Finishing up my annual tour of France's Rhône Valley, this time to taste the 2009 and 2008 lineups from barrel at the region's best and most exciting wineries, I headed to Jean-Luc Colombo and Delas, and then to Jean-Louis Chave, the notes for which I will post next Monday in Part 2. For an overall view of these two vintages' characteristics, as well as links to all of my recent coverage of the region, check out "Tasting 2008 and 2009 Rhône Wines."
"The south wind has started to blow," said Anne Colombo, as we looked out across the Cornas vines owned by she and her husband, Jean-Luc. "Spring is coming, finally."
The tough winter didn't spare Cornas, which was snowed under at various times in recent months. There are no city-owned snowplows to clear the roads here. But with spring on the way, the snow was being stubborn only in some concave strips at higher altitude on the hillsides. The rest of Cornas had been pruned and was ready for a new year.
One sad note here: The affably goofy Haut-Brion, the Colombos' enormous and incredibly spoiled golden retriever, has finally gone to live on a farm, if you know what I mean. Corton, now just 10 months old, seems well on his way to becoming a just as large, friendly and equally spoiled chien de maison.
The always peripatetic Jean-Luc Colombo was heading out to New York later in the day, so along with his Anne, I tasted through his lineup of '08 and '09 Cornas first thing in the morning. Colombo's portfolio is large and I make a regular visit here, so for more background you can reference my notes from visits in March 2005, November 2006, November 2007 and March 2009, as well as my feature story on Cornas from March 2008.
As the economy has slowed down, Colombo has had to streamline the offerings he sends to the U.S., focusing on both his red and white Côtes du Rhône bottlings and his Provencal rosé. Even after all these years, he still finds Cornas a tough sell in the U.S., especially with higher alcohol, richer reds gaining favor in the market.
"Châteauneuf-du-Pape at 16 [percent alcohol] is an easier sell in the U.S.," said Colombo, with a twinge of frustration. "I'm still looking for the key to educate people about Cornas. To get them to understand that 12.5 or 13 [percent alcohol] is a good wine and a wine that can age," he said.
Some people, say that when Colombo came to Cornas, he tried to do too much, too soon. New vinification methods, aging in new oak, a Bordeaux-shaped bottle—it all ruffled feathers in the small appellation back in the mid-'80s. But I can't help but wonder if Colombo wasn't simply ahead of his time. If he had started in Cornas just five or 10 years ago, his methods would likely have been hailed as saviors for an appellation that long resided in the shadow of the rest of the Northern Rhône. Yes, some innovators aren't fully appreciated while they're innovating. His wines may not be flying off retail shelves here (nor is anything north of $25 these days), but nonetheless, Jean-Luc and Anne Colombo's wines may be in the midst of their best run yet.
The 2008 Cornas Les Méjeans has returned to sourcing from just estate vines in recent vintages, as Colombo's own Cornas plantings have increased and come on line (he owns more than 10 percent of the appellation). Sourced from vines mostly at the bottom of the slope, the wine is racy, with a deliciously pebbly feel pumping through the raspberry and Damson plum fruit, backed by a well-defined white pepper-tinged finish. It's got ample flesh for the vintage, staying elegant and balanced.
The 2008 Cornas Terres Brûlées will be released this fall. Sourced primarily from the Eygats and St.-Pierre lieux-dits (named vineyards) at the top of the hill, it's got more spine, with a chalky minerality framing the raspberry and red cherry fruit. Despite the spiny feel, there's good weight and persistence on the finish, with tangy acidity and a bright olive note holding it all together. It's very Cornas.
"2002 was raining all September and October. But in 2008 it rained earlier, and then September was windy. 2008 has more acidity, it's like a Barolo in a way. But it will depend on how you handle the wood," said Jean-Luc.
The Colombos dropped the amount of new oak used on the top cuvées, with just 40 percent for the 2008 Cornas Les Ruchets, sourced primarily from old vines in the Chaillot parcel. The wine is bracing and pure, with the chalky edge well-integrated into the bitter cherry, tobacco and tapenade notes that weave through a solid core of Damson plum fruit. The finish is firm and persistent. The 2008 Cornas La Louvée comes from Colombo's ripest parcel in the La Côte portion of the hill, whose full south-exposed, 75-plus-year-old vines benefited in the cooler 2008 vintage, allowing the Colombos to give it a touch more new oak - about 60 percent. It's clearly a step up in power and lushness, with darker fig and currant notes that belie the vintage and a long, powerfully toast- and iron-driven finish. It's also the most backward of the quartet today. The whole 2008 lineup offers outstanding potential and is further proof that Cornas, as it has a knack of doing, bucked the general quality trend in the Northern Rhône's 2008 vintage. [Note: There is no Cornas Vallon de l'Aigle cuvée in 2008; what juice there was was blended into the Les Ruchets.]
