2021 Rhônes Snatch Triumph from Disaster – Wine-Searcher

Well, we’ve had the Burgundy 2021 primeurs, and we know that (a) we’ll be lucky to get any; and (b) if we do we will have to deal the piggy bank a mortal blow. What to do?
There is an alternative. It’s not Pinot, so if it’s Pinot you’re in love with, stop reading now. If you just want really delicious wine that you can afford to drink yourself and give to your friends, then look to the Rhône. It’s at that blessed stage of being very good, and not yet terribly fashionable. If it was the stock market people would be nudging each other in the ribs and whispering in corners.
The downside (and there had to be one) is that the newly released vintage is 2021 which, as we know, was a vintage in which biblical plagues were unleashed upon growers. There was rain, frost, hail, storm, and more rain. But Jacques Grange of Delas describes it as “a challenge, but not a disaster. We selected out about 20 percent of grapes. We didn’t bottle any single vineyards in Hermitage in 2021 – they weren’t quite good enough – so they all went into other Hermitage bottlings. And we got 26 hectoliters per hectare on the Hermitage hill, compared to about 35 hl/ha normally.”
Other people suffered even more: at André Perret they lost 40-55 percent of Condrieu and 80 percent of the rest to April frost – the rest being St-Joseph. Clusel-Roch lost half their Condrieu to frost, and half of Côte-Rôtie to frost on the slope. Counterintuitively, they say, the plateau of Côte-Rôtie suffered less from frost. At Domaine de l’Oratoire Saint-Martin they say that “frost is more dangerous now. Plots which never used to get frost now get frost.”
After the frost came rain. If, like Domaine Jolivet, they didn’t suffer too much from frost, then all that humidity meant disease, which meant some pretty rigorous sorting at harvest. And while in Burgundy September cheered up, Grange of Delas says: “We started picking on September 14, and on the 18th there was 120mm of rain in one day.” In just 15 days in September, say Domaine Feraud et Fils in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, they had 100mm, then 50mm, then 100mm again. Luckily, “all our vineyards are on sand, so they drained well”.
Until then, in the southern Rhône, it had been a fairly dry year. Domaine le Clos des Cazaux describe how they have adapted their viticulture to a warming climate.
“We have grass everywhere. We don’t work the soil any more, and grass protects it from the sun. You know what the sun does to your skin? It does that to the soil. We used gypsum on the vine leaves every three weeks in June, July and August. Our oldest vineyard without treatment is now 27 years without scarifying, and that vineyard suffered the least from the heat. And the alcohol was less; it was incredible. It was our second year of using no tractors anywhere; no animals, and as few humans as possible – just for pruning, attaching bunches and picking, that’s all. We are the problem. [In the third week of November] the only vineyard in the region with leaves – green leaves – was mine. In 2022 we had 0.5 percent alcohol less than in 2021, though in 2022 we had four months without a cloud. This year we will try not cutting the grass; I don’t know what will happen.
“There are probably 10 producers in France like me, just letting nature do its work. It’s not interesting to anybody because it can’t be sold. The costs are nothing.”
Alcohol levels in 2021 are generally not that high, and often lower than in 2020. This has to be a good thing. In the south especially it’s very easy for alcohol to creep up to 15 percent and keep on creeping. And while acidity in 2021 is apparently not particularly high on paper, it tastes higher than it is. You can feel it on the palate, and the wines are all the better for it. The differences between appellations are clearly marked: Côte-Rôtie reds are particularly good; Saint-Joseph and Hermitage are elegant rather than big. In the south the reds have a particular purity; they’re rich and supple, and balanced.
The whites have been generally getting more accolades than the reds in both north and south, however, and Condrieu, what there is of it, is lovely – subtle and poised. White Châteauneuf is also one to look for. Some are calling it the best white vintage since 2014.
The whites are probably more consistent than the reds: there are reports of green tannins in some reds, though I have to say that the ranges I have tasted so far, from good UK merchants, had such wines selected out. But it’s probably wise to taste before you buy.
Which brings us to the question of price. “Price?” said Giles Burke-Gaffney of Justerini & Brooks. “There’s typically little happening. The Rhône is still not very fashionable. There’s a younger generation making beautiful wines, but prices tend to rise in small increments. All the prices for 2021 are very reasonable; I hope that will last. People buy it to drink. In Burgundy and Bordeaux we have to work to get past the investors.”
Some top Burgundy domaines, indeed, are restricting the amount that can be sold to private buyers and preferring their wines to go to restaurants, where they will be drunk as opposed to being kept for resale. But then of course in the UK they come up against the enormous prices for their wines in restaurants. I spoke to one sommelier at a fashionable London restaurant who was wincing at the prospect of trying to find any big-name Burgundy to put on her list at a reasonable price – “reasonable”, for her customers, being around £200 ($247). But the general opinion seemed to be that those customers would be prepared to pay double that if they had to, even if they complain about it. So those domaines have probably judged right.
But that is a tangent; let’s get back to the Rhône. The 2022 vintage promises to be more concentrated and bigger, but the relative lightness of 2021 will mean that the reds will start to be drinkable in maybe five to seven years. You don’t have to fight your way past investors to get the wines you want. You’ll enjoy them.
And so will your piggy bank.
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