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2005 in the Southern Rhône

The Southern Rhône was very successful in 2005. One of the great joys of this vintage is how good, and how reliable are the small wines - the simple red Côtes du Rhônes, and the outlying appellation wines from Costières de Nîmes and the Côtes du Ventoux, for instance.
Stepping up the ladder, there are some real bargains from the Rhône Villages, with the leading domaines performing powerfully, their wines punching hard in the price-quality rapport stakes.

The whites and the rosés are also good - the rosés possessing enough body to still show well during the summer of 2007. The best whites can hold together for at least 10 years; the simple whites will keep a full, but also nicely direct character, towards 2008-09.

CHÂTEAUNEUF-du-PAPE TRADITION RED WINES

Châteauneuf-du-Pape's advance billing announces 2005 as a great vintage, which I reckon it is. Many of the Tradition wines - the classic cuvées - were actually drinkable when tasted in December 2006, thanks to their tannins being so ripe and the fruit-sugar content so round and inviting.

Colours throughout are fine, the Grenache-dominated wines showing a good, bright British Post Office red - think of our letter boxes here. Aromas fall into two schools - the larger that of broad, red fruits, the lesser that of herbal, smoky influences. Many of these Tradition wines possess a fleshy, round shape, with red fruits to the fore, and a good prickle of late tannin in support. They are well-knit, and the richest are gourmand, with a feel that caresses the palate. It appears that it was easy to make a sound, safe wine this year. The commercial sources such as the négociant or merchant trade, whose wines will often appear on supermarket shelves, have produced sweet n'easy wines that will please occasional or special occasion only wine drinkers.

The best wines hold decent acidity that leads to clear-cut fruit, and run with a great mixture of muscle and elegance. Throughout, tannins are quietly present, rarely prominent. There are a few wines that are edgy and pointed, their uneven nature perhaps due to poorly-timed picking. At the other extreme, there are just a few wines where deliberately planned late cropping comes through: these show a heavy style, and can only be drunk a little sip at a time.

The Syrah appears to have performed well, adding some kick to the fruit. Oak in these Tradition wines is not generally overriding, but there are certainly some that feel robbed of heart by their domaine's Prestige wines - the best crop going into the expensive, limited edition cuvées. Where oak is apparent, the wines will need about 3 to 4 years to regain their expression of terroir. Such cellar-dominated wines are as usual more taut in their feel.

CHÂTEAUNEUF-du-PAPE PRESTIGE RED WINES

Often these Prestige wines leave one feeling "what is all the fuss - and the high price about?" That was a feature of 2004, but 2005 represents a genuine notch or two up the ladder for these wines. A little definition may be in order: Prestige wines come from old vineyards, frequently emphasizing Grenache that was planted by grandparents. Growers here render themselves in to the open arms of oenologues who murmur seductive formulae in their ears. "Pick late, lower your yields, cut back your sulphur, do not rack during raising, use new or young oak." Very few actually advise the use of applied common sense, such as saying to growers - "if you want a good, genuine Prestige wine, you may have to crop certain plots on different occasions to ensure consistent ripeness across all the plants and varieties in them."

So here we experience humankind at work, as much as or more sometimes than nature. In 2005, nature is on top. The best 2005 Prestige reds are Mighty Wines, possessing a profound core, glorious charm in the fruit and excellent length - classic wines somewhat in tune with 1990, but with greater balance than that rather overripe vintage. Bouquets rise in intensity alongside the Tradition wines - scents of raisin, herbs, more pepper, scented tea and also more obvious oak. The shape can be chunky, and there are flavours such as prune and spice, with some roasted black fruits due to greater extraction levels.

The best wines gain as they go through the palate, and tannins are evident here. Such is the richness inherent in the wines that the tannins should be settled in comfortably by around 2010 - not a long wait when compared with big vintages of yesteryear such as 1995 or 1989. Coffee and cocoa can be picked up on the flavour trail as well, with the most extreme cases of full-on power emerging with raisin notes. These can be heavy wines, the combination of late-picked Grenache and big oak being oppressive and contradictory in my view. You have to sip, not drink, these monument wines. And for those who tremble at 15-16° wines, the moment you sense kirsch on the nose or the palate, you know you are heading for - perhaps not always arriving at - the headbanger music concert.

For the purists and STGT (Soil to Glass Transfer) lovers, young Prestige wines do not usually express terroir - they are more grape variety than soil wines. Some terroir can be regained later in their lives, while the best are truly great since they express depth and locality without being forced.

