Grapevine Archive for Cornas
Normally trade tastings in Paris are to be avoided. So often they are overcrowded with dozens if not hundreds of tasters packed into small spaces, pushing and shoving along with scribblers, sommeliers and merchants representing the dozens of small independent Parisian wine shops. But this was no ordinary tasting.
As for Paris, with all that has happened, it was not quite business as usual. The Tuesday felt more like a Sunday with maybe a few more frantic police cars about, and the Eurostar was maybe half full with so many business meetings put on hold or cancelled.
I walked from Pont Saint-Michel to the Avenue Montaigne and was struck by the beauty of the place. It felt good to back.The event itself, possibly a first, reunited a majority of producers from two neighbouring and complementary appellations, Cornas and Saint-Péray.
It was a rare opportunity to taste from practically every producer.
If nothing else it showed the increasing confidence that seems to be there. They are probably not the best-known appellations of the northern Rhône, lagging behind Crozes-Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie, but they make up for that with youthful enthusiasm and obvious talent.
The main town in the area is Valence and its growth has threatened the existence of both these appellations. Indeed Saint-Péray, now more a small town rather than a village, nearly did disappear under the concrete of developers. It took the concerted work of growers, negociants and the local co-op to keep it alive.
It probably explains some of the dynamism that clearly exists here. There is a real pioneering spirit which of course is essential here of all places: this is, after all, not an easy place to grown grapes. The cost of labour involved in these hillside vineyards, with their terracing and dry stone walls, is huge.Cornas
Of the two, Cornas is the better known, and the largest. With recent expansion, Cornas is now slightly larger than Hermitage but with twice as many growers and more of them are involved in making and selling wine. Cornas itself has a real village feel to it with the old buildings huddled around the church, mostly along the Grand Rue. The community is close knit and is mostly involved in wine in some way. The cemetery and war memorial are full of the same names.
Cornas still has the image of an old-fashioned, rustic wine with fearful tannins, a cross maybe between Rhône and Madiran or Cahors. The wines always needed keeping often at least ten years before they had softened enough. These were manly wines to go with manly dishes, invariably the result of a day’s shoot. But why should the wines of Cornas be any less elegant than Hermitage?
The reason is winemaking. It should be remembered that being a vigneron in Cornas was never considered a full-time occupation. Even today, there is often a day job as an electrician or mechanic. So there was never much time for cellar work and wines were left to fend for themselves. Wines were traditionally left on the skins for weeks, and the practice of removing stems was unheard of. Moreover, syrah here ripens well and quite naturally produces a wine with a good deal of tannin. The revolution came in the 1980s and 90s with growers like Alain Voge who were determined to change the style and that perception of rusticity.
Cornas is said to be granite and that is largely true, but in places there is some limestone mixed in, and some clay too, and these differences have an effect on the wine. There are also different expositions and more importantly still, wide differences in altitude. Many of the best producers have parcels in different plots.
Cornas: the main plots
• Saint-Pierre: altitude, freshness and elegance. Saint-Pierre and the heights above is where Cornas was extended (overextended some say as the grapes don’t always ripen, as was the case in 2013).
• Chaillots: northern slope. Steep with lots of old vines. Chalk mixed in with clay. Big structured wines for long-term keeping.
• Les Eygats: colour and structure, often with quite high acidity. Here too, the wines invariably need keeping.
• Reynards: a very well-exposed granite slope. Perfect exposition. Full-bodied wines, big ripeness levels.
• Southern slopes, including La Côte, Sabarotte and Patou: granite too but with clay. Weighty, fat wines, which are very rich and complex.
A few growers are making single-vineyard wines but most do not, preferring instead to achieve complexity by blending. It should be said too that vineyard holdings tend to be very small.
Effectively rescued from a building site, Saint-Péray has real potential to make exciting white wine.
Curiously its call to fame was sparkling wine, and indeed at one time these wines fetched better prices than Champagne. Richard Wagner was a fan: he wrote Parsifal while drinking it. Must have been a sizeable bottle!
The reputation suffered and quality tumbled, and other wines improved. The raison d’être was simple enough; the largely limestone soils were perfect for growing white grapes, and somehow the wines kept their freshness. Today less than 10% of Saint-Péray is sparkling though growers are keen to develop it. The rest is still. Made from marsanne, often on its own but sometimes with roussanne, the wines have Rhône-like flavours of honey and lemon, but with more grip.
