Thu 24 Sep 2015

Noël Verset, 1919-2015

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It is with great sadness to have to report the passing of Noël Verset at the age of 95.

It is not just for the man himself and of the grief felt by his family, including nephews Alain Verset and Frank Balthazar. In some ways it is also about the passing of an age.

Noël Verset in his cellar.

Noël Verset in his cellar.

Noël represented that kind of instinctive winemaking that knew nothing of oenology, oenologists or laboratories. His were truly natural wines in the best sense of the word, devoid of artifice, faithful to the syrah grape and the great terroir of Cornas in the Rhône Valley.

Cornas remains a village of vignerons though its recent expansion beyond the railway has more to do with the spread of the city of nearby Valence than to wine. But the old heart of Cornas has probably changed little; mingling dressed stone with the granite landscape with its terraced vineyard.

It was here that Noël grew up, leaving school as was custom at the age of 12 to join his father Emmanuel. His first vintage was 1931 and his last, 75 years later, was 2006, though by then Noël was only making wine for family consumption.

Noël married in 1943, the same year he took over the running of the vines, though has dad continued to lend a hand for many years after. Emmanuel Verset died at over a 100, a year or two before I made my first visit in 1989. Cornas growers live long lives.

Working a vineyard, particularly one as small as this and especially when Rhône wines were still relatively unknown, was not a full-time occupation. Noël’s primary source of living came from the railways. Even today, his nephew Alain has a day job working on making refuse trucks for the city of Valence.

Noël bought his first vineyard in 1948, a plot on the Sabarotte slope in the south of the appellation. This complemented to perfection his father’s vines on Reynards, vines on the Chaillots which he got when he married in 1931, and then a tiny parcel of Champelrose.

Noel VersetSeeing him at work was like seeing a glimpse into the past. Winemaking wisdom was passed down the generations. All the work was manual and over the years, sixty-degree slopes would have their revenge with surgery on hips and joints. ‘I can still climb up the slopes but find it hard to walk down,’ he told me. In his prime he was still making his own grafts to replace dead vines though towards the end of his days he became reliant on others.

His cellar was tiny, just a garage next to the house and everything again was done by hand. There is a concrete tank where the wine was made; treading was done the old way by foot. And in an age of making umpteen different wines, Noël made just the one wine.

Life was hard. The Cornas appellation was created in 1938 but even before then very little was ever sold as Cornas. Most of the wine was sold as jug wine in bars in Valence and the rest was bought by négociants and then usually blended to make Côtes-du-Rhône. The war years were especially hard and remained so for some time. The frosts of 1956 which destroyed so many vineyards but which largely spared Cornas proved to be something of a turning point and prices began to rise. For a time, the top wines of Cornas still came from merchants like Delas and Jaboulet, but growers were beginning to assert themselves in a big way. And in their number was Noël Verset.

I first met Noël in 1989 thanks to his UK importer, Roy Richards and Mark Walford, and the first wine I tasted was the 1988 vintage, from barrel.

I was smitten. Technically, it was hardly the most accomplished of wines; they were more than a little rustic yet there was honesty, generosity and simplicity that made so attractive. And with a stew served for the lunch at the local restaurant, his wines were fantastic. Vintages followed suit, each offering a slightly different facet on the same theme. I’ve only just started to drink the 1990, which is outstanding.

Noël Verset was a gentleman with a short stature, a bald head and deeply wrinkled face which would crease whenever he smiled, which he did quite often. He would chuckle and laugh when thinking of the past and amusingly he spoke with the squeakiest of voices. He was always dressed in blue, true ‘bleus de travail’, no longer seen quite as much.

He once drove me around the vineyards in an ancient little Renault van. He was so short; his head was barely visible above the wheel. I remember mentioning the fact that he didn’t seem to be applying any brakes when driving. ‘You don’t really need brakes to stop,’ he said, and pointed to a heavy stone in the back of the car: ‘I use this to stop it rolling down the hill.’

'He would grab a decidedly rickety old wooden ladder which had one foot shorter than the other and then swinging somewhat, compensating for both the ladder and the uneven earthen floor,  he would climb to the top of each of the two casks to take a sample.'

‘He would grab a decidedly rickety old wooden ladder which had one foot shorter than the other and then… climb to the top of each of the two casks to take a sample.’

He walked with a pronounced limp, swaying a bit from side to side. In the cellar, he had two oval oak casks, then one 500-litre barrel and one smaller barrel, mostly used for topping up the others. When I turned up in October to taste the wine, he would grab a decidedly rickety old wooden ladder which had one foot shorter than the other and then swinging somewhat, compensating for both the ladder and the uneven earthen floor, he would climb to the top of each of the two casks to take a sample. The young wine was dark, limpid, with the smell of dark fruits, sometimes olive and Provence herbs. If ever there was ever a wine that told of its origins it was Noël Verset’s Cornas.

By the 1980s, at an age when so many of his countrymen were thinking of retiring, Noël Verset had gained cult status, receiving visits from journalists and merchants from everywhere. He was especially kind with young, aspiring vignerons, taking them under his wing. This was the case of Thierry Allemand. Not only did Noël teach Thierry skills and wisdom but he also gave him vineyard when he had become too old to work it himself. Other vines he would leave to Clape and Courbis, all iconic figures in today’s Cornas.

Noël Verset is survived by two daughters, neither of whom expressed an interest in continuing the vines. Those sixty-degree slopes…

Rest in Peace, Noël.

Marcel Orford-Williams
Society Buyer

Comments

  1. Dr. Alan D. Wallis says:

    I am just a wine amateur, but the first time I met Noël, shortly after his wife had died and once he had checked I was not in the wine trade, but had some knowledge of the Rhone wines, he could not have been more friendly and helpful. His kitchen table was covered in letters from great restaurants and wine merchants from all over the world, most of them in English that he could not read. It gave me great pleasure to translate a few of them for him and I came away with a whole case of his Cornas. As well, enough different years of his Cornas were “sampled” that my wife had to drive back to the hotel in Condrieu. We kept one bottle back to drink after his death and it will accompany our Christmas lunch in 2015 in memory of a remarkable man.

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