This is a longer version of an article also published in the Financial Times.
'You must come back and taste the 2009s', was the common refrain when I visited the Rhône Valley last month. I was there to taste the 2008s, which was a strange exercise as, the more I tasted them, the more I realised that most sensible wine buyers will want to stock up on the exceptional 2007s while they wait for the eagerly anticipated 2009s. Overall the general characteristic of the 2008s in both northern and southern Rhône is that they are decidedly muted - especially after the super-concentrated 2007s.
Admittedly the Rhône Valley has been particularly blessed with successful vintages, with 2002 being virtually the only other disappointment in recent memory. The problem with 2002 was the same as the problem with 2008: rain at the wrong time and in too generous quantity. In the northern Rhône, kingdom of the sensitive Syrah vine, 2008 was the rainiest year in 30 years, with 300mm of rain, the amount that would normally fall in six months, falling on the famous hill of Hermitage in just 24 hours 3-4 Sep. The grapes swelled up with water, diluting flavour, and disease rampaged through the vines. As a direct consequence, the northern Rhône négociants Paul Jaboulet Aîné have decided not to produce their flagship wine, Hermitage La Chapelle, at all in 2008.
Even the ebullient Michel Chapoutier admitted that 2008 was the most difficult vintage he'd known since 1991. As official northern Rhône representative, he had to ask the authorities for special permission to add sugar to make up for the low natural potential alcohol of the musts.
The best producers hung on and on hoping their Syrah would reach full ripeness. Chapoutier, an early adopter of biodynamic methods in the vineyard, does seem to have found a magic formula for making unusually dense, healthy, vibrant wines in 2008 - in both northern and southern Rhône. Michel Tardieu of Tardieu-Laurent, based in the Lubéron, made a lovely but completely atypical red Hermitage that is so uncannily supple that I found myself drinking it with my dinner after tasting a sample straight from the vat. And the ingredients that I tasted from cask in the cellars of J L Chave that will eventually find their way into Chave's Hermitage 2008 looked pretty promising too.
But 2008s chez that other famous name of the northern Rhône, Guigal, whose casks are shown here, seemed pale shadows of this producer's usual style - although Marcel Guigal assured me they had a record 18 people on their sorting tables to ensure that no rotten or mildewed grapes got into their carefully coopered casks. 'The big difference in 2008, as opposed to 2002, is poor colour. The 2008s have freshness of fruit but once it's gone, if a wine is racked too much... And once their youth is over...' He shrugged.
Guigal was very down on the 2008 vintage in the southern Rhône, telling me that he did not buy one drop of 2008 there because he found so many of the wines 'acrid'.
I think he protested a little too much. I did find the odd exciting 2008 Châteauneuf-du-Papes in the southern Rhône, but they tended to be either from the absolute top drawer (Clos des Papes and Château Rayas spring to mind), or they were white. In Vacqueyras, an appellation that has provided such stunning value in recent years, it was a struggle to find a 2008 with much guts. One useful, if minor, consequence of all this rain was that my teeth were much less disgustingly black at the end of a day's tasting than usual, and it was great to hear the locals looking on the bright side. 'It's a restful vintage to taste', Pierre Amadieu of Gigondas assured me, citing the appellation's much less savage tannins than usual.
Those who depend heavily on Syrah in the southern Rhône had a nerve-racking time hoping it would ripen properly. There was even some Grenache that was not ripe by 21 Sep - most unusual. And, to add injury to insult, some Châteauneuf growers, whose Grenache had already suffered from poor fruit set in June, were hit by hail on 15 Sep. All this, plus the necessary particularly careful selection of the healthiest grapes, means that there is not an enormous quantity of 2008 to sell.
But it will be a difficult sell. Especially in the UK, where the devaluation of the pound against the euro makes all French wine look horribly expensive at present (see latest Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé prices). Some Châteauneuf producers are apparently planning to launch their 2008s before their 2007s, which would make sense. I found myself writing suggested drink dates as early as 2011-2013 for some of the least ambitious red Châteauneufs.
The styles of the wines are arguably even more varied than usual in the southern Rhône, with some producers giving the impression of having just rolled over and let the shortcomings of the vintage wash over them and their wines. Others made light but appetising wines, while others, somehow, tried desperately for a more traditional style. Whereas when tasting the 2007 southern Rhône reds I found myself writing 'black cherry' time after time, the 2008s were definitely more in the red-fruit spectrum.
As usual, many producers are planning to bottle a regular 'tradition' blend and a 'cuvée speciale' but some of the latter really don't qualify as very special if my blind tasting of 42 of this super league is anything to go by.
The white wines, which represent only 6% of Châteauneuf production but are becoming increasingly important, don't seem to have been quite so badly affected by the rains, and some are very pretty, refreshing wines where lightness can be an asset. However some of these whites seemed to be sporting rather obvious acid additions, even in 2008.
There is still some pretty rustic winemaking in this south-eastern corner of France, but the average level of competence in the north seems to be soaring, with the overall quality of lesser (red and white) appellations such as Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph increasing in a particularly agreeable way - even if 2008 will be a weak point.
One small ecological point. Châteauneuf producers' traditional insistence on relatively heavy bottles no longer seems so clever in a world where we need every ounce of energy we can muster. Perhaps they might investigate some of the new techniques for making smart but much lighter bottles? I was told that French wine producers may be taxed on heavy bottles soon, which should provide a suitably effective spur.
J L Chave - Hermitage
Chapoutier - most of the range
Tardieu-Laurent - Hermitage
Châteauneuf Rouge - Dom Benedetti, Les Larmes Papales
Clos des Papes
La Ferme du Mont, Côte Capelan
Dom de St-Préfert, Auguste Favier
Châteauneuf Blanc - Dom Pontifical
Gigondas - Dom Les Pallières, Terrasse du Diable
Ch de St-Cosme, Le Claux
La Cave de Gigondas, La Référence
Dom La Garrigue
Dom Brusset, Grand Montmirail
Pierre Amadieu, Grand Réserve
La Bastide St-Vincent, Pavane
Dom Font Sarade