• Frank Balthazar: a nephew of the great Noël Verset. Good Chaillots here in an elegant style. Makes two wines: the first, from young vines, is of no interest but the old-vines Chaillots is different and we occasionally buy it.
• Domaine Mickaël Bourg: new to me. Mostly Saint-Pierre. Fairly elegant 2012. Quite good. Better than the frankly uninspiring Saint-Péray.
• Domaine Clape: traditional style. No destemming, so the wines are often a little austere when young. Two wines: Cuvée Renaissance is made from younger vines. The 2013 was a bit tetchy. The top wine, which has no cuvée name, also 2013, was quite splendid: thick and rich and wonderful. Tiny quantities, not enough for us sadly.
• Domaine du Coulet: new-wave Cornas and the antithesis of Clape. Expression of very ripe fruit. All destemmed. Very black, concentrated and ultra smooth. Would love to see how well the wine lasts. Certainly impressive.
• Chapoutier: better known for Hermitage. Fairly modern approach to Cornas. Elegant and refined but maybe a little lacking in personality. A second cuvée, made in conjuncture with 3 Michelin star chef Anne-Sophie Pic seemed more rewarding with better length. I was less keen on the Saint-Péray, which seemed dull.
• Domaine Courbis: generous yet stylish, these are all lovely wines in a modern style, polished and presentable. Champelrose is the entry-level wine and very good value; approachable when young. Lovely 2013 Les Eygats: tight, sinewy and dark. Needing time, especially the 2013. The 2012 Sabarotte was immense, plump and fat. Outstanding.
• Yves Cuilleron: to be honest, he is better known for Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie. Neither his Cornas or Saint-Péray seem to click.
• Durand: two very talented brothers, Eric and Joël. Lovely white which we don’t yet do, but made in small quantities. Two Cornas: ‘Les Prémices’ is a young-vines cuvée for the restaurant market. Very easy but probably not very Cornas like. ‘Les Empreintes is made with old vines from lots of small plots. Modern style, elegant yet concentrated. Brilliant value for money.
• Guy Farge: Saint-Péray was 90% roussanne but was 2013 vintage and maybe a little tired. Cornas from Reynards was pretty sound.
• Ferraton: small house run by Chapoutier, but independent, and always impressive. Didn’t disappoint. Cornas blend called Grands Muriers was good. Single vineyard ‘Patou’ was stunning as was Les Eygats. White somewhat dull.
• Paul Jaboulet Ainé: authoritative. Gorgeous Saint-Péray 2014: fine, bright and clean. Cornas 2011 was just perfect to drink now: soft and fleshy with a sweet, spicy finish. 1996 Saint-Pierre stole the show. Outstanding. Essence of truffle and spice. Lovely weight and length.
• Domaine Lionnet: related to Jean Lionnet and one of the Cornas families. Workmanlike Cornas in 2014 & 2013. Lacked finesse – hard act to follow after Jaboulet though!
• Leménicier: had always wanted to taste his wines but was frankly disappointed. Not helped by oxidised sample of 2014.
• Domaine des Lises: new to me. Grower from Pont-de-l’Isère so presumably also a Crozes producer. Disappointing. Not fine.
• Johann Michel: Saint-Péray based. Two Cornas wines: first is light and easy but not really interesting. Second, called ‘Jana’, altogether different and much more interesting: both 2014 & 2013 were brilliant. Weighty white which I liked less.
• Rémy Nodin: new to me – new guy and ex-Tain co-op member. Still learning and has some way to go yet.
• Julien Pilon: like Cuilleron, more of a Condrieu-based producer. I did not like his offerings from down here.
• François Villard: he too is better known for Condrieu but in this case his Saint-Péray were perfectly good, especially the rich and fat ‘Version’. Modern take on Cornas. Attractive but un-Cornas like maybe.
• Tain Co-operative: such a big player with so many aces up its sleeves and yet… The Saint-Péray was sound but no more than that and the Cornas from 2011 and 2013 vintages seem to suffer from excessive and unintegrated oak. Overall disappointing. But I know things are changing there so one lives in hope.
• Nicolas Perrin: lovely Cornas. Modern style with poise but also depth. 2013 fab. Still learning about Saint-Péray and not there quite yet. Worth keeping a look out for.
• Laure Colombo: her father is enologist and negociant. She is talented grower in Saint-Péray and Cornas. White 2014 was floral and attractive. Cornas ‘Terres Brûlées’ is a blend with part Eygats and Chaillots. Gorgeous 2013. ‘La louvee’ is from well-exposed La Côte. Very impressive 2013. ‘Ruchets’ from Chaillots is the top wine and also very impressive. Lovely wines indeed.
