Discovering the best rated Rhône wines with critic Stuart Pigott
Tastings of more than 600 Rhône wines by the JamesSuckling.com The tasting team has proven that the drinkability is on point, with recent warm vintages leading to a broad movement back to balance and order.
When I arrived in Châteauneuf du Pape at the beginning of March, the new cellar buildings shone under the radiant sun of early spring. Clearly, a lot of money has flowed into France’s second largest wine region and the most famous wine town in the Rhone Valley since the end of the last century, and some producers have started to imitate the architecture of their Bordeaux counterparts: smooth-as-silky limestone walls, grand wrought-iron gates and marble floors are all part of the landscape.
However, I quickly discovered that most great winemakers still have their feet firmly planted on the ground. Philippe Bravay of Domaine de Ferrand was keen to take me into the vineyards in his old Citroën 2CV to show me the old vines that give the grapes to his 2019 Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Antique Vielles Vignes, which was our highest rated wine in the appellation. regional. Côtes du Rhône are mostly associated with warm, round reds for everyday drinking, but the stunning balance of richness and sweet tannins in this wine is an ideal introduction to premium Rhône reds.
In the vineyard, the thoughtful Bravay hit the nail on the head when he described the fundamental challenge facing winemakers in the Rhône, where the weather is often heavily influenced by the Mediterranean to the south. “The problem here isn’t getting the grapes ripe,” he told me. “The problem is getting potability.” Welcome to the reality of the Rhone.
His shooting from the hip was no exception either. Collectors around Planet Wine fight for every bottle of Châteauneuf du Pape from Domaine de Pegau, but the cellar looks like an ordinary farmhouse. In the somewhat chaotic cellar, co-founder and winemaker Laurence Feraud nearly fell off a precariously balanced ladder while pulling a sample of wine from a large old wooden barrel. I’m glad it didn’t faze her, as it allowed me to taste the incredible concentration and complexity of the 2020 Domaine de Pegau Châteauneuf du Pape Cuvée da Capo.
Another Rhône reality check is overdue. Many consumers still seem to believe that Rhône red wines are full of jammy fruit. However, of over 600 wines from the region that I tasted, surprisingly few fit this stereotype. The string of mostly hot vintages that began with 2015 has resulted in a broad movement back to balance and character.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the top rated wine in this report, the perfect 2019 M Chapoutier Ermitage l’Ermite – a pure Syrah from the Hermitage appellation in the northern Rhône. Yes, it’s an extremely concentrated red with gigantic tannins, but they’re very fine, and it has a nice stony minerality too. Only a hint of oak adds
Winemaker Michel Chapoutier’s great masterpiece is a career high, but not entirely unique. We were blown away by his three other incredible single-vineyard Ermitage red wines from the 2019 vintage and rated them all highly. Tasting them was one of the most exciting sessions in my home tasting room. This made it possible to understand why the Rhône has long had a global fan club.
Apart from a few northern appellations such as Condrieu, which specializes in whites made from the Viognier grape variety, dry whites are in a small minority in the Rhône. However, the best of them are very impressive, and a few are extraordinary. This was certainly the case for the 2019 M Chapoutier Ermitage de l’Orée, a pure Marsanne that was the highest rated dry white in this report.
We love the stunning, deep floral character of honey, stone fruit and brioche in this rich yet precise wine. All of these wines from a single plot of Chapoutier are made from grapes grown biodynamically, compared to only 10% of all Rhône vineyards that are grown organically or biodynamically. Plus, they share exceptional balance with the 73 wines we scored 95 points or more. And we’ve found excellent harmony between these, although exactly what that means will vary depending on which 30 or so appellations you’re in.
In the southern Rhône, the picture is quite complex due to the many other grape varieties grown alongside the dominant Grenache. A total of 13 grape varieties are approved for production in Châteauneuf du Pape, but even in the new climatic situation, the role of each in a particular property exerts a major influence on the wine. Château de Beaucastel, for example, has long been attached to the Mourvèdre grape (known as Monastrel in its Spanish homeland). It helps give these wines their impressive dark color and muscularity, as brilliantly demonstrated by the 2020 Château de Beaucastel Châteauneuf du Pape Hommage à Jacques Perrin, the second highest-rated red in this report.
It’s also a great example of what we find so exciting about the 2020 vintage. Like 2019, it was a hot, dry year with almost no summer rain. However, the fruit is often brighter and more expressive in the 2020s than in the more structured 2019s. Despite this, the 2020s have a lighter feel which, along with the fruit, often results in a very satisfying package.
Today, every good winemaker in the region thinks of freshness and balance, and a growing number are approaching the center of this goal. The Rhône has undergone a reality check and is on the rise.
THE FIVE HIGHEST-RATED RHÔNE WINES
M CHAPOUTIER ERMITAGE THE HERMIT 2019
Incredibly dense elderberry with aromas of raw meat, smoked bacon, balsamic vinegar, mushroom and tar. But there are many other nuances in this astonishing Ermitage!
DOMAINE DU PEGAU CHATEAUNEUF-DU- PAPE CUVÉE ELLA 2020
So sensual, yet so precise, this wine has extremely deep forest fruit nuances that are beautifully counterbalanced by a hint of bitter chocolate. Extremely creamy and succulent on the palate.
M CHAPOUTIER ERMITAGE BLANC DE L’ORÉE 2019
Stunning nose of floral honey and brioche with smoky tension. Huge concentration of dried stone fruit, but also great precision on the palate.
CHÂTEAU DE BEAUCASTEL CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE TRIBUTE TO JACQUES PERRIN 2020
Enveloping nose of super ripe orange, pomegranate and cigar leaf which is still very young and needs time to reveal its multiple nuances. Huge concentration, silkiness and finesse on the expansive palate.
DOMAINE DU PEGAU CHATEAUNEUF-DU- PAPE CUVÉE DA CAPO 2020
Incredibly complex leather and undergrowth character, along with excellent wild blackberry fruit, make this supremely concentrated and powerful Châteauneuf du Pape irresistible.