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Day 6: Northern Rhône Syrah's Yin Yang

Comparing Cornas and Côte-Rôtie at A. Clape and Stéphane Ogier
Photo by: James Molesworth
Got old school? Large wooden casks (foudres) are used for aging the wine at A. Clape in Cornas.

Posted: Jul 2, 2012 3:00pm ET

Cornas and Côte-Rôtie: same grape, same region, but two totally different wines. Cornas is all about controlled rusticity, with olive, bramble and chalk notes that need to be massaged into a core of fruit. Few producers manage to do it well, but at its best, it's arguably the Northern Rhône's most distinctive wine.

In Côte-Rôtie, it's about controlling amplitude of fruit to find balance. Letting the sanguine and mineral notes edge out from a ripe blackberry and plum core, as well as a sometimes-exuberant new oak élevage employed by a few vignerons, is key.

Put the two together, and Cornas and Côte-Rôtie are the yin and yang of Northern Rhône Syrah.

A. Clape

No one does controlled rusticity better than Pierre-Marie Clape. The vigneron who has piloted the appellation's premier domaine, A. Clape, following in his father's footsteps and now joined by his son Olivier, continues to fashion the archetype rugged-yet-amply-fruit-filled Cornas that demands a decade of cellaring, at least, before showing itself fully.

A regular stop on my visits through the region, I last visited Clape in March 2010, when I also had the opportunity to do a vertical tasting.

Every tasting here is as instructive as the last. Cornas is a small appellation, but Clape has his vineyards broken down into even smaller components before making the final blend, fermenting differing lots based on parcel and vine age. Tasting through is a lesson in how these differences play out in the wine while providing a solid grounding in the characteristics of a particular vintage. And it's all presented in a direct yet unassuming and comfortable style. Pierre-Marie Clape is the college professor who made you realize in lecture hall, "this is what I want to do one day."

"The 2011 vintage is an easy, direct vintage," said Clape. "It's like '06 and '04, which was a surprise for me since the weather was so complicated. It was very hot the last week of August so the ripening stopped. But then the Indian summer came and ripening went slowly again. The alcohols are in the normal range, 12.5 to 13.2. The difficulty in the end was we had ripe berries and green berries in the same bunch, so sorting was critical."

Made from all Syrah, the 2011 Vin de France Le Vin des Amis is sourced from old vines, but outside the appellation boundaries. It has a racy, chalky note and mouthwatering bitter cherry fruit. The 2011 Côtes du Rhône offers a touch more flesh, with brighter cassis and black cherry notes, along with an extra floral hint, allied to the same racy, chalky spine of the Vin des Amis.

For the lots most likely destined for the 2011 Cornas Rennaisance, all of which are still in foudre, a sample drawn from a lot vinified from young vines in the Patou parcel shows a very peppery edge, with more brick dust and olive aromatics than real flesh. Young vines from the Reynard parcel are tighter, with more licorice root, plum skin and dark cherry notes, along with brisk, lively acidity.

"There is a sensation of high acidity in 2011 because the concentration isn't as great, due to the blockage of maturity at the end of the seasons," said Clape. "But the acidity really isn't that high."

A sample drawn from the 35-year-old vines in the Teyssier parcel is darker still, with an almost sappy kirsch edge, but still the brisk chalky feel for cut. From the Sabarotte parcel, the wine is a touch reduced, but it quickly opens to show dark currant, mulled fig and licorice root notes.

For the lots likely to form the 2011 Cornas, the La Cȏte parcel, typically one-third of the blend, shows fleshy black currant and tobacco notes with more flesh around the core and a nice, chewy edge. The older vines from Reynard, also about one-third of the final blend, offer a typically distinctive sample, with bitter cherry, saucisson sec and white pepper aromas, with a long, detailed, cherry-filled finish.

"Reynard is always the soul of the blend," said Clape. "It take the lead because it has serious tannins, fine and elegant minerality plus red and black fruits. It has everything."

The 2010 Cornas Rennaisance sits in foudre awaiting its bottling in the next few weeks. It has dark plum and currant fruit at the core, along with lots of tobacco, roasted cedar and tar notes with a long, muscular finish that shows more heft than usual for this cuvée, meant to be the early-maturing bottling. It's fruit is fleshy and forward, but it has the extra spine of the vintage, and will merit some cellaring when finally released. The 2010 Cornas is a strapping young wine, reminiscent of the awesome 2005. It shows terrific tension and verve, with espresso, tapenade, black currant, tar, graphite and savory herb notes. The finish is loaded with grip and this will be a very serious vin de garde. It is clearly classic in quality and could be the best vintage produced here to date.

