A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See this guide to our extensive coverage of 2015 Rhône.
Burgundy 2015 may be in relatively short supply, but the southern Rhône – home of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Gigondas and the many villages of the Côtes-du-Rhône overlooked by Mont Ventoux seen here last October - is one of France's most productive wine regions. It also enjoyed a very good vintage in 2015 (even if 2016 is reported to be even better in the southern Rhône). Prices, in euros anyway, have remained fairly stable, another divergence from Burgundy.
I've now tasted a total of 566 southern Rhone 2015s, many of them blind in peer groups in the region last October. Far, far more of them were red than white because white wine production is a minority sport down there – and because the 2015 whites I did taste often lacked a bit of acidity.
Yapp Bros is one of Britain's surprisingly few specialists in Rhône wines. Their 2015 offer has just ended and was their most successful since they offered the 2010s – although negotiations for all merchants buying in euros and pricing their wares in sterling have been understandably tough.
Philippe Cambie is one of the region's most respected oenologists and he points out that every vintage ending in a five from 1985 onwards has been a success in the southern Rhône. (See also Bordeaux 2015 harvest continues the rule of five.) The 2015 growing season was the warmest and sunniest there since records began, hotter even than 1947 and 1921. Some Grenache and Mourvèdre vines, particularly south of Châteauneuf, stopped ripening grapes in protest at the record daytime temperatures, but the Syrahs were particularly successful and sumptuous in 2015. Nights were relatively cool so that the resulting wines had good freshness and decent colours, and the grapes were delightfully healthy. This meant that vignerons could take their time over picking, and often needed to wait while the Grenache and Mourvèdre caught up.
Winter was usefully rainy, and spring so cool that the growing season began three weeks late. But the weather during flowering was so fine and settled that this was a bumper crop (although yields are always relatively low in this dry climate).
Thanks to the particularly dry summer, the grapes had unusually thick skins and in Châteauneuf at least it seemed as though winemakers, advised by the likes of Cambie and Guenhaël Kessler, were careful to extract the phenolics sooner rather than later so as to avoid harsh, dry tannins. I must say that in my annual tastings of Châteauneufs I have seen an agreeable evolution of style over the years: from dark and tough to notably paler, rounder and more perfumed.
The reds were more varied than ever – from firm and claret-like to fruitily, almost rosily, burgundian but, unlike vintages a few years ago, there were remarkably few obviously oaky wines or fruit bombs, and lots of freshness and that elusive quality known as minerality. Despite the heat of the summer, many of the wines finished on the palate with some rather attractive coolness. Although alcohol levels tended to be over, sometimes well over, 14%, the 2015s may be the best-balanced red Châteauneuf vintage I have tasted.
(I know that high-alcohol wines can be inconvenient – especially the morning after – but if they are made with care, they can taste dangerously delicious.)
I suspect these transparent, floral wines - many of which seemed to have been made with a portion of whole bunches rather than destemmed grapes - might well appeal to wine drinkers who came to see Châteauneufs as a bit over the top in the recent past. Sweet cherry – both red and black cherry – notes were common in Châteauneuf, though not up the hill in Gigondas, where in slightly too many wines the phenolics did not seem as generous and ripe.
However, the following Gigondases, tasted blind, were more impressive than most: Bergerie de la Plane, Domaine des Bosquets (Le Lieu Dit), La Bouïssière (Tradition and Font de Tonin), Montirius (Confidentiel), Notre Dame des Pallières (Les Mourres and Vieilles Vignes), Ogier Cave des Papes' Héritages, Domaine d'Ouréa, Château Redortier and Château de St-Cosme (Classique and Hominis Fides).
As usual many producers made different blends from their various different grape varieties and parcels of vines but it is difficult to generalise about what worked particularly well in 2015. In Châteauneuf they tend to call the principal blend Tradition and any deviation from it a Cuvée Spéciale, but these 'special blends' do not necessarily taste obviously superior to the Tradition bottling.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of different wines are made in the southern Rhône each year and my tasting of those made in the many villages other than Châteauneuf, Gigondas and Vacqueyras was almost certainly spotty. The number of villages allowed to append their name to the umbrella appellation Côtes du Rhône-Villages continues to grow. From the 2016 harvest, Sainte-Cécile, Suze-la-Rousse and Vaison la Romaine will swell the number to 20. Those that have earned their very own appellation, apart from Gigondas and Vacqueyras, are Beaumes de Venise, Vinsobres, Rasteau and deservedly, from the 2015 vintage, Cairanne.
Wines from outside Châteauneuf and Gigondas that particularly stood out for me included Domaine de la Charbonnière's Vacqueyras Cuvée Spéciale and both Les Semelles de Vent's and Tardieu-Laurent's Vieilles Vignes Vacqueyras; Domaine de Beaurenard's Rasteau (as well as their Châteauneuf) and Domaine Pique-Basse's Rasteau; Domaine de Fondrèche and Ch Pesquié's Quintessence from Ventoux; Domaine Gramenon's Laurentides Côtes du Rhône-Villages; and Le Clos du Caillou's Les Quartz bottling of Côtes du Rhône, which is a Châteauneuf by any standard except for a cartographic quirk, and is offered by www.h2vin.co.uk at £159 for a dozen bottles in bond.
Although winemaking in Châteauneuf seemed very much more sophisticated than elsewhere, I was heartened to encounter a few new names among producers of my favourite wines. This is a region where many vines that once supplied local co-ops are now being harnessed by individual farmers-turned-winemakers to produce domaine-bottled wines.
Last November in 2015 north Rhône reds – best in 55 years? I reported on these very attractive northern reds, wines made in relatively small quantities. But even now it should not be too difficult to get your hands on 2015 southern Rhône reds – especially as some UK merchants are yet to make their official offers, and the 2015s are only just being offered in the US, for example. The top Châteauneufs will not arrive in the UK until the end of the year. But there is no hurry to drink them. They should be drinking well in the middle of the next decade. The 2004s would do very nicely now.
See tasting notes on more than 550 southern Rhône 2015s.
FAVOURITE 2015 SOUTHERN RHÔNES
All of these are Châteauneufs, quite a few of them Cuvées Spéciales.
Domaine des 3 Cellier, Éternelle
Clos des Papes
Domaine de la Côte de l'Ange, Vieilles Vignes
Domaine de la Croze-Granier, Le Château
Ch Fargueirol, Cuvée Antonin
Font de Michelle, Élégance de Jeanne
Olivier Hillaire, Les Terrasses
Olivier Hillaire, Tradition
Roger Sabon, Prestige
Roger Sabon, Secret de Sabon
Domaine de St-Siffrein, Terre d'Abel
For retailers see wine-searcher.com. Purple Pagers can use the Wine-Searcher links within the tasting note of each of the wines listed in this article.