Who was the best musician out of The Beatles? Let’s face it, it’s either Paul and John. What about George Harrison? After Paul and John, George comes a solid third. Sorry Ringo.
If 2011 Rhône was a Beatle, it would be George. The two stellar years of 2009 and 2010 would be Paul and John; 2011 takes a good third place. Though far from a write-off, 2008 was a bit of a Ringo. So 2011 is not a ‘great’ vintage for the Rhône that you should snap up and throw in the cellar. But there are some very good wines, particularly the whites and the Syrah from the north. Stylistically it is lighter and fresher than ’09 and ’10, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
The spring enjoyed a heatwave, as did the harvest. But a cold, wet July put a big dampener on proceedings. In the Southern Rhône, the resulting lighter and fresher character is typically evident in more restrained alcohol levels in the reds, but some lack exuberance. Good wines were made throughout the south, with some particularly good value to be found in Vacqueyras and Gigondas. From the 300 or so wines I tasted, 2011 was more beneficial for the whites than the reds in the Southern Rhône; some excellent white Châteauneuf was produced.
Although not a hot and dry vintage, the long ripening period on the vine followed by a warm harvest was enough to give the grapes a good level of maturity. Some 2008 Northern Rhône Syrahs have a green, unripe streak running through them, but this isn’t something the 2011s suffer from. The cooler growing season has given the best reds from the north gorgeous freshness and aromatics if not the power and concentration of the previous two years. Many of the more generic wines and some Crozes-Hermitage are delicious already, displaying high-toned violet aromas, peppery spice and fresh blackberry fruit that you only find in the Rhône Valley. The wines display their different terroirs with precision: René Rostaing describes it as “un millésime de terroir, pas un millésime de soleil”.
As in the south, some excellent whites were made in the north. They may not have the power of the 2010s, but some of the white Hermitage and Condrieu from 2011 are exceptionally pretty and offer truly delightful drinking. Though leaner in style, St Peray has considerably upped its game yet again. Thankfully for us, the prices still haven’t caught up yet – this is where to hunt for value whites.
So is this a vintage to buy? That depends on whether you bought any 2010s. If you did, congratulations, that was a very smart move. But the best wines won’t come into their own for another 10 years or more, and you’re going to need something to drink in the shorter term. For the soft succulence of the south, there were some delicious, and good value, reds and whites but buy with care. Overall it was marginally better in the north; if you like that fresh, perfumed style of Syrah, you’ll love this vintage. But there’s no need to go nuts.
Below are 35 standout whites and reds from what I tasted at Bancroft Wines, OW Loeb, Berry Brothers, Lay & Wheeler and Montrachet Fine Wines. If you didn’t buy any 2010s there is still time – do not miss them. And in the meantime, the 2011s, like George Harrison, play an excellent supporting role.
The highlights (all pricing ex duty and VAT, per 12 bottles unless otherwise stated)
2011 Southern Rhône whites
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Domaine Bosquet des Papes (13.5%, £23.50 inc. VAT per bottle, OW Loeb)
Still slightly closed peach and apricot fruit, with some lifted floral notes. Medium-bodied, well balanced, with a little mineral touch adding interest to the length. Sweet ripe fruit, but ends dry and neat. 91 points, fair value.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Domaine Grand Veneur, ‘La Fontaine Blanc’ (14%, £225 Bancroft)
100% Roussanne. Still showing some oak on the nose for now, but plenty of peach and pineapple underneath waiting to take its place. Full-bodied and mineral with a long finish. Plenty of intensity and well balanced. 92 points, good value.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Domaine Raymond Usseglio, Pure Roussanne (14%, £288 Berry Bros)
A weighty wine, but displaying more herbs and spices than fruits on the nose, and a touch of coconut. Full-bodied, yet fresh, with a lean finish. Highly individual. 93 points, fair value.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc, Château de Beaucastel, Vieilles Vignes (14%, £792 Lay & Wheeler)
100% Roussanne from 80+ year old vines in 20% new oak barrels, making 6000 bottles. Banana and pineapple in crème pâtissière, with a pleasing vegetal streak. Fat and full-bodied yet tightly wound for now. Huge power and very long, with a spicy, musky finish that spreads like an estuary. Perilously low acidity, but enough to push it through into the long term. 97 points, fair value.
2011 Northern Rhône whites
St. Péray, Alain Voge, ‘Terres Boisées’ (13.5%, £147 Lay & Wheeler)
Citrussy – lots of aromatic lime fruit with some stone fruit aromas and a layer of oak. Keen, lean and flinty on the nose, but then surprisingly weighty in the mouth. Good acidity to balance this out though. 89 points, good value.
St Joseph Blanc, Domaine Coursodon, ‘Le Paradis St Pierre’ (14%, £204 Berry Bros)
Classic slate and ripe apricot nose. Medium-bodied, with a lovely texture and very nicely balanced. Nothing clever or fancy, just classic and well made. 91 points, good value.
St. Péray, Domaine du Tunnel, ‘Cuvée Prestige’ (13.5%, £192 Berry Bros)
Leaner fruit on the nose after so many Condrieus – apricot, a touch of flint and underlying lime blossom. Medium-bodied lean fruit on the palate too, but sculpted and defined. Tidy fresh mineral finish. 92 points, very good value.