From bottle, the 2009 Cornas Rennaisance offers deliciously fresh bright cassis fruit at the core, with sanguine, sandalwood and charcoal notes bouncing off it. It's still open-knit, with nice intensity on the finish, where a violet note peeks in. It's the wine to use to introduce someone to the textbook Cornas profile. The 2009 Cornas is very dark and fleshy, with mouthfilling licorice root, currant paste, crushed fig and tobacco notes all backed by a long, tarry finish. It flirts with flattering because of the vintage profile, but the charcoal-coated spine is all Cornas and keeps this wine grounded in its terroir. It doesn't have quite the intensity of structure of the 2010, but should merit a classic rating nonetheless.

Stéphane Ogier

Though he comes from the generation after Pierre-Marie Clape and has a few less vintages under his belt, Stéphane Ogier is no less skilled at breaking down his vineyards into small components before putting them back together to create a blend that brings everything into focus and balance in the ensuing wine.

This is a domaine that is still in its ascendancy, as Ogier continues to add vineyards and expand his lineup of wines. Stéphane Ogier now has 40 acres of vines, including more than 5 in Côte-Rôtie. He's also producing Condrieu and St.-Joseph and continues to grow his project across the river in Seysseul as well. This was the first time I tasted in his cellar where the barrels were stacked three high instead of two. For background on the domaine, you can reference my blog notes from my last visit in April 2011.

The 2011 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes La Rosine offers a textbook Northern Rhône Syrah profile of pure violet and cassis, with a sleek finish. The 2011 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes L'Âme Sœur has similar depth and length, but a more pronounced sanguine streak with a flash of cherry pit as well.

"For sure, we don't have the richness of '09 and '10," said Ogier. "The fruit and structure makes me think of '06. In '11 the average alcohol in my cellar is 12.5, which is good to see after years of increasing alcohols."

For the 2011 Côte-Rôtie, a sample from the But de Mont lieu-dit offers succulent cherry and Campari notes with silky but persistent structure. From Leyats, the acidity is bouncier and livelier, with an almost crunchy feel, along with dark currant and plum notes. From Besset vines planted in 2000, Ogier kept one-third whole clusters for the fermentation, and the wine shows a succulent feel again, but also extra black tea and dark olive notes that are long and graceful. As his plantings in this parcel continue to come on line, the Besset will total 3.7 acres and form the bulk of the basic Côte-Rôtie bottling.

To show the effects of stems, Ogier drew two samples, both from the Champon lieu-dit and both harvested on the same date, but one fully destemmed, the other only 50 percent destemmed. The destemmed portion is fleshy and inviting with dark, winey fruit, while the partially destemmed lot shows an edgier texture, with more briar, anise and plum skin notes.

"I like stems more and more," said Ogier. "But only from the Côte Brune. In the Côte Blonde parcels, it can be too aggressive. But I always have to think about the blend and to bring some balance between the fruit and vegetal notes. And that goes vintage to vintage as well. So I need to keep doing these kinds of trails to see what the effects are."

The 2011 Côte-Rôtie La Belle Hélène Côte Rozier, which is always with 50 percent of its stems, is very rich for the vintage, with great drive to the blackberry fruit and a long, black-tea filled finish.

"When we put that on the sorting table, we just stood there, like this," said Ogier, moving his head back and forth as if watching the grapes go by, but keeping his hands at his side. "it was perfect. And that's when I was really proud of the work we did in the vineyard. All the leaf plucking and cluster thinning we did. All the fruit we dropped. You know, in great vintages, the vineyard work makes a little difference. In the lesser vintages, the vineyard work makes a big difference."

For the 2011 Côte-Rôtie Lancement Terroir de Blonde, Ogier showed two samples, one from the top of the slope, the other from the bottom. The bottom shows a beefy edge, with darker fruit and a strong charcoal note, while the wine from the top of the parcel shows more refinement, with red fruits, sleek structure and all iron on the finish.

"We picked the top one week after the bottom, but with 0.5 degrees alcohol less, and you can really see the difference," he said.

The 2010 Côte-Rôtie was just bottled but it hasn't yet tightened up, showing a wonderfully velvety mouthfeel, a succulent core of anise, plum and blackberry, and a beautifully perfumed finish with flickers of spice and Lapsang Souchong tea.

In the 2010 vintage, Ogier decided to bottle three additional lieu-dit-based cuvées in addition to the normal two.

"I really, really like the '10," he said, stressing the second "really." The terroir was so strong in each different lot that I could still make the normal blend without hurting quality, and then I could keep three barrels of each (approximately 75 cases) of the other lieux-dits separate as a way to remember them individually.

From the southern Côte Blonde side of the appellation, the 2010 Côte-Rôtie But de Mont is very floral, with lots of pepper and floral notes followed by lively loganberry and red currant fruit. The finish courses with acidity and has laser focus. The 2010 Côte-Rôtie Besset shows it's northern Côte Brune origins, with its strong, muscular edge, dark anise and black currant fruit and lots of iron and sanguine notes on the finish. The 2010 Côte-Rôtie Champon almost gushes with black fruit, but a racy charcoal spine keeps it honest while a mouthwatering pain d'épices note sails through the finish.