The 2009 reds are waiting for their first racking this spring, after the winter weather finally breaks. Despite being so young, the 2009 Cornas Les Méjeans already shows riper acidity and juicier raspberry and black cherry fruit and a bouncier finish that quickly turns lush as it airs in the glass.
"The tannins are well-integrated already, and there's more perfume on 2009," said Anne.
The 2009 Cornas Terres Brûlées is a juicy mouthful of red currant, plum and violet notes with lots of spice and pepper notes in reserve. The racy spine of Cornas is evident, but it's well-buried in the pure fruit.
"It's a real mélange of fruit in 2009, but not confiture, not overripe. The fruit is not too sweet and it stays perfumy in the mouth," said Jean-Luc.
It's often a flip-flop between the two top wines here, as the riper La Louvée excels in cooler years such as 2008, offering extra fruit for balance, while the more minerally edge of Les Ruchets cuts through the ripeness of warmer vintages like 2009. The 2009 Cornas Les Ruchets is back to its normal two-thirds new oak élevage (or "raising," the time the wine spends between fermentation and bottling), as the fruit in the vintage could handle it. It's packed with a wide range of blackberry, boysenberry, black currant and fig fruit, all kept very lively and driven by bright, chalky minerality and a long, rosemary-scented finish. The tannins are formidable, but ultimately integrated, and the wine looks to be potentially the best version yet, topping the superb '06. In contrast, the 2009 Cornas La Louvée shows almost exotically ripe blueberry, loganberry and Linzer flavors, which are then quickly harnessed by blazing minerality that's both chalky and rounded at the same time. Sweet tapenade and dark tobacco notes lurk on the superlong finish. It's a touch more forward than the Ruchets but should also cruise for some time in the cellar, rivaling the nearly classic '05 version.
If Jean-Luc is looking for the key to unlock Cornas in the U.S. market, the 2009 vintage may have given it to him.
At Delas, winemaker Jacques Grange is one of the true gentlemen of the region; a soft spoken, charming man who has quietly turned Delas into a terrific source for voluptuous, ripe, exotically spiced Syrah. He's now been joined by Claire Darnaud-McKerrow, who started at Delas in the '02 vintage, but then wound up taking a detour to Australia, before returning to the region and starting her own Darnaud-McKerrow estate (which she continues to handle on the side).
For background on Delas, you can reference my notes from my April 2006, November 2006 and November 2007 visits. For more on Darnaud-McKerrow, you can reference my notes from November 2007 and March 2009 as well as my first reviews of the wines from August 2009.
The 2009 whites at Delas are almost finished here—some of the cuvées are nearly set to be bottled in a few weeks, others later this summer. Taken from tank, a part of the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage White Les Launes, made entirely from Marsanne (as are all the whites at Delas), is delightfully pure, with honeysuckle and lemon verbena notes. The tank-fermented wine stays in stainless steel for its élevage, typically resulting in a very clean, expressive style of white Rhône. The 2009 St.-Joseph White Les Challeys is a little cloudy from its blending, as it's being finished and prepared for the bottling in a few weeks, a typically short élevage. It's plumper, with candied citrus peel, pound cake and white peach flavors. It has a little rounder feel thanks to a touch of oak (10 percent of the blend, none new).
"I'm surprised, over the last two years, the demand for St.-Joseph White has really started to increase," said Grange. "It's started to approach Crozes White or even Condrieu in terms of demand as consumers really seem to be appreciating the appellation now."
The 2009 Hermitage White Marquise de la Tourette sees all new oak for the fermentation and aging. Fans of creamy, sweetened butter and creamed melon notes will adore this wine: It's flashy but poised, with a gorgeous mouthfeel and a long, tropical fruit-filled finish that should be in line with the superb '05/'06 duo.
"2009 was a generous vintage for the reds, but not as much for the whites. The Hermitage white came in at just 25 hectoliters per hectare," said Grange. "The drought tends to affect the whites a little more than the reds."
Grange and Darnaud-McKerrow are thinking of extending the whites a bit more in terms of their élevage, not looking for more richness per se, but just an extension of the quality push that's gone on here since Grange started in 1997.
"Each vintage poses a new question," said Grange. "And 2009 was the vintage where the wine was generous enough for us to try some new things. But when we do try new things, we do them gradually and with limited risk. Ultimately we want to integrate the wood more, avoid oxidation or reduction, heighten the minerality and increase the aromatic complexity. I'd like to get to something like the '88 Hermitage white from Chave," he added, drawing a chuckle from Darnaud-McKerrow, whose husband works as a cellar hand there.
"But it's true," said Grange in mock defense. "You have to have a standard, a goal, that helps define what you are trying to do. And that wine for me …," he trailed off.
The store and tasting room at Delas is located against a hill in the St.-Joseph appellation.
The Hermitage White typically spends seven to eight months in oak, so while adding just a few weeks might not seem like much on the surface, it would be a significant addition in terms of the wine's overall time in oak.
"You have to taste it every week too, as there are times when the oak looks great, and times where it might seem dominant or the wine might be reduced. You can't make a straightforward prediction," said Darnaud-McKerrow.
