After an extensive tasting of recent vintages at E. Guigal on my sixth day in France's Rhône Valley, I visited one of Cornas' most-established vignerons and one of the region's newest micro négociants.
Philippe Guigal is not alone when it comes to working high up on the hill of St.-Joseph and Côte-Rôtie. In Cornas, Jean-Luc Colombo remains as wistfully passionate as ever. Living on top of the hill above the town of Cornas, today he is railing against the amount of irrigation in vineyards in a world where hotels ask you to conserve water by not using extra towels.
"If you can put as much water as you want, whenever you want, how can you talk about a vintage?," he asks incredulously. "A vintage is what nature gives, not what you add to the vineyard. When you control the water, the wine is industrial. I'd like to see wines from irrigated vineyards listed without a vintage on the label. I'm not against irrigation, I just think people should be aware that wines made without irrigation really represent the quality and spirit of what the year gave naturally."
While Colombo fights that fight, he still manages to produce a range of mouthwatering, mineral-driven Syrahs that buck their 'modern' reputation. In recent years, he's moderated his use of new oak, developed an impressive vineyard base that totals 10 percent of the entire appellation, and now, he's even ceded the majority of the winemaking to his daughter, Laure, 26.
"Since '10, 80 percent of the vinification is Laure. Anne [Colombo's wife] consults with her and then I consult with both," he said, laughing. "Surely that has brought some change."
A tasting at chez Colombo is always attended by a few extra guests, as the vigneron has built a menagerie over the years. In particular, Colombo's extremely spoiled golden retriever Corton now has a new friend, Fitou, a 6-month-old golden retriever who rivals Corton for goofy friendliness. The rest of the property is home to some rescued animals, including several chickens who now supply Colombo with more eggs than he can eat.
"So, now all the wines are fined with the eggs right from the property. No more buying eggs from outside. How's that for organic?" asked Colombo with a hearty laugh.
The Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Les Collines de Laure 2009 is the young vines selection (up to five years) planted on the fine granite soils of Cornas (declassified because of their young age) as well as in some vineyards just outside the appellation. It's very floral and tangy, with more iron minerality than fruit, giving a lightly firm, taut feel on the pebbly finish.
"I love the smell of this wine," said Colombo. "It's like a raw entrecôte, fresh, right before you put it on the grill."
The Côtes du Rhône Les Forots 2009 is sourced from 60- to 70-year-old vines, planted on granite as well as chalk soils around the limit of Cornas. Set to be bottled in the next few weeks, it's very spiny, with a strong chalky streak cutting through the cassis and black currant fruit. It's brisk and linear in feel, with a violet note hanging on the finish.
"Both wines are given a maceration of 20 to 25 days, which isn't normal for Vin de Pays or Côtes du Rhône, but these are really more like baby Cornas. And there's no press juice either, only free run," said Colombo.
The specialty here of course is Cornas, starting first with the Cornas Les Méjeans 2009, a spice- and cassis-loaded wine sourced from the bottom of the slope from a range of middle-aged vines (15 years and up, according to Colombo). It's lush for Cornas, with lots of briar and anise in reserve and plenty of sweet spice notes as well. It delivers enough accessible, ripe fruit to deliver a good introduction to the appellation, along with enough of the appellation's vibrant chalky edge on the finish to keep it honest. The Cornas Terres Brulées 2009 is sourced from similarly-aged parcels as the Les Méjeans, but located in the middle of the slope and it shows even more vibrant raspberry, cherry and red currant fruit, with mouthwatering acidity and long mineral finish that isn't overly severe, thanks to alluring spice and floral notes that add length and dimension.
The Cornas Les Ruchets 2009 is the first of the single-vineyard cuvées, sourced from east-facing vines over 80 years old. It's very dark and inviting, with roasted fig, blackberry, chocolate and Maduro tobacco, all backed by a long, very racy finish that has great cut. The Cornas La Louvée 2009 is the single-vineyard cuvée that typically delivers the most ripeness, thanks to its ideal full south exposure. The 70-plus-year-old vines have seemingly relished the '09 vintage, giving a wine that delivers incredibly lush blackberry, blueberry and plum fruit, with gorgeous anise and spicebread notes. The chalky spine is buried very deeply on the finish, while violet and anise notes cascade over one other. It's easily the ripest and fleshiest vintage for this cuvée ever and it's sure to win some fans for its overt style.
Colombo's pet project is the single parcel of less than 2 acres on the very top of the hill that he has developed. The fruit goes into the Cornas Vallon de L'Aigle 2009, equally as dark and lush as the La Louvée, but delivering a more pronounced iron note, along with charcoal and smoked alder wood. It's very muscular and dark on the finish and is easily the tightest of the cuvées in '09.
While many vignerons in Côte-Rôtie and elsewhere in the Northern Rhône are still hedging their bets between '09 and '10, Colombo leans distinctly to the '09 side of the argument now, not surprising since the sometimes-severe profile of Cornas marries well with the extra ripeness and flesh of the '09 vintage.
"2010 is really close to '09. But the '09 has more volume, with less minerality and not as tight as '10. You smell violets and chocolate on '09 and you don't get that often in Cornas. It's like a cross between '07 and '05. It's a warm, inviting vintage. It's a special vintage," he said.
The Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Les Collines de Laure 2010 has just finished its malolactic fermentaton and is a touch reduced, but it shows impressive weight and density along with dark, sappy kirsch and blackberry fruit. The Côtes du Rhône Les Forots 2010 is mouthwatering from the start, with a lovely cherry pit-tinged cut to the anise, plum and raspberry fruit.
