The Rhone Valley has enjoyed a superb run of vintages over the last decade, but 2020 is really something to be excited about. Quality is absolutely brilliant across the board and as leading Rhone critic Jeb Dunnuck declares, this vintage is full of “pure, elegant... wines that excel on their balance and freshness while still showing beautiful depth of fruit.”
The Northern Rhone 2020 reds are spellbinding, with superb freshness and rich fruit, while the whites show great salinity & tension. Down in the Southern Rhone the reds display an abundance of pure fruit framed by supple tannins, and the whites are bright and vibrant. 2020 is being compared to the likes of 2006, 2010, 2016 and even 1990 – all legendary vintages celebrated for their ageing potential and impeccable balance. Who knows, 2020 might just out-perform them all in the long run!
The Growing Season
2020 didn’t experience the severe spikes in heat that 2019 did, and the sunshine it did receive was balanced out by water reserves from early in the year and cool winds. These factors allowed the grapes to ripen gradually and gently, lending the resultant wines a winning combination of freshness and energy – 2020's leitmotif.
Up in the Northern Rhone winemakers experienced a year of heat, drought and sun, but you’d never guess that from tasting the wines. An early harvest, cool evening temperatures and plentiful precipitation from rainfall and melting snow in late 2019 have given them have the characteristics of cool year. There was a mild winter followed by an early spring, which proved to be one of the warmest France has ever seen. Temperatures were recorded two to three degrees warmer than the previous 50 years with budbreak about two weeks earlier than normal. June brought some rain to the region giving the vines much needed water and setting them up for the August sunshine, which in turn staved off mildew and brought veraison (when the grapes begin to change colour) around mid-July, leading to an early harvest.
After two hectic years, vignerons received a peaceful growing season in 2020. There was plenty of rain during the winter which aided in refreshing the vines after the heat of 2019. Early springtime was warm and humid and thus there was good leaf development and early bud break. The end of March, however, brought frost that fortunately left little to no damage. Flowering began in the middle of May, around two weeks ahead of schedule. June, July and August saw blue skies and warm – but not too hot – weather, while the mistral wind cooled the vines throughout the summer months. After some scorching heat, the rain came and refreshed the vines in August, and harvest was completed under perfect conditions.
Jeff Dunnuck has coined the phrase “The Rise of the Whites” as a tribute to the exceptional white wines emerging from the Rhone valley in 2020 – especially in the south. The southern Rhone white wines are ready for drinking straight away and will display hauntingly pure fruit for up to five years, while the very best of the vintage can continue to evolve for decades (or more). Dunnuck waxes lyrical about their “honeyed, mineral, and nutty characters” and declares that they “truly shine on the dinner table”.
In comparison to 2019, the 2020 whites are more focused and vibrant. The freshness is what is particularly appealing about this vintage, with lifted levels of stony minerality and pure fruit. In the Northern Rhone, the whites of Condrieu and St Joseph are as John Livingstone-Learmouth joyously describes “a triumph”, exploding in floral aromatics, while Hermitage has created opulent and extremely balanced whites of an astounding calibre. The days of overripe whites lacking in complexity are decidedly over – we are in new era of quality in the Rhone valley. Jeb Dunnuck is thrilled to report that “almost every estate is producing a balanced, lively white that merits attention”, and we couldn’t agree more.
The votes have been cast, and it is unanimous – this is a vintage for the history books. The 2020 red wines are dazzling. In comparison to previous vintages the 2020s show even greater restraint and finesse. Acidity levels are higher, just enough to bring that extra balance and freshness, while the tannins are firm and supple. For Dunnuck these are quite simply ”beautiful, balanced, charming wines that have so much to love”.
The cooler growing season means the wines show superb terroir expression with the wines. Hermitage, for example, has that trademark spiced blackcurrant with defined structure we all love, whilst over in Cote Rotie, the wines are incredibly elegant, revealing wave after wave of red and black fruit with each taste. They are celebrating the sixth fantastic vintage on the trot! Jancis Robinson points out that “St-Joseph remains the go to appellation for value in 2020”, but rounds up the whole vintage as having “good colour, a density of fruit, purity, notable freshness and tannins that are finely etched.”
The southern Rhone appellations have melt-in-the-mouth tannins with the Grenache taking centre stage with its sumptuous fruit character, and you can expect exquisite wines from Chateaneuf-du-Pape, which also retained that extra freshness we are seeing so much of. Like the wines of 2012, 2006 and 2000, most of these are ready to drink straight away, but it is worth noting that the acidity will carry the wines’ evolution for years to come. As Jancis Robinson writes, “there is less power than in 2018 and 2019 and more finesse, the tannins being rounded and refined, allowing earlier approachability but still a structure for ageing.”
And what of the predecessors?
2018 & 2019
These two vintages experienced similarly hot growing seasons, but the resultant wines have remarkable freshness to balance their hedonic character. Jeb Dunnuck describes them as showing a “freshness and purity of fruit reminiscent of the 2016s yet have a depth and opulence not far off the 2015s.” The vibrancy in this wines are down to the excellent acidity levels, and both of these vintages are backed by “polished tannins” which keep them “light on their feet and avoid being over the top or heavy”.
Another hot and dry year, 2017 created “concentrated, structured wines that show sunny, perfumed, and already complex aromatic profiles”. More over, while they don’t have the concentration of the 2015s, they have “terrific balance and elegance, which gives them a suprisingly light, weightless feel on the palate.” This is definitely a year to enjoy in its youth so stock up soon!
The Final Word
With Burgundy and Bordeaux prices continuing to rise, fine wine lovers & collectors are looking more and more towards the Rhône for excellent, dependable wines with which to fill the cellar. 2020 is an absolute belter of a vintage, so feel free to charge right in, guns blazing...