Condrieu, Domaine Michel et Stéphane Ogier, ‘La Combe de Malleval’ (13.5%, £287 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Peach and cocoa butter with a hint of spice and flowers. Full and round but not fat. A little pleasing bitter twist, adding to the impression of dryness and minerality on the finish. Good length. 92 points, fair value.
Hermitage Blanc, M. Chapoutier, ‘Chante Alouette’ (14%, £288 Berry Bros)
Stéphane Barlerin from Maison Chapoutier describes this as “one of the best we’ve ever made” and it is undoubtedly very impressive. Apricot flavours with citrussy acidity. Fresh, medium-bodied, very attractive and drinkable already. Integrated oak. Vibrant and long, with a dry, mineral finish. A smart buy. 93 points, good value.
Condrieu, André Perret, ‘Côteaux de Chéry’ (13.5%, £336 Lay & Wheeler)
Some wines stick in your mind after a tasting, and this was one of those for me. A relatively light and pretty Condrieu, only medium-bodied, but very attractive. Highly floral and aromatic nose of flat peaches and almonds. Nicely balanced, with a silky mouthfeel, and already a joy to drink. 93 points, fair value.
Condrieu, François Villard, ‘Deponcins’ (13%, £339 Lay & Wheeler)
Intense nectarine dominating for now, with an appealing vegetal element underneath (celery); but clearly lots more to unfurl. Full-bodied, with lots of texture and minerals. Clean, intense and long. 93 points, fair value.
Condrieu, Domaine Yves Cuilleron, ‘Vertige’ (14%, £528 Berry Bros)
From the Coteau de Vernon. Intense nose already, very lively and fresh. Peach, rhubarb and mace. Concentrated, but light on its feet. Serious. 94 points, fair value.
Condrieu, Domaine Georges Vernay, ‘Coteau de Vernon’ (14%, £696 Berry Bros)
Intensely wound peach and apricot, with coconut, macadamia and flowers. Good intensity, concentration and tension. Well integrated oak. Long and well balanced. Classic stuff. 94 points, just about fair value.
Hermitage Blanc, Marc Sorrel, ‘Les Rocoules’ (14.5%, £690 Lay & Wheeler; £792 Berry Bros)
Apricot, mandarin, coconut, macadamia, marzipan and some spicy oak on the nose. Lovely silky mouthfeel with a tiny touch of tannin, and a wonderful intensity that builds on the finish. Pure and powerful, but leaves you with an impression of sublime freshness. Highly characterful. 95 points, just about fair value.
Hermitage Blanc, M. Chapoutier, ‘Le Méal’ (14.5%, £960 Berry Bros)
Lanolin and peach can be coaxed out, but still closed on the nose. Full-bodied and very intense with wonderful mouthfeel and texture. Long, complex and grand, with just enough acidity to keep it going. Hard to spit. 96 points, just about fair value.
2011 Southern Rhône reds
Vacqueyras, Domaine Montirius, ‘Le Clos’ (14.5%, £96 OW Loeb; £102 Berry Bros)
A touch oaky on the nose still, but not so much as to cover up the perfumed Syrah fruit and spice. Rounded, with coating ripe tannins and a lovely mouthfeel. Concentrated. Alcohol appears a touch high, but this has class. 90 points, very good value.
Lirac, Domaine Lafond Roc-Epine (13.5%, £97 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Spicy dark brambly fruits, with some juniper in the background. Sweet ripe fruit with a hint of cola. All held together by zingy acidity and ripe tannin. Vibrant and expressive. 90 points, very good value.
Vacqueyras, Domaine du Grand Prieur (14%, £107 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Lots of fresh and dried herbs – sage and bay. Some black olive too. Appealing, balanced and very drinkable. 90 points, good value.
Gigondas, Domaine Carobelle (15%, £137 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Herbal brambly black fruits. Juicy, with attractive ripe fruits and a good whack of tannin. Although the alcohol level is high, it’s not unbalanced to taste. Traditional style, unmistakably Gigondas. 90 points, good value.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine Bosquet des Papes, ‘Cuvée Tradition’ (14.5%, £175 OW Loeb; £217 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Enticing fresh plum and blackberry. Lots of ripe tannin and oodles of sweet fruit with peppery herbs on the finish. Concentrated, with good balancing acidity. Long. 92 points, good value.
Gigondas, Domaine de la Bouïssière (14.5%, £177 Lay & Wheeler; £182 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Lovely expressive fruits; strawberry, black cherry and cocoa. Like black forest gateau. Then some bay leaf herbality on the lively finish. Good concentration. This is very well done. 92 points, good value.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine Pierre Usseglio, ‘Cuvée Tradition’ (14.5%, £210 Lay & Wheeler)
Classically-styled yet clean Châteauneuf, with lots of pure, sweet strawberry and plum fruit. A good heft of ripe tannin at its core, with noticeable but balanced oak. 92 points, fair value.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Domaine Grand Veneur, Vieilles Vignes (14.5%, £380 Bancroft)
A very intense and powerful Châteauneuf, and very young at this stage. Lots of plum, bramble and damson fruit, all tightly wound up around a solid core of ripe tannin. Dry, fresh and long. With enough time this could be very good indeed. 93 points, fair value.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Château de Beaucastel (14.5%, £444 Lay & Wheeler)
Bright and pure. High toned strawberry, ripe plums and violets. Good concentration of fruit, not too full or fat and very long. The alcohol shows a little at the moment, but it is essentially balanced. 93 points, fair value.