The Cornas Les Méjeans 2010 is already bursting with violet and linzer notes, as well as juicy blueberry fruit and a long, graphite-packed finish. The Cornas Terres Brulées 2010 is tight, but packed with nicely defined anise, briar, bay and lavender aromas, with the dark fruit held in check by a noticeably chalky spine.
"Since '07, the wines have really started to show more floral notes, more expressive aromas," said Colombo. "I think the soils have finally responded since I stopped using herbicides and pesticides in '02/'03. The fruit is much better."
The Cornas Les Ruchets 2010 is ripe and driven, with very sleek but prominent tannins carrying the crushed plum and anise notes. It's dense but very pure, with a lovely smoldering edge on the finish. That smoldering note continues with the Cornas La Louvée 2010, which despite its typically overt ripeness, picks up lots of charcoal and ash on the finish, with extra spice and singed iron as well. It's more precise than the '09 version for me, with the minerality a great foil to the lush fruit. The La Louvée's minerality is in turn rivaled by the Cornas Vallon de l'Aigle 2010, which puts even more iron and chalk up front, though the inky core of black currant, anise and blueberry fruit is certainly well endowed. Then just as the fruit starts to take over, another rush of acidity completes the wine, extending through the finish.
This is the newest micro-négociant on the block, which as Marc Perrin of Château de Beaucastel explained, is geared toward "blending, which is what we know from the Southern Rhônes. But instead of blending different varieties, we are blending different parcels within an appellation."
The operation started with just one wine in 2006, a broader range in '07, before pulling back in the more difficult '08 vintage. Now in '09, there's a full lineup of all the Northern Rhône appellations (except Château-Grillet of course) totalling five reds and two whites. The portfolio will grow again in the 2010 vintage.
"But we're aiming to grow in quality first, before quantity," said Perrin.
After working with individual growers, each wine is vinified at the grower's facility, to minimize moving the wines. After vinificiation, the wines are then put in barrels of Perrin and Nicolas Jaboulet's choosing before being transported to the Perrin facility in the south for their élevage.
A sample of the Condrieu 2010 from a cooler spot in the appellation has nearly finished its malo. It shows crunchy starfruit and white peach notes with a tight, green fig finish. A second sample from a riper parcel, which has batonnage performed on it, shows a plumper melon and pear profile, with more anise aroma.
"In Condrieu there are two styles. One for acidity, the other for more batonnage and richer flavors. What's interesting is to balance the two," said Perrin.
We combine the two Condrieu samples together in a glass and the result is remarkable - lush, but pure, with ripe, creamy fruit but length and focus as well.
"It's a lot of work to work on this level," said Perrin. "We have just three barrels of each style. And it's hard to find the right three barrels to match with the right three barrels."
For the reds, the St.-Joseph 2010 is sourced from parcels in the northern end of the appellation, around Chavanay. It's dark with toast and anise, but stays light on its feet, with long floral and mineral notes pumping through the finish.
"We look in the north, for what we don't have in the south: granite," said Perrin. "The acidity you get from granite is really unique. You achieve great aromas in the north, without getting heaviness."
The Crozes-Hermitage 2010 is still spread over several lots. The core of the cuvée is all violet and anise, the same source that powered the excellent '09 version. Another parcel, new in '10, shows juicier blackberry and fig fruit and a more mouthfilling feel, the style that Perrin is aiming for. A third parcel, also new in '10, combines the best of both, with spice and floral aromas, dark fruit and more substantial grip on the finish. There's a lot to play with here for the final Crozes bottling, clearly.
The Côte-Rôtie 2010 is in separate pieces as well, the first a lieu-dit in the Côte Blonde portion of the appellation (with a touch of Viognier) is expressive, with racy mesquite and iron notes and lots of licorice on the finish, and it's a full wine on its own. But combined with a bit of Les Grandes Places from the northern Côte Brune, which has more brawn, dark tobacco and roasted fig notes, it should be even more so. The Côte-Rôtie 2009 has almost finished its blending period. It shows the ripe profile of the vintage, but has smoky mesquite and briar notes for added cut and length, with lively acidity that is atypical of the vintage.
"We did remove the '09s from oak quite early. Big ripe vintages, they can extract more from the oak because of their higher alcohols. So we pulled them out three or four months earlier to keep their freshness," said Perrin.
The Ermitage 2009 sample blends fruit from granite and gravel soils, and it's a rich, powerful style, with mouthfilling tar, graphite and tobacco notes backed by a dark core of fig paste and mulled currant fruit. As muscular is it is, the tannins are fresh and nicely delineated and this should stretch out considerably as it ages. It's set to be bottled soon.
Though the other red '09s were bottled sooner than usual, the Cornas 2009 will probably get a bit more time in barrel, said Perrin, perhaps three to six more months, before being released.
"It has a juicier character and I think it can handle the longer time. Each time I taste it, it's getting better, so we're just leaving it for now, unlike the other '09s which we pulled out earlier than usual," he said.
It's a strapping young wine, with a powerful core of briar, cassis and chalk mixed together, still a bit balled up, but with impressive, mouthwatering acidity starting to stretch it out. Hints of bay and olive lurk too, in what should be a distinctive wine.
"Cornas just doesn't get the respect it deserves," said Perrin. I'm sure Jean-Luc Colombo would agree...
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