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March 30, 2021

Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the vintage game

View of the village of Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Les Gallimardes. The Armeniers and Girauds are cousins, so at one time, their grandparents controlled a significant part of this terroir.

Despite being a region noted for its diversity of permitted varieties, in reality, the performance of Grenache largely defines the reputation of a Châteauneuf-du-Pape vintage. For this reason, you will find vintage reports devote much attention to discussing the flowering of Grenache, the subsequent fruit set, the yields, and its harvest date. This is great for those who seek the purity of ripe, concentrated Grenache in their Châteauneuf-du-Papes, or those who value typicity over idiosyncrasy. However, it often leaves out those who might appreciate the character that blending can bring to the table.

Grenache buds early so that its subsequent flowering occurs when spring storms in the Southern Rhône, while infrequent, are not uncommon. The wrong storm at the wrong time means a drastic reduction in the yields for Grenache skewing blended cuvées in different directions based on the relatively higher proportions of Syrah and Mourvèdre. Any excessive rain in the summer wrecks havoc with the thin skins of Grenache, resulting in diligent vineyard work and crop thinning. Several growers have reported that climate change isn’t so much about hot and dry conditions but inconsistent weather punctuated with more freakish storms.

What has become a trend in the last decade are vintages where Grenache fairs poorly are great for Syrah and Mourvèdre. Hence, if your preference is for Châteauneuf-du-Pape with lower alcohol, dark fruit character, more earth, and funk, then vintages like 2018, 2014, 2013, and 2011 are the wines for you. 2019, 2016, 2015, 2012, and 2010 are vintages for those who appreciate the richer and fleshier style.

So here is our take of the last several vintages with the attendant focus on Grenache balanced with fair treatment of Syrah and Mourvèdre.

2019

This was an ideal vintage for Grenache, an abundant fruit set followed by three heat waves interspersed with rain and more moderate temperatures. As a result, there was no heat stress for the vines, and ripening never shut down for a significant period.  Harvest was surprisingly prolonged despite the heat of summer, allowing growers to pick at what they felt was the optimum ripeness and around a few showers late in the season. As difficult as 2018 was, 2019 was a dream vintage since almost nothing had to be done in the vineyard. The fruit’s health carried through to the cellar, with many growers reporting that their vinifications (mostly indigenous yeast ferments) were fast and efficient. Some growers reported small berries and thicker skins than normal, with some challenges to tannin management.

Strong Grenache character with greater than normal tannin. Syrah & Mourvèdre more in the background. 

2018

What is often called a vintage made in the vineyard because of all the work it took to bring in a crop, 2018 is favored by many of our growers more than critics, probably because they worked so hard to make it happen. With rain in May and June, there was both a poor fruit set for Grenache coupled with the threat of mildew. Our organic vignerons grew frustrated that their treatments were continually washed away by un-forecasted rain. Many reported a 40%-60% reduction in their Grenache. Syrah and Mourvèdre fared better, and these varieties are quite pronounced in the blends.

Lighter Grenache footprint, more red fruit contribution. Pretty and delicate Grenache-only cuvées. When in the blend, Syrah stands out at the moment, contributing a high-toned floral note and earthy minerality.

2017

The vintage started with frost at the end of April, followed by a dry summer. This impacted Grenache more than other varieties since it buds earlier. Then in May, the region was hit with inclement weather, further reducing the Grenache yields. Some of our growers reported greater yield reduction in 2017 than in 2018 in the range of 25-50%. Luckily summer was hot and dry, allowing the crop to ripen uniformly with a long harvesting period at a leisurely pace. So beneficial was this warmer period later in the season that the remaining Grenache was quite healthy. Didier Negron observed that this vintage was like a more concentrated 2014.

Grenache is more apparent than in similar vintages like 2014. When tasted in January 2020, many wines with Mourvèdre in the blends have a distinct leather, herbal edge to their darker and sweeter fruit. Overall, richer and darker in style than 2018 but with the same lithe character.

2016

Hailed by many as a dream vintage because the Grenache was only minimally impacted with difficulties at flowering followed by a summer of perfect weather. Hot and sunny during the day but dry enough that evening temperatures were refreshingly cool. This was a great summer for tourists as well as grapes. This is a remarkably age-worthy and balanced vintage with plenty of structure.

A very structured Grenache vintage with smaller berries and thicker skins. Perhaps a little more backward than 2019 at the same point of evolution. When tasted in January 2020, the 2016s were just beginning to show a touch of fresh black truffle in their aromas but still retained much of their primary fruit and freshness.