Today is Old School day in the Rhône Valley. Cornas—land of rugged tannins, thickly bearded vignerons and some of the Northern Rhône's still unfully-realized terroir. A single jagged outcropping of decomposed granite at the southern end of the west bank of the Northern Rhône, Cornas has long been synonymous with tough, sometimes overly gamy wines. Recently though, there's been a steady movement toward updating the style here, with a handful of new vignerons helping to bring the appellation along (see "Northern Rhône Exposure," from March 2008 for more).
But before I could get to Cornas, my Franglais was put to the test. My left front tire decided to disintegrate on the Route National just south of Chavanay. As if to make matters worse, the guy at Autoeurope, who was trying to send a mechanic out to me, had never heard of Chavanay, or even Condrieu. I figured my day was shot.
But thanks to a friendly neighbor on the side of the road, my exact location was eventually pinpointed for the rental car company and they had a tow company on the way. Not much longer after that, Bértrand, an ample-size man with a broad smile eventually pulled his flat-bed rig over and changed the tire. Just less than 90 minutes delay and I was back on the road. Merci, Bértrand!
Franck Balthazar, 42, is casual and easygoing. He's got the slightly-weathered vigneron look, with a wiry build and a soft-spoken demeanor. He's also Noël Verset's nephew (one of the great vignerons from Cornas' previous generation) and so he added some of those vines to his own new plantings when Verset retired recently.
Balthazar's grandfather started the domaine, buying some vines and planting others in 1931, with his father then adding more along the way. The domaine bottled its own production for the first time in 1980, though they didn't export to the U.S. market until the 2004 vintage (Balthazar's first vintage was 2002). Today Balthazar has 3.5 hectares of vines from which he produces about 10,000 bottles annually. This is as simply run an old school domaine as you'll find.
In the small cellar located just behind the town's church, Balthazar ferments the parcels separately, with 100 percent stems in cement vats, with only a few pumping over and light pigéage (punching down of the cap).
"You don't need to do much extraction when you use stems," said Balthazar.
Neither mistral, too much foie gras nor a flat tire will keep me from the swift completion of my duly appointed rounds.
He then moves the wine to all demi-muid (large, 600-liter barrels) for its malo. When the malolactic fermentation is done, he blends and then ages it for 18 months before bottling. At first pour, the wines are typically sinewy and tight, but they gorge themselves on oxygen as they sit in the glass, gaining darker fruit and richer texture, while displaying a full range of fruit and minerality.
"2008 was as tough a year as 2002," said Balthazar as we tasted the 2008 Cornas Chaillot, bottled just last month. "I was pretty tired from the stress—we had oïdium in August."
The wine is an unqualified success for the vintage though, with a firm, chalky spine and red currant fruit that's taut but precise. There's fine length and the acidity is prevalent but not overly severe. The wine combines Balthazar's oldest vines in the Chaillot parcel.
The entire production at chez Balthazar is aged entirely in demi-muid.
"It's ripe acidity in '08," said Balthazar. "Which is good because the fruit is so much lighter."
The 2009 Cornas Cuvée Casimir Balthazar is a selection of the domaine's young vines, for which Balthazar does destem partially. Tasting from demi-muid, the wine is sappy and edgy, with currant and cherry pit notes, a strong iron streak and great grip.
"2009 had less water than 2003, but the temperatures were not as extreme, so the fruit is not as atypical as 2003," he said.
The 2009 Cornas Chaillot is an impressive young wine, dark and brawny already with lots of macerated fig and blackberry fruit. It's broad and expansive but has excellent definition and shows superb cut. It's young but not raw, as the flesh of the vintage takes on a flattering edge.
"No need to touch that," said Balthazar coolly. "We just need to let it develop in demi-muid."
Thierry Allemand is one of Cornas' greatest characters. A true individualist, he can be difficult to approach or reach but he can also be an effusive fountain of information. He defends tradition but then toys with modernity. His vineyards are immaculate but his winemaking can be on the edge. In a small town where everyone else has their cellar down below, his is a 10-minute drive up on the plateau above. He's an enigma wrapped in a riddle layered with conundrum. (For more background on Allemand you can reference my cellar notes from October 2007).
On the way up to Allemand's cellar we stop amidst the vines to look at some of his latest efforts. New gleaming white plastic stakes dot various parcels on the hillside below. I figure Allemand is about to rail against them.
"With those new stakes?" he responded when I asked him whose parcels they are. "Those are mine. The new plastic stakes are great: They're more flexible in the wind, you can drive them deeper into the ground to start with, and they last 25 years. With the wood stakes, they snap and fray and you have to replace them often," he said matter-of-factly.
We stop to scan the various exposures of Cornas that stretch out in front of us—the appellation is rife with convex and concave hillsides that provide warm and cool spots. Flashes of snow still sit on some, while others already look as if they're roasting away.
As we get to the cellar, Allemand delivers the most incongruous line of my trip so far: "I much prefer 2008 to 2009," he said. "The acidity is better. 2009 is too ripe."
Granted, Cornas has a tendency to weather cooler, wetter years better—its more exposed parcels drain exceptionally well and act as a sun trap, and thus can be exacerbated in warm years. But preferring 2008 to 2009? Allemand is definitely in the minority on that one.
In 2009, though, Allemand noted that his fermentation went fast. The malolactic fermentation finished in tank before he had even racked to barrel, while the 2008 ferments, particularly the malo, dragged on.
"You can't get the finesse with a fast fermentation like that," he said. "I'd rather have a longer malo, and in 2008 the malo was very long."
Both vintages are still in their component parts here. There are two wines made, blends of parcels with similar vine age. We taste two barrels destined for the 2008 Cornas Chaillot, the first is open and fresh, with plum and anise notes and an almost velvety edge, though an edgy note underneath checks in. The second, from the Teyssier parcel, shows more pepper and tobacco, both are surprisingly dark in profile for the vintage.
Allemand made no concessions to the lighter vintage in 2008, keeping all his stems for the maceration as usual. The portions slated for the 2008 Cornas Reynard show more wild, sauvage notes of game, espresso, roasted fig, chestnut and lavender. The texture is both plush and nervy at the same time.
Thierry Allemand marches to the beat of his own drum, preferring the '08 vintage to '09.
It's an impressive showing for the wine, and Allemand notes that he harvested everything after the early September rains and picked most of his fruit into October, when most other folks were picking fast and earlier to avoid rot.
Despite his preference for the style of 2008, I think 2009 is clearly the stronger vintage, even at chez Allemand. We taste the same parcels for the 2009 Cornas Chaillot, as we did for the '08, and they're shades darker in fruit, with more crushed plum and anise notes laced with additional melted licorice and fruit cake hints. A sample lot for the 2009 Cornas Reynard is drawn from a foudre (large oak barrels) and it's very intense, with gorgeous pastis, crushed plum and incense notes. It's a dynamic, vivid young wine, with Allemand's telltale edgy feel adding more length and dimension.
This is a small domaine, with just 5 hectares producing 12,000 bottles annually (evenly divided among the two cuvées). The wines are not for everyone, as the wine's edgy note is likely from a touch of volatile acidity. But lovers of wild, old-school Syrah will find these to be a unique experience worth the hunt.
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P R Mitchell — New Zealand — March 16, 2010 5:41pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — March 16, 2010 6:16pm ET
Conor Twomey — Ireland — March 16, 2010 7:34pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — March 18, 2010 9:44am ET
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