Just Landed: Rhône’s Smokin’ 2016 Vintage
A big boat just landed in California, carrying some wines we’re pretty jazzed about—all hailing from Rhône’s phenomenal 2016 vintage. Both Northern and Southern Rhône knocked it out of the park in 2016, though they were as different as night and day. In the north, the weather created some high drama—a rain-soaked spring saw 52 showers between March and July, plus hail in April reducing yields. Summer dried everything out, so much so that people were worried about yellowing leaves and halted ripening. But rains came back in September, then the sun again, which held out until the late harvest in October. Vignerons held their breath, but it all paid off with ripe fruit, ripe tannins, and early accessibility.
In the south, all the stars aligned to produce perfect conditions the whole growing season. It was warm and dry, with cool nights and bouts of rain at just the right times. The nights were cooler than usual, and that good old diurnal shift did its job of building great structure and acidity in the wines. The Southern Rhône wines are opulent and lush but not excessively extracted. They should be long lived, so throw a few in your cellar.
We’re excited through and through for this vintage, and wines from La Ferme du Mont in Châteauneuf-du-Pape are topping our list of what to open first. The man behind the magic is Stéphane Vedeau, a third-generation winemaker who creates elegant, expressive wines using minimal intervention in the cellar and organic farming in the fields. He makes wines from appellations all over the Rhône: from northern vineyards under his mother’s name, J. Boutin; under a small boutique label called Clos Bellane in Valréas, at the northeastern end of Southern Rhône; and with his flagship label, La Ferme du Mont, producing bottlings from Gigondas, Vacqueyras, Côtes-du-Rhône-Villages, and a special focus on Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Our French Regional Buyer, Keith Mabry, not only scouts out great wines, but brings back wonderful stories and friendships. He met Stéphane through a friend who was a wine broker. She’d moved to France for a couple of years, met a guy, and stayed for awhile. They split up and her ex’s friend became her business partner. Keith says, “They were hosting all these parties and have a lot of good contacts. A lot of winemakers. That’s how I met Stéphane. We played cornhole in the backyard.”
When Keith was planning a trip to the Rhône, Stéphane said, “You have to come and see me.” The timing worked out well. Keith showed up and met him at his property in Valréas, in the northern part of Southern Rhône called Clos Bellane. Keith says, “Stylistically his wines have real character. He uses old-school methodology, while still knowing how to express fruit. He works in a low-intervention style, using native yeasts, no additives, no sulfur in fermentation. The wines have backbone and acidity. There’s more vibrancy, more twang in the wine. All in all, his wines are very elegant.”
They got together and tasted, but couldn’t go to dinner because Stéphane was hosting a dinner party, so Keith tagged along. He knew nobody, was totally lost. It was the French version of all the classic dinner party tropes, including the broody, angsty teen that goes off to smoke behind the house. Keith ended up having a lot of fun and building a great friendship with Stéphane. “He’s a very generous, interesting individual,” says Keith.
The beauty of having a strong Direct Import program is that our buyers are out in the field, building relationships and finding amazing, under-the-radar wines. Working so closely with producers helps to bring in great prices for extraordinarily well-crafted wines. Stéphane Vedeau’s 2016s are classic examples of this vintage, and we were able to get pricing on these that is pretty off the hook. Stay tuned for more as we dig deep into this vintage—but for now, pick up some of these while they’re hot!
- Kate Soto