In recent weeks we’ve examined the best vintages from Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne – now it’s the turn of France’s Rhone Valley, split into northern and southern regions, each with their own distinct vinicultural traditions.
To the north, Rhone septentrional, characterised by a continental climate with harsh winters and warm summers. Here, you’ll find the appellations of Cote-Rotie, Condrieu, Saint Joseph and Hermitage, among others, and Syrah (Shiraz) and Viognier reign supreme. Indeed, Syrah is the only red grape variety permitted in red AOC wines from this sub-region.
To the south, Rhone meridional, which has a more Mediterranean feel with milder winters and hot summers. A tapestry of microclimates give rise to a wide range of wines – reds, whites, roses and blends of several grapes, which include the likes of Grenache, Syrah and Viognier, as well as lesser-known varieties such as Cinsault and Clairette. It is in the south that appellation powerhouse Chateauneuf-du-Pape resides, as well as Cotes du Rhone and others.
Given the significant differences in terroir between Northern and Southern Rhone, it would be foolish to make sweeping vintage generalisations for the area overall, so we’ll consider each sub-region in turn.
Vintages of Northern Rhone
The best Northern Rhone vintages of the 21st century
The turn of the century saw the start of a mixed period for wine in Northern Rhone – vintage years seemed to ricochet between exceptional and average.
Top performers include the 2003, 2009, 2010 and 2015 – all hailed by critic Robert Parker as ‘extraordinary’ – while the 2002 and 2008 are generally regarded as lacklustre efforts. Elsewhere, the 2006, 2011, 2012, 2016 and 2017 have scored well into the 90s, with the remaining vintages of the ‘00s and ‘10s firmly in the ‘average 80s’ camp.
The best Northern Rhone vintages of the 1990s
Looking further back, the 1990s didn’t yield quite as many legendary efforts as the successive decades. Parker’s scoring suggests that the 1990 and 1991 are the top picks, each scoring a solid 92 points – the 1995, however, is the decade’s winner with an almost-extraordinary 95 points. The 1992 was rather disappointing, and certainly skip over the 1993, which scored an almost-record low of 58 points.
The best Northern Rhone vintages of the 1980s
The ‘80s were not a particularly strong decade for the Rhone Valley overall – perhaps because many winemakers in the region were either finding their feet, or exploring more contemporary ways of doing things. Nonetheless, there are still some decent efforts to be found. The 1988 and 1989 each scored a strong 92 points from Parker, with the 1985 following with 90 points. Other vintages from the decade are generally average, although the 1981 and 1984 less so.
Vintages of Southern Rhone
The best Southern Rhone vintages of the 21st century
Like its northern counterpart, wines from the southern area of Rhone have seen mixed successes since the turn of the century. Extraordinary efforts include the 2000, 2001, 2007, 2010 and 2016, while Parker would advise one avoids the 2002 at all costs, scoring it an ‘appalling’ 58 points.
The 2003, 2005, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2015 and 2017 all scored solidly in the 90s, with the 2004, 2008, 2011 and 2013 yielding average 80-something results.
The best Southern Rhone vintages of the 1990s
The southern region of the Valley fared slightly better than the north during the 1990s, sneaking in at least one ‘extraordinary’ vintage – the 1998. The 1990 was also a top effort, scoring 95 points from Parker. Results elsewhere throughout the decade are generally average-to-good, although the 1991 and 1992 fell short, with just 65 and 78 Parker points respectively.
The best Southern Rhone vintages of the 1980s
If Northern Rhone struggled to produce any stellar vintages in the 1980s, Southern Rhone found it even harder. The only year to produce a 90+ score from Parker was the 1989, with an decent 94 points. Elsewhere, the decade is marked by average 80s and high 70s scores, with the 1982 and 1987 proving particularly disappointing with just 70 and 60 points respectively.