It is fair to say that, in the end, the 2019s came as a complete and most pleasant surprise to everyone. After such a summer with record temperatures, the fear, quite naturally, was for a repeat of 2003. But of course, no too vintages are ever quite the same and, in the case of 2003 and 2019, they couldn't be more different.
The 2003 vintage
Do you remember 2003? This was a year with virtually no spring. Summer temperatures took a grip from March and continued without let-up to the end of August. The heat, day and night, was unrelenting. Sugars soared; acidities plummeted. Grapes were picked, mostly in August; it seemed pointless to wait any longer. Though those who, either by accident or by design, waited to pick after the rains were often well rewarded. But that is another story.
… and the difference in 2019
2019 also hit very high temperatures, higher even than in 2003. But with several points of difference. Importantly, in 2019, there was a proper spring season with marked differences in temperature. Frost remained a threat into April. The high temperatures only really concerned June and July. 2019 is probably best known for breaking temperature records. On June 28th when the thermometer hit the high forties. Indeed, there was damage to vines; grapes were suddenly turned into blackened raisins. But such damage, mostly further south in the Languedoc was very localised and in any case these temperatures were not sustained.
Then came August, which for me was critical in giving the vintage its final shape. August remained warm, but rarely more than that. Crucially, the nights remained relatively cool, cool enough to give the vines some respite. The whites were mostly picked then, often harvested in the early morning when it was still cool. The reds were left alone to benefit from the rains that came, especially towards the end of the month, and then the last heatwave of September which saw a sudden, dramatic acceleration in the build-up of sugar in the grapes.
That September, I started already to taste wines that were still fermenting and even then, marvelled at the depth of colour and the heady fruit aromas. There were none of the jammy or raisiny smells that I still remember from the 2003 vintage. There were smiles all round from growers, though turning these supercharged grapes into wine was not going to be easy.
One year on…
Forward a year to the world of covid and to the 2019 vintage a year on. The wines are extraordinary, unlike anything else. They are vibrant, exuberant, sometimes a little over the top. They abound with flavours of fruit. There is nothing jammy or stewed; everything tastes fresh. Tannins are present but they're ripe and well rounded. Ageing has been a great benefit as the wines needed a certain amount of taming. The cold of this winter will be very beneficial to the wines as they finish their time in barrel or vat. There was snow in the Rhône Valley this week and that can only be a good thing, both for the vintage to come and for the wines in the cellar.
North or south?
The answer is both. But the south is more used to the heat and grape varieties such as grenache, mourvèdre and cinsault are better adapted to the conditions that prevailed during the summer of 2019. The southern Rhônes probably have the perfect balance. Between Vinsobres, Gigondas and Châteauneuf, there is little to choose between anyone of them. But having said that, the syrahs from the north are magnificent too. Maybe the variety is learning to live and thrive in these conditions.
High octane exuberance
2019 cannot be described as a shy, discrete vintage. It is not a classic vintage in the sense that say 2000 was or 2020 is likely to be. 2019s are full-on, exuberant, sometimes excessive. Alcohol levels are noticeably higher than most previous vintages though I've often been told that other great vintages like 1961 were similarly well endowed. For me, balance is all important and I've avoided those wines where high alcohol comes through on the palate. That said, these are full-bodied wines made from sun-drenched grapes, a true gift of nature, to be enjoyed for all that extraordinary exuberance.