A version of this article is published by the Financial Times. See Rhône 2014 - a guide for links to all our articles and reviews.
Young Stéphane Ogier looked around his gleaming new winery just south of Ampuis, overlooked by the almost impossibly steep vineyards of Côte Rôtie that supply what is sitting in his tanks, casks and bottles. Trained in Beaune, he knows South Africa well and is no blinkered paysan.
Like virtually every French vigneron he really wanted to talk about the stellar quality of the 2015 grape harvest just in, but there is the small matter of the relatively copious 2014 vintage to be sold first. 'I'm quite happy with final results of 2014 even if it's far from the finest vintage. It's not 2010 or 2013, but it's far from being a little vintage. The wines are perfumed, tender and drinkable – they'll be a pleasure to drink fairly young – even if in mid August I thought we wouldn't be picking anything.'
The growing season got off to such an early start that initially northern Rhône growers thought they might be picking in August, but then came an unusually wet, cool summer, the worst possible conditions in view of an invasion of a pesky new insect pest that seems to have been encouraged by the mild 2013/14 winter, Drosophila suzukii. Common or garden fruit flies were a noticeable nuisance last summer and autumn but this particular one, sometimes called the cherry vinegar fly, drilled through grape skins and laid invisible eggs therein causing havoc – on top of extensive mildew.
Jean-Paul Jamet up on the plateau high above Ampuis claims to love challenging vintages but even he was tried by 2014, which he says required two and half times as much work, particularly grape sorting, as usual. For him 2014 reds have 'un charme fou' but he agrees it's an early-maturing vintage. For Philippe Guigal, who as scion of the dominant family-owned Rhône négociant presumably sees more wine samples than anyone else, 2014 red wine quality depended on yields being restricted and the timing of the harvest: 'the later you picked the better'.
Although September saved the harvest with some fine weather early in the month that encouraged the grapes to gain 1.5% alcohol in a week, a horrific total of 160 mm / 6.3 in of rain (half that experienced recently in Carlisle, but still exceptional) fell in three days from 18 September around Tain l'Hermitage (much less in Ampuis according to Guigal – who always suggests everywhere fares much worse than his home town) just as the harvest was getting under way. Nor was there much wind to dry the grapes so the Cave de Tain, the co-op responsible for so much of the wine made there, had real reason to be grateful for their new and much-improved winery facilities.
I found the northern Rhône red 2014s I tasted perfectly agreeable but a little soft and at most medium-bodied. I think I will save my money for the 2015s.
For the northern Rhône whites it was a very different story. Virtually all of them were picked well before the rains, with very nice levels of acidity thanks to the cool summer, but good ripeness because of the fine early September. The vinegar fly that caused producers of red wine such angst is not interested in pale-skinned grapes such as the Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne responsible for the white wines of the northern Rhône. In 2014 many Condrieus and the single-appellation Château-Grillet, now under the same ownership as Château Latour of Pauillac, represent Viognier at its finest. White versions of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and St-Joseph as well as St-Péray are all made from various combinations of Marsanne with Roussanne.
I focused my blind tasting of 2014 northern Rhône wines on the whites and was most impressed. The appellation that has really been revolutionised in terms of average quality is St-Péray across the river Rhône from the busy town of Valence. The appellation used to be best known for rather ponderous sparkling wine but thanks to producers such as Bernard Gripa and Alain Voge, St-Péray is now the source of some of the most interesting white wine made in France. I am a particular fan of Alain Voge's exceptional Fleur de Crussol, made from 70-year-old Marsanne vines on granite and aged in new oak. It seems to be more daring with every vintage. I see that it has been unusually consistent, scoring 17 out of 20 for every vintage tasted since 2005, 17.5 for the 2013, and I gave the gloriously dramatic, full-bodied 2014 an extremely enthusiastic 18.
But Yves Cuilleron's Les Cerfs bottling of St-Péray 2014 and François Villard's Version Longue were both sumptuous too – even though these two colleagues, both involved in the mould-breaking outfit called Vins de Vienne centred on Seyssuel across the river from Côte Rôtie and Condrieu, have only relatively recently begun to produce wine in St-Péray. The granite may be responsible for the exciting tension in these wines.
These producers also turned out to be responsible for two of my favourite white 2014 Crozes-Hermitages, Les Rousses and Cour de Récré respectively, and two particularly successful white 2014 St-Josephs, St-Pierre and Fruit d'Avilleran respectively. Cuilleron's St-Pierre bottling is an all-Roussanne wine grown on granite. Tasting my way blind through 23 white 2014s from the extensive St-Joseph appellation convinced me that more precise sub-appellations are long overdue – just as they are for St-Joseph's reds.
Hermitage Blanc is one of France's great treasures, and one of the longer-lasting dry whites in the world. The 2014s are not the best and are extremely variable. There are some excellent examples but Condrieu is probably the most interesting appellation for 2014 northern Rhônes. The best have the exciting savoury blossomy aroma, real concentration of fruit but great tension too. Like Domaine de la Mordorée of Lirac, also of the southern Rhône, St-Cosme of Gigondas is now venturing as far north as Condrieu and doing rather well there. Villard and Cuilleron triumph again on this, their home patch, but so do all those listed below – a grand total of 20 wines that I scored at least 17 out of 20 – compared with 12 Hermitages, five Crozes-Hermitage Blancs, three St-Joseph Blancs and four St-Pérays.
Condrieu can seem overpriced and dilute but the 2014s, retailing already at roughly £25 to £40 a bottle, are truly exciting.
See my review of northern Rhône 2014s for detailed tasting notes on these wines, or search in our tasting notes database. Stockist information can be found via wine-searcher.com, or by clicking on the name of a specific wine in search results.
RECOMMENDED 2014 CONDRIEUS
Louis Bernard, Grande Réserve
Yves Cuilleron, Vertige
Dauvergne Ranvier, Vin Rare
Maison Denuzière, Cuvée Aphrodite
Guy Farge, Grain d'Émotion
Lionel Faury, La Berne
Guigal, La Doriane
Domaine de la Mordorée, La Reine des Bois
Rémi Niéro, Héritage
Eric Rocher, La Coste
Tardieu Laurent, Vieilles Vignes
Georges Vernay, Terrasses de l'Empire
François Villard, Grand Vallon