A sample parcel destined for the 2009 Condrieu La Galopine is very soft and forward, with quince and green melon notes and a round, friendly finish. The 2009 Condrieu Clos Boucher is a single-vineyard bottling; while round, it's brighter and more focused too, with fresher verbena and Cavaillon melon notes. Traditionally given a 100 percent new oak élevage, Grange and Darnaud-McKerrow are tinkering with using 30 percent from stainless steel in the blend.
"It may seem like a tiny percentage, but it really changes the mouthfeel and elegance of the wine," said Darnaud-McKerrow.
To show the shift, we try a lot of the 2009 Condrieu Clos Boucher that's entirely from oak, which shows more weight and creamier mouthfeel and broader melon and sweetened buttered notes. It has "more" but isn't necessarily better, as the sample with some tank-fermented juice in the blend is clearly finer and in the more minerally camp. It's a noticeable style shift potentially in the making here that Grange wants to take slowly.
The 2008 reds are nearing the end of their blending process as they get prepped for bottling in the next several months. The 2008 Cornas Chante-Perdrix blends one-third fruit from the bottom of the hill (darker fruit profile) with two-thirds from the top (fresher, more acidity) and it shows a lively mix of red and dark berry fruit, with a tangy note of açaí berry and a twinge of briar on the finish. There was less new oak used here in '08 as "the fruit couldn't handle that élevage in '08," said Grange, and the lighter hand has played out well.
The 2008 Côte-Rôtie Seigneur de Maugiron contains Delas' small parcel of La Landonne (there were no single-vineyard reds in '08) and it shows the smoky mesquite and iron profile of that lieu-dit, along with good fig and mulberry fruit notes on a nicely silky finish. The 2008 Hermitage Marquise de la Tourette contains the Les Bessards parcel that is often bottled separately, which helps give it a solid range of red, blue and black fruits, with lively acidity and a tobacco-tinged finish. Both are potentially outstanding and on par with their '04 counterparts. The decision to declassify the small vineyard selections into the main blends seems to have helped here, a debate that is playing out across the region as some producers such as E. Guigal and M. Chapoutier chose not to declassify in '08.
"What is essential for us is the level of quality for the basic cuvées," said Grange. "So if they need in the blend the support of the Bessards or Landonne, then they get it. The focus has to be the base."
Switching to those cuvées that have started to take shape from 2009, the 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Les Launes is sappy, with lots of kirsch fruit and a good grippy edge on the finish. The 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine des Grands Chemins is all estate fruit; it's plump with excellent richness and nice lingering raspberry and loganberry notes. The single-vineyard 2009 Crozes-Hermitage Le Clos is youthfully tight, but there's a focused beam of raspberry and Linzer, along with alluring black tea and charred mesquite hints as well.
A sample destined for the final 2009 St.-Joseph Les Challeys blend has just finished its malo and so there's a bit of CO2 giving it a floral, lively edge, with the black fruit and violet notes in reserve. The 2009 St.-Joseph Ste.-Épine is very juicy, with deliciously dark plum and blackberry fruit laced with a mouthwatering mineral note. This should easily knit into another outstanding wine as the wine's track record is very consistent.
The 2009 Cornas Chante-Perdrix is very briary, with a tangy, mouthfilling mix of raspberry ganache, loganberry and fruitcake flavors that extend through the finish nicely. The wine has had the same exact parcels in the blend since 2003 and has quietly put together a solid track record during that time.
The 2009 Côte-Rôtie Seigneur de Maugiron could top the '05, as it shows formidable length and balance already, with alluring blueberry, raspberry and sanguine notes woven with a subtle hint of iron. Back to being bottled separately, the 2009 Côte-Rôtie La Landonne is a touch reduced and has yet to absorb all its 100 percent new oak, but the raw materials are very impressive. Its layers of blueberry, plum and fig fruit and charcoal, iron and mesquite are textbook for the lieu-dit and the tannins are already melding into the fruit nicely; it should rival the '03/'05 vintages.
The 2009 Hermitage Marquise de la Tourette is a pure, driven, beautiful expression of violet and black cherry notes, racing along with mineral and melted red licorice hints as well. The finish shows ample depth and grip and this should flesh out into a wine that gives the '05 a run for its money. The 2009 Hermitage Les Bessards shows the lieu-dit's depth and power, though it's quite a bit reduced aromatically right now. Still, the tarry, plumcake and bittersweet cocoa notes are evident and the finish carries a lot of depth. I don't see it reaching the level of the '05 (a 97-point wine), but it's potentially classic nonetheless.
As with most estates, the reduction in the reds at this stage is not a concern, as Grange noted, "If you rack the wine now to deal with reduction, you interrupt the marriage of the wine with its wood. You have to stick with your nerves and wait it out, since Syrah is prone to reduction but easier to re-oxygenate down the road," he said.
And down the road looks promising for Delas in 2009.
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