What to Drink
We Went to the Rhône’s Largest Wine Event—Here’s What We Learned
What to Drink

We Went to the Rhône’s Largest Wine Event—Here’s What We Learned

Anna Lee C. Iijima takes the (rising) temperature of one of the world’s most important wine regions.
By Anna Lee C. Iijima
Photo: Oeil Ecoute - Cédric Prat

June 10, 2023

The Découvertes en Vallée du Rhône is the biggest wine event of the year in the Rhône Valley, a four-day industry bacchanal of grand tastings, meals, master classes and vineyard visits. The enormous gathering draws producers, buyers, sommeliers, importers and journalists from around the world. The New Wine Review’s Anna Lee C. Iijima attended DVR where she tasted wines from over 600 producers and took the (rising) temperature of one of the world’s most important wine regions. 

The 2021 vintage that’s hitting the U.S. now might look like a bust on paper. It might also be the most interesting group of wines we’ve seen in many years.

The Rhône Valley has been on a hot streak in every respect. For most of the last 10 years, the region has seen record-breaking heat that produced massive, fruity wines with equally massive alcohol levels and broad popular appeal. 

Not so in 2021. Frost decimated vineyards up and down the Rhône Valley, while the North suffered from hail, rain and rampant disease. Most producers saw the lowest yields they’ve had in a decade. Many say it’s the most disastrous vintage they’ve ever experienced. 

You might think that makes 2021’s wines easy to dismiss—they certainly won’t be the bodacious fruit bombs mainstream consumers have come to expect. But the 2021 reds are drawing attention from sommeliers and classic wine aficionados that haven’t felt a tug from the Rhône in quite a few years.

For those who prefer slimmer wines with marked acidity, restrained alcohol and a touch of herbaceous rusticity, 2021 is for you. Enjoy it. There may not be many vintages like it.

More than a few winemakers mentioned that this may be a vintage that only the pros will truly appreciate. That seems a little severe–there’s plenty to like here for the casual drinker with a taste for leaner, more terroir-driven wines that show off the talents of their winemakers. The biggest challenge, however, is navigating the vintage, which offers pockets of exceptional quality, but not across the board. 

Photo: Oeil Ecoute – Cédric Prat

Here’s some quick guidance on finding your way through an anomalous vintage with many hidden gems: 

  • The best of the Northern reds we tasted from producers like Jean-Paul Jamet, M. Chapoutier, Domaine du Coulet, Marc Sorrel and Alain Graillot showcase beauty that was coaxed out of the worst of conditions. You’ll find Syrah with subtle intensity—more crisp raspberry than fleshy black plum—and more pronounced veins of mint, bramble, iron or smoke than in recent vintages. 
  • In the South, exemplary reds from producers like Domaine du Bosquet, Domaine de la Mordorée, Pegau, Vallot or Elodie Balme are refreshingly crisp—even crunchy—in cherry and berry flavors. They’re slender, more subtle wines with alcohol that sits at unusually low levels for the Rhône. 

If this portal to the Rhône Valley’s past is intriguing to you, don’t wait. 2022 registered as the hottest year on record in France—there are surely more to come.

You should be drinking more Rhône whites. 2021 is a perfect place to start.

The Rhône was once as famous for its white wines as its reds. Condrieu and white Châteauneuf-du-Pape graced the most elegant tables in Europe and North America for much of the 18th and 19th centuries, while no less an authority than Thomas Jefferson considered Hermitage Blanc the greatest white wine in France. But that was then. Today, classic Rhône whites get overshadowed by splashier wines from around the world, as well as Rhône reds in their own backyard.

Photo: Oeil Ecoute – Cédric Prat

In part, low production is to blame. Whites barely exceed 10% of the Rhône Valley’s total output. But the more significant explanation may be the very nature of these classic whites, which are everything those racy German Rieslings and spine-tingling Champagnes aren’t. Classic white Rhônes are the unabashedly sensual, even corpulent beauties of a Rubens painting—fleshy, powerful wines with a rolling richness and perfume that’s often surprisingly loud. These are ripe, complex whites that sit firmly on the opposite end of the spectrum from the lean, ultra-precise wines that have dominated restaurant lists in recent years. 

If you haven’t spent much time drinking these classic expressions of Rhône white wine, the 2021 vintage is a wonderful place to start. This isn’t a particularly representative vintage—you’ll find these wines are cut, somewhat atypically, with acidity and minerality, but it’s an outstanding on-ramp for those looking to explore this stellar, often overlooked category. 

A few showstopping 2021s to seek out: Condrieu from Georges Vernay, Francois Villard, Lionel Faury or Niero. In Hermitage, reliably excellent producers who made terrific wines in 2021 include Chapoutier, Jean-Louis Chave, Laurent Fayolle and Sorrel. Delas and Cave de Tain outperformed many of their peers for this vintage as well.

The Future of the Rhône Is Less Red

Producers throughout the Rhône Valley have taken notice of changing consumer tastes, while many are furiously planting white grapes and introducing new bottlings of white, rosé and sparkling styles as fast as they can. 

These aren’t just more of the region’s historic white wine styles (mentioned above). Much of what’s being made are distinctly modern wines, which is to say, brighter, fresh-fruited and more mineral-driven offerings that have begun edging their way onto trendier wine lists in Paris, Lyon and Saint Tropez alongside easy-drinking stalwarts like Sancerre and Chablis. Appellations in the South like Vacqueyras, Gigondas and Ventoux that benefit from limestone soils and higher altitudes are big hotspots for these juicy, yet vibrantly salt-etched wines.

Photo: Oeil Ecoute – Cédric Prat

Conversations About Climate Change Are Getting Much More Specific

It’s nearly impossible to talk with a Rhône winemaker today without climate change seeping into the conversation. The topic was more pervasive than ever at this year’s DVR. 

What you hear breaks neatly into two categories:

The first includes the familiar apocalyptic refrains. It’s clear, producers say, that winemaking in the Rhône is unsustainable on its current path, given the frequency with which catastrophic frosts, droughts, heat stress and wildfires are afflicting the vines. 

The second is all about tactics. Already, winegrowers have made sweeping shifts in vineyard practices, tinkering with grape varieties, slowing down ripening by sheltering vines from the sun, and planting in higher, cooler sites that were considered laughably unfit for wine grapes just a few years before.

Perhaps most noticeable this year was the angle of the conversations. For decades (and perhaps centuries), the winemaking discussion in the Rhône focused on how to produce the ripest, most richly extracted wines a producer could manage. Today, those conversations are increasingly tempered with phrases like management, control, symmetry and balance. 

It’s a shift that can be tasted, too. Winemakers are clearly dialing things back, easing away from the oaky, jammy fruit bombs that have been so commercially successful in recent years, instead focusing on freshness and balance. 

No one should wish the hardship that climate change has brought on the Rhône’s winemakers, but the sea change of adjustments that are happening now may mark a return to a style of winemaking that could help win back classic wine lovers who previously turned away from the Rhône’s boozy ripeness, and attract a new generation of drinkers who are intrigued by leaner, less extracted wines.