CHÂTEAUNEUF-du-PAPE WHITE WINES


These are solid, reserved wines, whose balance can be questionable . There is always a fresh, zesty school, whose wines can be drunk within 6 months of harvesting. These have performed OK in 2005, but the main interest lies with the wines more suited to food. They have good content, and are structured to evolve. They show baked fruit tart, tangy aromas - as opposed to the more gentle, floral style of quieter vintages. They are high in degree - 14° plus often - and in some there is a risk that the alcohol will detach from the body as they mature. There was a problem of some growers bringing crop in at different levels of maturity, and such wines reveal a late burn on the palate - a discordant feature. The fat of the Grenache Blanc is great but often needs some gentle tempering from the Roussanne, for instance. But both must be allowed to ripen properly to play their correct role. Those whites with the right balance struck between the varieties - notably the use of Clairette and Roussanne as fresheners - will show well from the spring of 2007, and could live for 10-12 years.

GIGONDAS

Gigondas has produced a very good vintage. The fruit in 2005 is generally clear-cut, and persistent. The crispness of the fruit and the wholesome, rich palate flavours open up a potentially long life ahead, towards 2019-22. Tannins are constructive and balanced. The vineyard clearly rendered a very healthy and well-balanced crop. By March 2007, the wines had made progress since a tasting of around 100 samples in November and December 2006: initially the challenge appeared to be that of the élevage - the raising of the wine. At that stage, only a small handful was bottled, and most were oak-raised, the age of the oak and the size of the cask varying widely. 95% of the wines had something to say for themselves, a very impressive indicator of quality. But the variation at that early stage - before any winter cold might settle them - came from the uneven effect of the raising, with some out of balance. By March 2007, there is more unity in the wines. They progress well through the palate, freshness and fruit being followed by well-set tannins and plenty of grip. The best wines are rich, harmonious and rounded and will stand up well against any recent vintage as far back as 1990.

BEAUMES-de-VENISE RED WINES


These express good Grenache density - they are chunky, hunky and tighter knit than the 2004s. There are chocolate flavours - indicating deep-seated ripeness - rather than the usual peppery ones that stem from a mix of limestone and high altitude vineyards. Alcohol levels are lower than the 2004s, helped by fresh nights. As elsewhere in the southern Rhône, the ripening was a well co-ordinated affair, with the polyphenols quite in step with the sugars for a change.
The Muscat wines are more compact and less flowery than the 2004s. Their solid nature is well in tune with the vintage style.

LIRAC


A very good year yet again here. With the increased participation of Châteauneuf-du-Pape domaines such as Domaine Roger Sabon, Château de la Gardine, Marcoux, Alain Jaume and Château Mont-Redon, winemaking standards have risen here, and I expect cleaner fruit nowadays. There is an expression of black berries to be found, and also in some cases a good contribution from the Mourvèdre, that beefs up the late palate and provides a firm, compact ending. The progressive school has made wines with elegant, simmered black fruits that contain some necessary kick. They will show more variety and local flair around 2009. For now, their bouquets often contain some plum, herbal notes. The accessible school has provided fleshy, rather gourmand red fruit flavours - these wines make for elegant drinking at an early age. The fullest wines remind me of the 1998s with their balance and firmly set content. The best can live to around 2012-15.

TAVEL


The rosés here are full, red-fruited wines, with the occasional danger of excess degree. Those with a light touch did best. These were largely reviewed in May 2006. The best have still a little way to go, but are more suited to food than aperitif drinking now.

VACQUEYRAS


A vintage to buy - and the best domaines have made wines that will live well. On the palate, there is very good early fruit, then more punchy tannins than usual, that show the potential to tuck in softly. There is greater width to the flavours than usual, and aromas are open, suggesting pebbly plum fruits at times. Wines with crisp fruit as the house style have come out bouncing, their fruit lively and appealing, good to drink young. The biggest wines reveal a kick on the finish, and some heat late on.

VINSOBRES


A very successful year here, and a great vintage to launch their young, fully-fledged appellation. The quality is very consistent across the reds. Plenty of colour is backed up by fruit-filled aromas, the tone set around red and black berries. The wines carry marked tannins in most cases, and require cellaring until 2008-09 for these to settle. The attacks are bright and well-fruited, the heart of the wines often rich and meaty. Some textures are cool, showing the influence of the altitude in some of the vineyards - over 400 metres.

CÔTES du RHÔNE VILLAGES RED WINES

The fruit quality is good in these wines as a rule. The best villages such as Rasteau have assembled excellent, long-lived wines with great character. Some can live for 10-12 years.
Aromas can be good and southern - the herbs and wild garrigue present, and ahead of recent vintages. It is a very good Grenache vintage in villages such as Sablet and Séguret.

The close-up on the vintage and each domaine's wines will be assessed in the subscription section of the website, due to be launched before April 2007.