Ogier is right: He was able to keep some lots separate without sacrificing the quality of the regular cuvée, as it and the three new parcel bottlings in 2010 all show potentially classic quality.

A step ahead of them, though, is a stunning duo, led by the 2010 Côte-Rôtie Lancement Terroir de Blonde. It starts with a gorgeous charcoal note, then a flash of Lapsang Souchong tea, before letting steeped black currant fruit build. The acidity lends a great spine through the finish, while pastis and violet notes echo. Tighter and darker in profile is the 2010 Côte-Rôtie La Belle Hélène Côte Rozier, whose core of Black Mission fig, anise and espresso is shrouded for now, buried by a wall of tannins. The finish lets hints of tobacco and sweet tapenade chime in, showing a slightly more sauvage side than the Lancement, but it is just as long and suave. Both wines should compete for top honors in the appellation in the vintage.

From the controlled rusticity of Cornas to the refined exuberance of Côte-Rôtie. If I were stuck like Bill Murray in the movie Groundhog Day, I'd take this day.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1.

David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  July 5, 2012 11:39am ET
Hi Matt, a philosophical question, do you think too many great vintages in a row hurts a region? I know this sounds counter-intuitive, but C du P especially has had such a run of great vintages since 1998 that I think a lot of people are starting to get bored with "another great vintage", where in fact that is exactly what it is, another great vintage. I know I have plenty of C du P in my cellar and have taken a hiatus from purchasing more, and that has affected that way I follow the region. When you look at it, the only wash out in the past dozen vingages was 2002 and it now sounds like 2011 will be another top notch vintage. Is this hurting the producers or helping them?
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  July 5, 2012 12:01pm ET
David: I assume you mean me...?

No, I don't think a run of quality vintages can hurt a region. More choice - as vintages vary in style - and consistent quality are only benefits.

What can hurt is pricing. See Bordeaux, where great vintages get bullhorn-blaring hype coupled with escalating prices that seem insensitive to consumers.

But for the most part, the Rhône has not fallen victim to that. Sure, prices are higher than they were ten years ago, but it's been a slow, steady climb, rather than aggressive leaps and bounds.

No, the Rhône is on a roll and I think Rhône lovers are having a blast with it. The crop in '10 is down a bit too, which will only help move the wines through the market...
David A Zajac
Akron, OH —  July 5, 2012 2:07pm ET
Sorry James, yes I meant you. The reason I ask is that I am seeing discounting already on some 2009's, much less fairly substantial price drops on a lot of 2007's compared to a year ago. Maybe its just too much quality wine the world over, or crop size...but agree that with 2010 being a short crop, this will likely not last. Personally have lots of 1998 - 2007, passed entirely on 2008 and only bought a handful of 2009's...I know, 2010 is great.
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  July 5, 2012 2:09pm ET
David: Distributors and retailers don't like to carry inventory, so it's not unusual to see price drops on the '09s now with the '10s coming in - take advantage. Also don't forget the euro continues to slide against the dollar, making prices a little easier at this end...
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  July 6, 2012 8:52pm ET
James, have you noticed any recent trends insofar as varietals being used in southern reds? I have enjoyed numerous southern rhones from different appellations over the last two years, and am finding myself gravitating toward bottlings like Beaucastel's Coudoulet or CdP, in large part because they offer more atypical (and thus more interesting) assemblages relative to the more conventional grenache-syrah offerings from most producers...
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  July 7, 2012 8:43am ET
Ivan: With climate change, many producers are making sure to plant a range of the permitted varieties to ensure balance and complexity in their vineyards and wines down the road - but those are really just little tweaks rather than wholesale changes.

For Beaucastel, Mourvèdre has always been a key component of the blend, along with a handful of other wineries, such as Bois de Boursan, Mas de Boislauzon and St.-Préfert's Charles Giraud cuvée. And some estates, such as Clos des Papes, still blend in all 13 permitted varieties, but after the major three or four (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and maybe Cinsault) the percentages are tiny.

If you like a change of pace, you can try southern Rhônes from some of the vineyards at elevation, such as the Côtes du Rhône-Villages from Séguret, Visan and St.-Maurice, as well as the newly elevated Vinsobres AOC and the Ventoux behind Gigondas. While they still rely primarily on Grenache and Syrah, these areas have more wind and cooler temperatures that result in wines with black fruit flavors but markedly fresh finishes...dig through my old blogs on Domaine Mourchon, Domaine La Florane, Hubert Valayer, Philippe Gimel and Chene Bleu for more info...

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