is the nexus of quality in the vintage, as the power and fruit of Grenache was exploited perfectly by the growing season, with the supporting grapes of Mourvèdre, Syrah and others all hitting their ideal ripening points.

“They’re all good,” says Guillaume Gonnet of Domaine Font de Michelle, in assessing the cépages in 2016. “But Mourvèdre and Syrah maybe? It’s tough to pick, because Grenache is really top. It’s going to be super fun to blend.”

Elsewhere through the region, from Gigondas and other designated areas such as Vinsobres and Cairanne to the broad generic Côtes du Rhône appellation, the vintage is remarkably consistent in quality and style.

“2016 is a warm vintage, but not a heat-wave vintage like 2003,” says Daniel Coulon of Domaine de Beaurenard. “The vines were able to recover because of the cold nights. Maturity was never blocked, and the sugars never raced ahead of phenolics. A light rain in early September was perfect, and then we spent a month harvesting each sector as we wanted.”

As the wines progress through the remainder of their élevage, I expect them to take on additional weight while also stretching out through the finish, adding detail and clarity. They’re likely to be expressive right out of the gate after bottling, but as with most structured vintages, they will likely close down for a time, just like the ’10s, ’05s and ’01s. While 2015 should drink well and remain open during its lifetime, 2016 will require patience in the cellar.

Châteauneuf vintner Mounir Saouma sums up the new vintage perfectly. “2016 is something totally new,” he says. “We don’t have words for it yet. There is something unusual between the color and the tannins. When you pour the wine and see the color, it’s so dark. But then the wine is so fresh, the tannins so integrated. We don’t know why, but it’s doing its thing.”

If you’re a lover of the Southern Rhône, the 2015 and 2016 vintages are a rare opportunity to bolster your cellar with some truly special wines.

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

For the complete Southern Rhône tasting report, including scores and prices, read the full article, “Next Up 2016,” in our online magazine archives.