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Cornas' Weekend Warrior

Jérôme Despesse is doing a lot with a little in Cornas when he isn't selling corks
Photo by: James Molesworth
Jérôme Despesse's small operation is serious business in Cornas.

Posted: Dec 2, 2013 12:00pm ET

Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France, visiting select domaines of the Northern Rhône Valley, tasting the 2012 vintage and more in Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Hermitage and Cornas.

Jérôme Despesse

On my last day in the Rhône for this trip, I made my first ever stop at the tiny cellar of Jérôme Despesse. So tiny, we met first in front of the church so that he could show me the way. Being the 11th of November, there was an Armistice ceremony being conducted in front of the mairie, and after he finished shaking hands with a few friends, Despesse and I headed off down one of Cornas' tiny side streets.

Despesse is what you might call a weekend warrior when it comes to winemaking. His main gig is handling Amorim cork sales in the Rhône. In his spare time he manages about an acre of vines, and the cellar has just two small vats.

"One for Cornas and one for Côtes du Rhône. Easy," said Despesse, who has a few flecks of gray at the temples and steely eyes offset by a jovial face. "I might get a little extra help with the vines in summer—my brother-in-law on Saturdays. But otherwise the guys in Cornas call guys like me 'vignerons du Dimanche.'"

Despesse makes no more than 300 cases annually. The Cornas is partially destemmed, fermented in stainless steel and then pressed in an old vertical wooden press before the élevage in barrel. The family vines were planted by Despesse's grandfather, who made a little wine for home consumption while selling the rest off to négociants. Despesse's father then bottled the first commercial vintage in 1991 before Jérôme joined in '99, eventually exporting a small amount to the U.S. market starting with the 2005 vintage.

"Wine is between a job and a hobby for me," said Despesse who noted that he learned just from watching his father and from being in contact with his clients from the cork business.

The 2012 Côtes du Rhône is entirely destemmed and aged for just 12 months in used barrels. It's bold, with blackberry and black cherry fruit flavors and nice flecks of white pepper and anise. The finish is juicy and mouthfilling, a style that pervades the Cornas as well. The 2012 Cornas is sourced from vines entirely in the La Côte lieu-dit, with a full south exposure. Aged for 14 months before bottling, it's brambly in feel overall, with a saturated core of plum and currant fruit. It's big and juicy but stays fresh enough, with ripe tannins lending cut and definition.

While small domaines can be faced with economic pressures in difficult years, Despesse has a decidedly different approach. Unhappy with his '11, he decided to not release a Cornas at all.

"This isn't my first job, so it's easier for me to say 'no' if I feel the wine is not right," he said flatly.

The 2010 Cornas is also very briary and energetic in feel, a bigger version of the '12. It's got an intense core of blackberry compote along with a slightly rugged finish that sports singed cedar and olive notes. The 2009 Cornas (originally rated 92 points on release) shows the open, fleshy, flattering style of the vintage, with engaging plum coulis and blackberry notes and a bouncy olive paste hint on the finish.

For perspective, Despesse opened a bottle of his 2005 Cornas, which has a tarry edge that's just started to soften, along with notes of charcoal, plum sauce and warm tobacco. It still has plenty of flesh despite the bottle age, with solid but integrated grip holding the finish.

He may be just a weekend warrior, but Despesse is making a pretty serious Cornas.

Nicolas Serrette

Another of Cornas' small domaines, with a cellar located down a dead-end alley, is Dumien-Serrette (the wines are labeled Dumien-Serrette in other markets, Nicolas Serrette for the U.S. bottling). You can reference background on this estate from my 2010 blog notes.

As at chez Despesse, there are just a few vines here—4.5 acres in total—and all in a single lieu-dit, in this case the Patou parcel at the southern end of the village. Nicolas, 42, works alongside his father, Gilbert, 67. Both are cut from the same mold, moving with the same gait and speaking quickly but clearly. Neither spits much during the tasting either.

The duo still sell some juice to micro-négociants such as Tardieu-Laurent, but a row of barrels in the cellar will eventually be blended for the 2012 Cornas Patou. There are typically just about 400 cases of the wine made, with 50 slated for the U.S. market, and winemaking here is very straightforward, with destemmng, fermentation and malo in cement vat and then 18 months of barrel aging. Sulphur additions are very low here, usually just 1.5 grams per liter (3 grams is normal, 5 grams could be considered high).

"Just enough to maintain sanitary conditions, but not too much or you lose color and freshness in the wines," said Nicolas.

The first barrel we sampled shows a hint of reduction, but there's also a pure blast of kirsch and plum and very energetic acidity. A chalky spine is nicely buried on the finish. The second barrel delivers a nice sappy cherry paste core with a sleek iron note on the finish, while the third barrel in the row offers a softer feel overall, with blackberry and raspberry fruit notes and a perfumy white pepper note on the finish.

The 2011 Cornas Patou was bottled back in February and it's recovered from the mis, showing a slightly softer profile than any of the samples destined for the '12. t's still vivid though, with engaging blackberry coulis, bay and olive notes and a mouthwatering ping of iron at the every end.

