1998 was universally touted, by trade and media alike, as a great (and potentially long-lived) vintage in the Rhone. Or, at least, it was when the wines were first released. And many of them were indeed deliciously drinkable, at the time, albeit in a typical hot-vintage, rich, baked fruit sort of way. Over the last few years, however, many of those crystal ball commentators have been steadily revising their opinions, given that so many of the very wines have begun to show worrying signs of fatigue. And if tonight's tasting of 1998 Rhones at the Nottingham Wine Circle was any sort of indicator, they are going nowhere fast - apart from downhill. These are my own tasting notes and opinions, although I must say that the rest of the room seemed broadly in agreement.
1. Domaine du Vieux Chene 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages
Muted nose. Hints of raspberry, tobacco, sous bois. On the palate, the fruit is hanging on - but only just. A bit austere and lacks charm.
2. Domaine Saint Anne 1998 Cotes du Rhone Villages St. Gervais
A touch more expressive on the nose - a mix of bramble and bovril. The palate is a touch confected, with some unresolved tannins and a fair amount of heat. Baked and soupy, almost "pastilley", in a non-fruity sort of way. Needs food.
3. Clos du Caillou Bouquet des Garrigues 1998 Cotes du Rhone
This one has a lovely nose, and it certainly lives up to its name. A mélange of garrigue herbs, polished leather and warm southern Rhone fruit. The tannins are still evident, but there is plenty of fruit and juicy acidity to keep it nicely balanced. A nice wine.
4. Chateau du Grand Moulas 1998 Cotes du Rhone
This smells a bit weird. Volatile and slightly dirty on the nose, with a hint of pastilley fruit, offset by burnt tar. The palate is metallic/ferrous and tart, but not exactly acidic. This is way past its prime, and not pleasant to drink.
5. Chateau de Grand Moulas Cuvée de l'Ecu 1998 Cotes du Rhone
A touch more elegant on the nose than number 4, with hints of Syrah, but I'm trying to be kind to it. Little in the way of discernible fruit aromas or interest. There is actually something of the cheap Bordeaux about it, with notes of green capsicum, tobacco, tannin - and no fruit. Another rather unpleasant wine, which (I hope) has seen better days.
6. Chateau du Trignon La Ramillade 1998 Gigondas
A "negociant" wine, from bought-in fruit. This is yet another baked, rustic, hot-year wine. A bit dirty, a bit rustic, a bit charmless. It was also a bit corked, which at least added a bit of interest(!)
7. Chateau du Trignon 1998 Gigondas
This is the "Chateau" wine, made from fruit from the estate's own vineyards, and is markedly better than number 6. Not a lot going on on the nose, but plenty of sweet fruit and spice on the palate, with slightly rustic tannins balanced by decent acidity and even a bit of elegance. A nice(ish) wine.
8. Cros de La Mure 1998 Gigondas
A distinctly alcoholic nose, with notes of tobacco, coffee and spice. Tastes alcoholic, too. There is a little fruit, but mostly of a secondary nature. And the abundance of alcohol, combined with low acidity, simply renders it completely unbalanced.
9. Domaine Le Clos de Cazeaux Cuvée de La Tour Sarrazin 1998 Gigondas
This shows signs of a rich, substantial wine, which may have been rather nice, about 5 years ago. As it is, though, it is muddy and rustic - and has very definitely fallen off its perch.
10. Chateau Redortier 1998 Gigondas
This one is still a bit of a bruiser. Quite tannic and alcoholic. Still a bit of fruit peeping through, but very definitely in its secondary phase, with additional notes of tar and liquorice. Yet another wine that simply hasn't lasted the course. It would be OK as a winter warmer, with some hearty food, but needs drinking very soon.
11. Domaine Santa Duc 1998 Gigondas
At last, a wine that offers some real enjoyment. A lovely nose of fresh fruit, spices and well-judged oak. Ample red and black fruit flavours, resolved tannins and excellent balancing acidity. Elegant, even. I really liked this one.
12. Domaine Santa Duc Les Haut Garrigues 1998 Gigondas
This cuvée has a more serious, yet less expressive nose. The palate has more oak and more body, and perhaps more complex, in a savoury (rather than fruity) way. A very interesting and well-made wine, and a nice contrast to number 11. Whilst 11 is drinking beautifully now, this one probably needs a few more years. But will it last? As someone else commented, it is impressive, rather than enjoyable.
12a. Clos des Papes Blanc 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (an un-announced extra)
Calvados and rotting apples on the nose, with hints of marzipan, toffee and anise. A bit oxidised, perhaps? The palate is a bit bland, for my liking, and definitely lacking in acidity, which means it may never blossom into anything special.
13. Domaine de Marcoux 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Ooh.... this is both perfumed and meaty - and very substantial. A heady mix of aromas, including flowers, fresh fruits, tobacco and spice. Sweet fruit on the palate, augmented by meat, leather, spiced fruit and cloves. It evolves beautifully in the glass and is a classic Chateauneuf - and a really good effort, for the vintage.
14. Les Cailloux 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (André Brunel)
Damn - corked! Which really is unfortunate, because there is a really excellent wine lurking beneath the TCA. In fact, it is quite the most fragrant of corked wines! A real shame, as I was looking forward to this wine.
15. Pere Caboche Cuvée Elisabeth Chambellan 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape
Light-bodied and simple, with a bitter cherry kernel palate. Not obviously faulty, but completely lacking in substance or charm.
15a. Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe 1999 Chateauneuf-du-Pape (another un-announced extra)
Note that this was a 1999, not 1998. And boy, did it show. Just by the nose, I could tell this was going to be the Wine of the Night. It is oh-so complex. A heady mix of fruit and flowers, herbs, spices, meat, vegetables and marmite. The sheer array of enticing aromas is wonderful to behold. If I were asked to give an ideal description of the word "wine", it might well be this one - it really does tick all the boxes. And the palate certainly delivers on the promise of the nose. Fruit in abundance, together with just the right amount of savouriness. A hugely complex wine, with flavours of spiced fruits, garrigue, roasted meat, tobacco and sous-bois. Soft tannins, ample acidity, long, complex - and not even a hint of alcoholic heat. This is probably the finest VT I have ever had the pleasure of tasting - and is definitely in my top three Chateauneufs ever. It may not quite reach the heights of the best that Cote Rotie or Hermitage have to offer - but it runs them pretty damn close. I don't do scores but, if I did, this would be a 95+ on the Parker scale. And it will undoubtedly get better. A glorious wine, and a triumphant end to a rather disappointing tasting.
OK, so this was (apart from the 1999 VT) a far from a stellar line-up, but there were a good few wines on show from growers whose wines would (in other vintages) provide plenty of enjoyment and would be expected to show well at 11 years of age. But few of these 1998's did show well. And, in my opinion, there is only one way they can go from here - and that is downhill. So if you have any 1998 southern Rhones, my advice would be to drink up - but don't expect great things.