• Dumien-Serrette: favourite grower with old vines, especially in Patou. Just the one wine, 2013 Cornas. A real joy: packed with blackcurrant fruit, full and complex, slightly wild and exuberant and untamed. Will need a few years yet.
• Vins de Vienne: a negociant company set up by Yves Cuilleron, François Villard and Pierre Gaillard. Has been in the doldrums but now back on form. Stunning Saint-Péray, especially ‘Bialères’, in a flattering, oaky style. ‘Archeveque’ oaky and needs time but very good. Cornas was sound enough.
• Domaine Du Tunnel: this is named because there really is a disused railway tunnel on the estate in Saint-Péray which has now been converted into a spectacular and effective cellar. Spectacular for a railway enthusiast, that is! Stéphane Robert is the winemaker and owner of what is without doubt the top estate in Saint-Péray. He makes four wines from different ages of vine and different plots and including one full-flavoured cuvée of pure roussanne. The best wine is the Cuvée Prestige, made from 80% marsanne and 20% roussanne raised in barrel. It’s a wonderful wine, fine with clarity, precision and pleasure. The Cornas is equally polished and assured.
• Domaine Voge: Alain Voge was an important figurehead in the story of both appellations and was one of those who broke away from the past to create a modern style of wine. Alain has been unwell for some time and has taken a back seat leaving the running of his business to the very dynamic Alberic Mazoyer, who used to be chef de cave at Chapoutier. Brilliant wines across the range. Three Saint-Péray, the best coming from old vines and called ‘Fleur de Crussol’, and three Cornas: Vieille Fontaine is the top wine and only rarely produced. Cuvée Vieilles Vignes though is very impressive. Outstanding 2013 with 2014 also looking very promising.
There were a few absentees like Thierry Allemand, who very rarely ever leaves his vines.
But this was an exceptional tasting.
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 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.
Seeing 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 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.
Cornas definitely stands out among the villages of the Northern Rhône. For a start, it’s the sort of place that’s been around for quite some time. The village looks part of the landscape, the grey of its stones extending upwards into the vineyards in miles upon miles of dry stone walls called murets.
Other villages, often built on what used to be the flood plain, are more recent and came with the main road and the railway. In Cornas there is a main stream called the Chaban which collects the waters from countless springs and sends them through the village and into the Rhône itself. Water is a feature here that is every bit as important as the granite-dominated slopes around. The slopes above the village form an amphitheatre rising to over 350m, and facing fully south. It is incredibly sheltered here and, when the sun is out, unbearably hot. It is a small world apart, an isolated Mediterranean paradise where mimosa and evergreen oak can grow.
Cornas is a village of vignerons, with its church at the centre of village life. The village square is the Place de l’Eglise and opposite the church is the diminutive mairie. The principal road is the narrow Grand’ Rue though mercifully through-traffic bypasses the oldest part of the village. Nearly everyone in Cornas is connected in some way to the land and to wine. The village cemetery just off the Grand’ Rue is full of familiar names.
Unlike Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie there is no real power house in Cornas. The growers – and there are many of them – are smallholders, often owning no more than a handful of acres. Many have other jobs; Alain Verset for instance works just down the road in a truck building company while his uncle Noel used to work for the railways. The wine business was a weekend activity.
By and large the big merchants took a backseat here. The Delas family used to own vines in Cornas but foolishly sold them at a time when the wines were hard to sell. For Chapoutier, Cornas was unimportant (though that might change soon), while not a drop of Cornas is sold from Guigal. Jaboulet is the exception and has always been involved in Cornas. Indeed, they have made some spectacular vintages in the past (such as the 1978 which 20 years later could still be bought from The Society).
Cornas remains the least known of the three great red appellations of the northern Rhône. The lack of production is one reason, but Cornas also has a fearsome reputation for dense, tannic wines. These days there is better winemaking and there is a younger generation of growers more open to trends worldwide; people like Thierry Allemand who in 2011 was among the first to pick, and who has made a wine of real elegance.
This is a great time to buy Cornas. Prices are on the rise but remain cheaper than either Côte-Rôtie or Hermitage, and the wines have real personality, with a taste that doesn’t really exist anywhere else. And both the 2009 and 2010 vintages are outstanding.