A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See this guide to our coverage of 2015 Rhône which includes almost 800 tasting notes.
Marcel Guigal is the godfather of the Rhône Valley. His company in Ampuis uniquely combines quantity (to the tune of more than seven million bottles a year) and quality in both its own holdings and massive purchases throughout the valley. For him 2015 was the best vintage he has ever known, in a career that began in 1961 – that was a far from shabby vintage itself.
For talented négociant Michel Tardieu of Tardieu-Laurent, 'never, ever have we tasted such quality of juice. The wines are both dense and fresh: the perfection of their balance is astonishing.'
For Marcel Guigal's son Philippe, who now holds the reins, there was 'simply nothing to say' about the 2015 growing season in the northern Rhône because it was just so perfect. Winter was very wet and usefully topped up the water table in readiness for a particularly hot, dry summer that was 'almost too perfect'. It was not nearly as punishing as that of 2003, partly because the nights were fairly fresh, which seems to help retain flavour and colour (even if no one, as far as I know, has proved why). As usual there was a little rain around the 15 August national holiday and it ensured that, unlike in the southern Rhône, the vines didn't shut down and stop ripening.
Over the years, I have learnt that the Guigals, being based in the northern Rhône, can be relied on for criticism of the vintage in the southern Rhône if they think any is due, but even they admit that 2016 is definitely better in the south than in the north. This provides yet more reason to grab northern Rhône 2015 reds with both hands.
Both Hermitage and Côte Rôtie are more luscious than usual, as well as having an admirable charge of ripe tannins. Perhaps predictably, for Jean-Paul Jamet up on the cool plateau above Ampuis, who enjoys a winemaking challenge and makes some of the most subtle Côte Rôtie, 2015 is 'un petit peu too much'. While drawing out cask samples of his various ingredients from large barrels old and new, he told me that he saw his job with 2015 as attempting to limit what he called the generosity of the vintage but admitted, 'I'm starting to enjoy it but it's more complicated than you'd think to find wine with both pleasure and elegance. I think there will be some 2015s that will be too tough to enjoy young.' For Jamet 2015 and 2016 is a pair a bit like 2009 and 2010, with the later vintage designed for a longer life.
As elsewhere throughout the Rhône Valley in 2015, some of Jamet's young vines suffered from the drought. The general danger was that acid levels fell too low and alcohols in some cases climbed too high, and the dry summer resulted in grapes with particularly thick skins.
I was lucky enough to taste 31 Côte Rôties blind, thanks to the generic body Inter Rhône, and found that you really needed local knowledge to make the best of this appellation, whose best wines demonstrate nuance rather than sheer power. Outsiders from the south have been invading 'the roasted slope' but rarely successfully. The extraction of fruit and tannins from these thick-skinned Syrah grapes was obviously tricky and some clearly went too far, producing wines with extreme dryness on the finish. The sheer ripe exuberance of 2015 meant that the Côte Rôties are not desperately typical, with the best examples retaining a whisper of the classic, delicate, terroir-driven style rather than being subsumed in alcohol. Guigal's so-called La La's, the most famous examples, were once by far the biggest and most concentrated, but they seem increasingly refined to me.
The 2015 vintage may suit Hermitage even more than Côte Rôtie as Hermitage, on a single granite hill well to the south, has the backbone to withstand exceptional ripeness. The good 2015 Hermitages are very good indeed. The main problem with the less satisfactory Hermitages was a lack of ambition rather than too much, as was the case with the less satisfactory Côte Rôties.
But what I found especially thrilling when tasting my way through the 2015 northern Rhônes was that it is not necessary to pay top dollar in order to experience 2015's sumptuous combination of ripeness and precision. The lesser appellations of St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage have also excelled themselves. The increase in the number of top-quality St-Josephs has been evident for some years now as the likes of Chapoutier, Guigal and, especially, Chave have invested in some of the best sites in this extremely extensive, heterogenous appellation – notably around Tournon in the south. But arguably the real proof of the superlative nature of the 2015 vintage is in the extent to which Crozes, whose reds can often be accused of being hollow and dull, shines.
The same is true of Cornas, where there seem to be some interesting new producers even if many a St-Péray 2015 seems unusually flabby. Such 2015 whites as I have tasted from the northern Rhône seemed marginally less thrilling than the 2014s; the extra layer of fat larded on by the hot summer didn't suit the likes of Condrieu as much as it suited the reds.
Nevertheless, being extremely conscious of the shortfall in Burgundy, the Guigals have deliberately beefed up production of their Côtes du Rhône Blanc, boosting it by half in 2015 to 750,000 bottles of a southern Rhône blend dominated by Viognier.
All in all they are becoming kings of Viognier production, producing more Condrieu than anyone else and ramping up quantity every year (although Jamet made a Condrieu for the first time in 2015, expanding the domaine to make way for his son Loïc). 'The key for 2015 whites was to pick as early as possible', according to Philippe Guigal, who also asserts that there was not much point in delaying the red wine harvest either. Their white wine harvest started on 8 September with their Condrieu and top white St-Joseph vineyard and the reds just a week later with St-Joseph, then Hermitage, and only then Côte Rôtie. In 2015 their harvest lasted just 10 days while the much rainier 2016 northern Rhône harvest spread over four weeks in a stop-go schedule.
I will write more about the 2015s of the southern Rhône early next year but am keen to share my views on the exceptional 2015 vintage in the northern Rhône now since quantities are so very much smaller than in the south, and UK wine merchants such as A&B Vintners, Armit, Averys, Corney & Barrow, Genesis, Goedhuis, H2Vin, Jeroboams, Justerini & Brooks, Laithwaite's, Latimer and Yapp are already offering them to private customers – although wines such as the Côte Rôties of Stéphane Ogier from his glamorous new winery on the outskirts of Ampuis will not be released until next year.
If you have any enthusiasm at all for red Rhône, 2015 is a vintage not to be missed.
SOME NORTH RHÔNE 2015 RED FAVOURITES
I scored all of these at least 17.5 out of 20 but gave many more wines an enthusiastic 17. There are several new names here.
Dom de Bonserine, La Garde Côte Rôtie
M Chapoutier, Le Méal and Le Pavillon Ermitage
Yann Chave Hermitage
Louis Clerc Côte Rôtie
Delas, La Landonne Côte Rôtie and Les Bessards Hermitage
Ferraton, Le Méal Hermitage
Guigal, Lieu Dit St-Joseph Rouge; Ch d'Ampuis, La Pommière, La Mouline, La Turque and La Landonne Côte Rôtie; Ex Voto Ermitage
Jean-François Jacouton, Pierres d'Iserand St-Joseph
Jamet Côte Rôtie
Dom Michelas St-Jemms, Terre d'Arce Hermitage
Tardieu-Laurent Côte Rôtie and Hermitage Rouge
Verzier, Indiscrète Côte Rôtie