The wine style here is in a similar vein to Despesse—briary, juicy, mouthfilling—as opposed to the stolid, tannic style of A. Clape, the slightly modern polish of Colombo or blazing minerality of Domaine du Coulet (see below). It won't be easy to find either, but it is worth the search.

Domaine du Coulet

Matthieu Barret, 38, has really settled in. I felt like he had started to settle in during my most recent visit in 2010, though even then he was still tinkering a little with his winemaking—different types of vats for fermenting or aging, for example. In the past he would also often talk about the direction he was looking for but hadn't found yet. This time he seemed really comfortable, confident and focused. He still has his standard issue Cornas beard, his infectious laugh, and doesn't mince his words about other wines in Cornas. But this once budding domaine is now a fully realized estate with a clearly demarcated style of wine for Cornas. Domaine du Coulet is the new paradigm for minerally Northern Rhône Syrah.

Barret's holdings now stand at an ample (for Cornas) 34 acres. He's also added a négociant portion as well, which includes some whites and a Côte-Rôtie. For this visit though, we focused on the estate Cornas bottlings.

"For me Cornas is elegant, fine—not rustic. That 'classic' style of Cornas is dead for me," said Barret emphatically as we headed down to the cellar to taste. "I don't want rough tannins. I want ripe tannins."

The 2012 Cornas Brise Cailloux is typically destemmed fruit (save for the 2011, which was 40 percent whole cluster fermented), fermented half in stainless steel and half in concrete vat, then aged in demi-muid (600-liter barrels) and concrete eggs. It is still in its component parts though the pre-blending has begun, so samples drawn from demi-muid are no longer single lots, but mixes of both fruit from various lieux-dits as well as parcels of differing vine age. A portion of vines from the lower slope of Cornas produces a fruity component, loaded with pastis and plum flavors and a very vivid iron note. From the middle slope, including both young and older vines, the wine shows a higher-pitched profile, with a more pronounced iron note, a pebbly feel and a brisker finish. The last demi-muid holds the power part of the cuvée, according to Barret. From vines in the Arlette lieu-dit planted in 1956 and with a rare northeast exposure, it delivers a single, vivid bolt of pure, unadulterated blackberry liqueur with a very sleek feel.

"For the Brise Cailloux, I want fresher, crunchier fruit," said Barret animatedly. "The key is to pick just before really big maturity. I want a straighter, brighter wine, but no green notes, just freshness."

The Terrasses du Serre cuvée has been dropped after the 2009 vintage, which I view as another sign of Barret's more streamlined approach and growing confidence.

"Terrasses du Serre was stuck in the middle between the Brise Cailloux and Billes Noires (the top cuvée). My way of winemaking is instinctive. And if I can't see where something is going, I don't want to do it," he said.

Portions of the 2012 Cornas Billes Noires typically show more depth than the Brise Cailloux, and the first lot is no exception, with a similar pebbly feel but more concentrated kirsch fruit at the core and denser grip through the finish. The second lot shows a sappy core, with plum eau de vie and iron mixed together. It's all spine today. A young-vine lot being aged in concrete eggs delivers a plume of white pepper aroma, along with bitter cherry and plum fruit and again that distinctly pebbly feel.

"For the Billes Noires I want bigger maturity but with lots of minerality too. I'm not afraid of ripeness, but I want stronger minerality if that is the case, for balance. Not that Brise Cailloux can't age, but for me the Billes Noires is the one meant for aging," said Barret.

There's more good news from this domaine too: More wine is coming, and not just from purchased grapes or the growing négociant part. Yields here are going up, after several withering years with decreasing yields; 2010 had seen a frightening drop to less than 1 ton per acre. While lower yields are better for concentration and complexity of fruit, too low yields indicates a problem with the health of the vineyard itself, not to mention putting a severe squeeze on the economic side of the ledger.

"We were using biodynamic compost [from cows], but with no clay in our soils, the ground wasn't absorbing it," said Barret, about the process that led him to figure out the issue. "Because the granite soils are so poor, they don't have the microorganisms to digest cow manure. So we sowed some grass to boost organic life, which then allowed it to digest compost. But we switched to sheep compost, which is local from the area, unlike the cow compost, and it's also easier to break down. We saw results right away after making that change and yields have gone back up to 1.5 to 1.8 tons per acre in 2011 and 2012."

The limited-production cuvée here is the 2012 Cornas Gore, not made in every vintage (only 2011, 2009 and 2007 previously) and bottled only in magnum. It's made from a parcel of old vines with northeast exposure located on extremely poor, sandy granitic soil, known locally as "gore." The fruit is fermented and aged in cement eggs and the wine is all tension and cut, with the aroma of freshly seared beef liberally coated with white pepper and backed by a long, bitter cherry note that is extremely racy in feel through the finish.

"Fresh but powerful wines, that's what I want," said Barret. "Maybe I'm alone in that idea. But if so, that's OK. I'll just drink them myself," he added before breaking into laughter again.

In its short history, the Gore bottling has become one of the most exciting and distinctive wines, not only in Cornas, but in all of the Northern Rhône, and I couldn't have had a better ending to my itinerary of visits here this time around.

All that's left is to pack, finish off my trip with one last dinner at Le Mangevins (my favorite spot in Tain l'Hermitage) and then start the long day of travel home in the morning.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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