2015 Rhône: my week in the South

I’m currently in the Rhône researching my annual report for timatkin.com; this will be the fifth consecutive vintage I’ve covered for the site. It’s a packed two weeks of tastings and visits, and by the time I’ve included several London tastings, I’ll have worked my way through over 1,000 wines from the 2015 vintage. If you’re thinking of buying any Rhône this year (spoiler alert: you should be) then you might want to download it. Here’s a sketch of what I got up to last week.

Sunday 16th October


An early start; my local train station a little oasis of light in the dark morning, rain whispering on the leaves. I took the train all the way to Avignon this year with a brief pause for some frites in Lille while changing trains. On arrival in Avignon, it was a full five minutes before I overheard Bongo Bong by Manu Chau being played somewhere, so a few minutes longer than usual. Avignon on a wet Sunday night isn’t the most welcoming place, so I went straight to the AOC bar for a glass of Saint-Péray and a bite to eat before a long week of tastings.

Monday 17th October


Today is the first day’s tasting in earnest after the logistical confusion known as the hotel breakfast. Professional body InterRhone does an excellent job of organising large tastings for me at their offices in Avignon. Around 100 Southern Côtes-du-Rhône reds today, and largely the picture is good, despite a few casualties of the hot, dry summer. I paid a visit to Le Sang des Cailloux (above), one of the best estates in Vacqueyras, to get their take on 2015; it’s a good place to get a matter-of-fact, unvarnished report of vintage conditions. Dinner tonight with Adrien Roustan from Domaine d’Oréa, Cécile Dusserre from Domaine Montvac (they both make Gigondas and Vacqueyras) and Ann and Sebastien Barbara from Plan Vermeersch. Considering he only has half-a-dozen vintages under his belt, Adrien’s wines are hugely impressive; they’re full of energy, rather like Adrien himself. Cécile’s domaine is has been passed down from mother to daughter for four generations, and hers are some of the most elegant wines in Vacqueyras. Ann and Sebastien are relative newcomers to the region, but have grown the family business quickly (Ann is the daughter of ex-racing car driver Dirk Vermeersch); they make some good Côtes-du-Rhône, but specialise in varietal wines – unusual for the Southern Rhône.

Tuesday 18th October


I finished off the remaining Southern Côtes-du-Rhône reds today and all of the whites. In 2014 the quality of the whites was very good, but generally speaking 2015 is more a vintage for reds. I caught up with Jérôme Bressy at Domaine Gourt de Mautens (above) at his small winery near Rasteau. A mini-vertical of reds; 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. Amazing consistency; there’s no doubt in my mind that this is one of the great estates of the Rhône. I met with two Cairanne producers over dinner; Jean-Marie Astart from Domaine les Hautes Cances and Laurent Brusset from Domaine Brusset. They are both excellent domaines, in contrasting styles. Jean-Marie makes expressive, detailed, authentic expressions of Cairanne. It’s the Rhône’s youngest AOC, having been promoted just this year, and the only appellation in France to place a limit on sulphur levels in the finished wines. Laurent is the third generation winemaker of Domaine Brusset, and they make Ventoux, Rasteau, Gigondas and Cairanne. His is a rounded, polished style with good depth and purity of fruit.

Wednesday 19th October


An early drive to Châteauneuf to get started on their 2015 reds. It quickly becomes apparent 2015 is a very good vintage, with deep, expressive fruit and relatively consistent quality. This was a hot year though, and with that can come problems with acidity levels, overmaturity and heaviness – which some domaines suffered from to varying degrees. I’m staying at Wine B&B again this year, which is a great option for wine lovers visiting Châteauneuf – a charming family home in the heart of the village with a welcoming host. No visits or meetings this evening – a night off to catch up on admin over a beer and a pizza.

Thursday 20th October


Four visits today: Château de Beaucastel, Clos des Papes, Domaine de Marcoux and Château Rayas.

Beaucastel – All the wines are looking good here, not least the Hommage à Jacques Perrin, their top cuvée, which they only make in good vintages. They are no longer working with Berry Bros. & Rudd in the UK; instead they are employing Andrew Bayley as an individual agent in the market to work solely on their wines.

Clos des Papes – A decent-sized crop at last in 2015 (well, decent for Clos des Papes; 22 hl/ha!). His old vines are finally producing as normal again after being hit hard by the spring frosts of 2012 – it’s taken them until 2016 in fact to fully recover. We tasted from a number of barrels, then some reds in bottle; an elegant 2014, powerful 2009 and delicious 2005. Vincent Avril compares the 2015 vintage to the 2005, and I see why.

Marcoux – Previously run by two sisters; Catherine Armenier has now retired, and Sophie Armenier is working with her son Vincent (above); a down-to-earth family with ancient roots in Châteauneuf. They don’t always produce their Vieilles Vignes bottling, but they did in 2015; an particularly elegant Cuvée Spéciale.

Rayas – Emmanuel still hasn’t finished harvesting his 2016 – very unusual in the village, but then this is a cooler spot, in amongst the woods. We taste component parts of Fonsalette and Rayas, and both whites. No big changes here; no need. Spellbinding wines.

Henri Bonneau – no visit this year after Henri’s passing in spring. No official news, but I hear that the estate is continuing for now in the hands of his son, Marcel.

Friday 21st October


Last day of tasting in Châteauneuf. Again, it’s a stronger vintage for reds, but there are some highlights among the whites. A quick visit to the impressive new cellar of Domaine La Barroche, then to La Table de Sorgues. If you’re visiting the region, don’t miss this restaurant – the food is fantastic; creative but deliciously digestible and brilliantly executed. Julien and Laetitia Barrot (brother and sister) run La Barroche, and considering this is a young estate (albeit with old vines) what they’ve achieved in such a short time is incredible; but then the wines speak for themselves. They’re working on a new project; bottlings of old vines from just outside the appellation area. Guillaume Gonnet joined us from Domaine Font de Michelle, a reliable, underrated estate. He’s just bought some vineyards himself and has started making a range of wines under his own name in 2015; a slightly different style to Font de Michelle, but just as good – they’re worth seeking out. Domaine La Janasse was also at the table, represented by Christophe Sabon (above). His 2010 and 1999 Châteauneuf Rouge Vieilles Vignes and his 2012 Châteauneuf Blanc Prestige blew me away, some of the best wines I’ve tasted this year. An illuminating and hugely enjoyable evening with some of my Châteauneuf heroes.

Saturday 22nd and Sunday 23rd October

Some time off in Avignon to catch up with other work, prepare for the coming week and get some downtime. Next week: Vacqueyras and Gigondas on Monday, then up to the Northern Rhône for three more days of tastings and visits.

For full details of all the wines mentioned above and many more, the 10 things you need to know about the 2015 vintage, vintage chart, several top ten selections and dozens of colour photos, download my 2015 Rhône Report from timatkin.com, available late November.