Travels in Wine / Rhône

Travels in Wine Rhône: Marcel on the Road 2018


Marcel Orford-Williams Marcel Orford-Williams / 05 February 2019

A crucial part of my role as a Wine Society buyer is visiting all our suppliers. I try to get out to see each of them at least once a year, sometimes more, and of course we are always looking for new people and even new areas to explore.

All in all, this has meant visiting nearly 100 suppliers over the past 12 months. This I did over four separate trips, spread out from July to November. It's a pattern I repeat every year and allows me to taste the vintage that has just been while observing the one that is on its way.

The stats!

  • 30 days of tastings spread over four months
  • 150 visits
  • 2,500 wines tasted
  • 7 notebooks filled with notes that are mercifully illegible to all but me!
  • Around 7,000 miles driven and a further 2,500 miles courtesy of Eurostar and SNCF

Your roving reporter and wine buyer Marcel Orford-Williams
Your roving reporter and wine buyer Marcel Orford-Williams


The 2017 vintage
Thirsty slopes in the northern Rhône in 2017
Thirsty slopes in the northern Rhône in 2017

The main reason for the trip was assessing the 2017 vintage. More on that can be found in the pages of our en primeur offer. I also reported back on my early impressions of 2017 last year in Travels in Wine. So I'll just say that 2017 was marked by low yields thanks to a mixture of circumstances: excessive drought, poor fruit set, frosts and heat. Quality was excellent in the north – 2017 has turned out to be a great syrah vintage. It was slightly less even though still very good in the south.

The 2018 vintage

And so to the latest vintage and my early assessment: 2018 is going to be like no other. Some farmers were left content with a large crop of perfectly healthy grapes; others were left with hardly anything, and some poor souls with literally nothing at all. So while 2017 I called a year marked by drought, 2018 is going to be a vintage of the haves or have nots.

Fruit farming

In my view, we are all a bit at fault. We have forgotten that wine is, at its base, about fruit farming. Over the years, certainly since the work of Pasteur, the alchemy of making wine has taken grape production somewhat for granted. The alchemists, including such luminaries as global consultants Michel Rolland and Denis Dubourdieu, with their ability to turn grape juice into heavenly nectar, have tended to talk about their work in the cellar.

An unnatural crop

2018 in the Rhone – not a normal vintage by anyone's book
2018 in the Rhone – not a normal vintage by anyone's book

But what we tend to forget is that the raw material is fruit which grows in the open, usually on low bushes in a singularly unnatural way. Unnatural because the grape vine is in reality a creeping vine and what it really loves to do is wrap itself around a tree. Thousands of years have taught us how to best grow the vine so it can produce the best quality fruit. The ancients had little technology but had common sense and knew about farming. Talk to any top grower, like Jean-Louis Chave in the northern Rhône or Gérard Gauby in the Roussillon, and they would say that wine is made in the vineyard.

The point of all this is that 2018 was very far from a normal vintage. It set challenges that tested the finest talents in the land and much of this battle with nature was fought in the vineyard.

So what happened?

Mildew-affected vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Mildew-affected vines in Châteauneuf-du-Pape

It started normally enough with a mostly mild winter. March though was really mild, at times warm, even. The early spring caused everything to grow, too quickly, too soon. It was looking as though a repeat of the cauldron year of 2003 was on the cards.

April changed all that as rain began to settle in. The south of France is used to the odd storm, even the occasional downpour, but it never lasts; not usually. The Mistral, that cold, dry, northerly wind, can always be relied upon to clear the skies of cloud and rain. But not in 2018. The Mistral never turned up and the rain continued non-stop for days on end. Indeed it got worse during May and early June as rains intensified and temperatures soared, creating rare tropical conditions. Not in the least bit ideal for grape growing!

The grape vine is subject to many diseases often brought on by fungal infections. One such is called downy mildew. In France it is known simply as le mildiou. It affects leaves and wooden parts of the vine and if untreated can destroy the crop. Northern France, the Loire and Champagne are used to it, but not the south.

Le mildiou first made its appearance during the 19th century. It's actually a number of fungoid diseases that includes the potato blight that ravaged potato farming, especially in Ireland during the 1840s. For a long time the only forms of treatment were copper based, usually in a solution with lime and sulphur, in the form of sprays.

What could grape growers do in 2018?

Farming methods are going to be talked about in reference to the abnormal conditions of 2018. There will be winners and losers on all sides. The Chaves made use of biodynamic preparations, grown here in their herb garden to help battle mother nature
Herb garden & source of biodynamic preparations at Chave

Warm and damp conditions are perfect for the fungus. On seeing the first signs, growers began to spray. The problem was that spraying had to be repeated, time and time again. But it never stopped raining and the vineyards began to be inaccessible to tractors. Moreover, it just so happened that critical times for spraying fell at weekends when estates were short staffed or where staff were unavailable for working on Sunday.

Small family businesses with a hands-on approach tended to do better. There were stories of real heroics; such as at one estate where a tractor hand remained in saddle for days on end, spraying continuously. At an estate in the Languedoc, a tractor driver was told to take the worst and most expendable machine and plot the parts of the vineyard that was safe to work in. Others simply sprayed by hand carrying tanks on their backs, while others simply waited in the hope that the Mistral would come and do its work. But it never did. The result is very mixed. Some estates made quite literally no wine. Others made a full quota and more besides. Frustratingly, quality is generally good. The rains did eventually stop and were replaced with a heatwave and drought.

There will be talk about farming methods. Some claim that those that practise organic farming suffered more. But then there are different approaches to organic. At Château de Beaucastel in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the oldest organic estate in France, 2018 was supposed to be the year when copper-based treatment was stopped. Clearly the timing was wrong and they suffered cruelly. But all farming methods were challenged in 2018 and there were successes and failures on all sides.

2018 vintage – the early results

Growers like Bertrand Stehelin in Gigondas were actually very happy with 2018
Bertrand Stehelin in Gigondas is very happy with 2018

The southern Rhône, Languedoc and Provence saw a challenging year and quality is a little irregular. But of course not everywhere was hit by mildew. And though spring was challenging, the summer was memorably hot and dry and with low yields, this is another very good vintage. As for the northern Rhône – Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Cornas – the vintage is nothing if not spectacular.

But I will be returning later in the year for a proper assessment of the 2018 vintage, in the meantime, do take advantage of all that is available of the excellent 2017s. Our en primeur offer closes at 8pm, Tuesday 19th February, 2019. But wines for earlier drinking are already here to enjoy.

View 2017 Rhônes

View our en primeur offer of 2017 Rhône & Languedoc-Roussillon wines

Where to go next?

Members' Comments (2)

"What a fascinating article. those of us who enjoy Rhone and Languedoc wines probably don't give enough thought to the work of the vignerons. I shall certainly think of them when I enjoy my next bottle of St Joseph or Crozes Hermitage. Meantime many thanks to Marcel for his palate, his notebooks and his hard work in finding us such splendid wines and for taking the time to produce such an informative account of his recent travels
Mike Webber"

Mr Michael J Webber (09-Feb-2019)

"Forty years ago I remember battling against the Mistral whilst towing a caravan and achieving a miserable 10 mpg. I cursed that wind then! However, I was unaware how important it was to the vineyards. Many thanks for that insight Marcel. I look forward to the 2018 vintage.
Mike Robbins"

Mr Michael Robbins (10-Feb-2019)

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