2011 Northern Rhône reds
Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages Plan de Dieu, Domaine Michel et Stéphane Ogier, ‘Le Temps est Venu’ (14%, £97 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Simple but authentic fresh fruits: strawberry, raspberry, redcurrant and blueberry. Just about medium-bodied – fresh berry juice with a light draft of tannin. Very drinkable. 88 points, good value.
Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine Aléofane (Natacha Chave) (13.5%, £108 OW Loeb)
Fresh brambly fruits and spicy black pepper. Light on its feet, with fresh acidity. Medium-bodied, vibrant and dynamic, this is ideal early drinking for lovers of aromatic Rhône Syrah. 89 points, very good value.
St Joseph, Domaine Aléofane (Natacha Chave) (13.5%, £125 OW Loeb)
Slightly closed on the nose still, but some ripe blackberry and raspberry fruits to enjoy. Silky and round in the mouth with lots of nerve and freshness that makes this feel exciting to drink. 91 points, good value.
Crozes-Hermitage, Yann Chave, ‘Le Rouve’ (13.5%, £172 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Very attractive and appealing expressive aromatics: dark fruits, violets and cola. Juicy, fresh and lively. Delightful young drinking for fans of that high-toned, fresh style of Rhône Syrah. 91 points, fair value.
Cornas, Domaine du Tunnel (13.5%, £284 OW Loeb; £276 Berry Bros; £307 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Wonderful lifted black pepper and violets on the nose with juicy raspberry and flint. Full-bodied, with lots of ripe muscular tannins. Intense concentration with surging flavours and a very long savoury finish. Well-balanced with a tannic undertow on the finish. Fresh, vibrant, with no hint of dirtiness. A very individual, modern style of Cornas. 94 points, good value.
St Joseph, Domaine Pierre et Jerome Coursodon, ‘La Sensonne’ (14%, £322 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Intense Syrah spice, struck flint and wood smoke. Some fresh earth too. Intense but lifted fruit with lots of ripe tannin and good balancing acidity. Deep and dark, with some star anise on the finish. Surprisingly powerful for this vintage. A very impressive St Joseph. 93 points, fair value.
Hermitage, Marc Sorrel, ‘Classique’ (13%, £336 Berry Bros)
Remarkably pale ruby in colour, with lean hedgerow fruit. Medium to full-bodied with great structure that belies its appearance and lovely balance. Very classic, and a delicious wine even if it lacks the fruit to be a Hermitage for long ageing. 92 points, fair value.
Côte-Rôtie, Domaine René Rostaing, ‘Cuvée Classique, Ampodium’ (13%, £348 Berry Bros; £348 Lay & Wheeler)
A blend of 13 parcels. Aromatic strawberry and raspberry fruits with some iodine and violets. A lighter, floral style of Côte-Rôtie with fresh sweet fruit and smooth slightly powdery tannins. Well crafted and subtly nuanced but not without some power and sap. 92 points, fair value.
Hermitage, Yann Chave (13.5%, £452 Montrachet Fine Wine)
Wonderful deep dark brooding fruit and a whack of spice. Full-bodied, and thick with ripe tannins. Well balanced, with integrated oak. Long, intense and serious. 93 points, just about fair value.
Côte-Rôtie, Domaine Pierre Gaillard, ‘Rose Pourpre’ (13%, £600 Berry Bros)
100% Syrah, from La Cote Rosier, just underneath La Landonne. Spicy, with intense fruit. Medium to full, but intensely fresh and vibrant. Ripe, mouth coating tannins, very long and pure. 93 points, fair value.
Hermitage, Marc Sorrel, ‘Le Gréal’ (15%, £690 Lay & Wheeler; £792 Berry Bros)
High-toned fruit aromas, wild strawberry and sour cherry. Dry, but soft and rounded, with lots of berry and dark stone fruits, herbs and smoke. Pure, with sweet fruit and tannins. Subtle yet powerful, and already showing complexity. 94 points, fair value.
Côte-Rôtie, Domaine René Rostaing, ‘La Côte Blonde’ (13%, £792 Lay & Wheeler)
3 – 4% Viognier. Raspberry, strawberry, cranberry and bramble. Soft, fragrant and lightly spiced with some liquorice notes in the background. Juicy if lean fruit, just about full-bodied. Perfectly balanced, captivating and extremely drinkable. Flinty minerality on the very long finish. Already compelling, joyful, wonderfully pure and utterly delicious. Not hugely powerful or built for the very long term, but nonetheless a brilliant example of classic Rhône Syrah from one of the masters. 96 points, fair value.