Rhône 2012: an Audrey Hepburn of a vintage


Fruit from the Rhône harvest this year. Photograph: Jason Lowe

Fruit from the Rhône harvest this year. Photograph: Jason Lowe

Much has changed since Simon Field MW, our Rhône buyer, first started to select the region’s wines for our list. Here he reports on 2012 – a vintage that’s more Audrey than Marilyn Monroe, he says.

Our annual Autumnal pilgrimage to the Rhône Valley used to be quite a modest affair; we would arrive in Lyon on a Sunday night and follow the river down to Marseille for a departure the following weekend. Sometimes, for a change, we would do the trip in reverse.

Now, with a far more extensive list, we devote two whole weeks to the task, and still are struggling to see all of our growers. Great care must be taken at this time of year to avoid traditional Gallic obstacles such as the national holidays, and the usual threats of irate lorry-driver strikes and bonfires in the roads.

There is also the perennial problem of the fact that one has come to taste and assess the merits of the previous year’s vintage rather than the one which has just been finished. On this visit, the growers, quite naturally, were keen to discuss the tardy but fascinating 2013 vintage… No matter, comparisons are always useful and one can really get a feel for the relative worth of the two vintages in question from apparently anecdotal remarks. 2012 and 2013, it seems, are to be rather different beasts, but both destined for Rhône’s pantheon.

The Rhône Valley has not, in any event, wanted for good vintages of late, the famous quartet from 1998-2001 providing a qualitative benchmark for successive years, with 2007, 2009 and 2010 a worthy trio and solo performances from the highly tannic 2005, the deceptively approachable 2006 and the somewhat under-rated 2011 all worthy of mention. As always, different growers had different opinions, but the consensus seems to be that 2012, stylistically, falls somewhere between 2010 and 2011, certainly bigger boned than the later but perhaps a little less concentrated than the former. Approachable, yet with substance. Nabokov rather than Tolstoy; Schubert rather than Schoenberg, or, as one supplier, who had better remain nameless, put it: “Audrey Hepburn rather than Marilyn Monroe”.

Wonderfully knotted old vines, photographed by Jason Lowe this autumn

Wonderfully knotted old vines, photographed by Jason Lowe this autumn

Our visit to the North was marked by extraordinarily and almost incessant rain, which lasted the whole day. Florent Viale at Domaine du Colombier filmed the busy round-about next to the A7 Péage, which had turned into a swimming pool for the day, with cars floating around in suitably surreal discord. Such conditions do serve to underline the unpredictable nature of the weather patterns, echoed more generally in 2012, with its incredibly dry winter, then resoundingly wet spring, followed by a somewhat lacklustre mid-summer and finally a more settled redemptive harvest period. Humidity after the advanced bud-break engendered mildew risk and a tricky flowering, then an extended maturation, challenged only by excessively hot weather in the middle of August.

The harvest was finished in the first week of October and the verdict was generally favourable; Jean Gonon sums it up well as ‘the little brother of 2010’ and Stéphane Robert at Domaine du Tunnel is typically pithy with his comment “tout est bon… pas de soucis” (All is fine; no worries!) to underline the quality of fruit and the harmony of the resulting wines.

In the South, similar heterogeneous conditions are well captured by Beaucastel’s strap-line: “unbalanced climate, but very balanced wine”, a reflection of the helter-skelter conditions that saw temperatures of 18 degrees in January and then -12 with hard frosts in February. Understandably the wines were puzzled by such things and some of the older Grenache plants died. Overall yields were down between 20-30%, a condition exacerbated by poor fruit set in the Grenache, and then by a virtual drought between May and September. All most odd – but gentle rain in September, allied to more clement temperatures thereafter ensured even ripening and a more than satisfactory harvest.

Beaucastel say 2012 is a tale of an "unbalanced climate, but very balanced wine"

Beaucastel say 2012 is a tale of an “unbalanced climate, but very balanced wine”

The last Mourvèdre was brought in in the third week of October to general relief and genuine excitement about the potential of the vintage. The general consensus was that the wines are to be both silky and powerful, with more tension than 2007 perhaps but more harmonious structure and better acidity than 2009. Vins de garde certainly but perhaps less foreboding than 2005 but with more equilibrium and harmony than 2011. All in all, a great success and one that we look forward to promoting in early March 2014 with our En Primeur Offer and a large customer tasting scheduled for 3 March, with many producers, as usual, in attendance.