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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Day 2: More Cornas

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 31, 2007 12:15pm ET

Cornas is a fascinating little appellation. At 110 hectares it’s smaller than Hermitage, and has long lived in the shadow of the more famous hill across the river. But there’s a sea change going on now, with a new generation of vignerons producing some exciting wines. I’ve noted this trend in my coverage previously, but I finally got to meet some of the people behind it on this trip—starting with Eric Durand and Mathieu Barret yesterday, and continuing with Vincent Paris today.

Paris, 33, is the nephew of Robert Michel, one of the town’s traditional old guard vignerons who retired after the 2006 vintage. Paris has bought some of his uncle’s vines to add to his own—he started his domaine with a 1-hectare purchase in 1997 (1 hectare equals 2.47 acres). Despite his young age, Paris is already the head of the local vigneron syndicate, and has helped lead the movement against the recent urbanization plan in town that would have bulldozed 3.5 hectares of vines.

Paris worked at the former J.L. Grippat estate (since bought by Guigal) as well as with Laurent Courbis and his uncle Robert Michel before starting on his own. He destems the grapes partially, varying on vintage and the parcel’s vine age, does a one week cold soak and uses minimal doses of sulfur. Fermentation takes place in cement vats before being moved to barrels. Malolactic can happen either in vat or barrel; whenever it starts, it starts.

The wines then age for one year before being assembled into the final blend and bottled. No new oak is used on the reds, though he uses a touch on his whites. The domaine produced 1,665 cases in 2006 and increased to 2,000 in 2007. Paris sends 15 percent of his wines to the U.S. market, and this is a domaine to watch.

The white wine is a vin de table, made from a blend of Viognier and Marsanne vines that are within the Cornas appellation. The 2006 vintage (though no vintage is allowed on a vin de table label) is the first for the wine, called Granit Blanc. It’s fat and forward, with bold peach and apricot aromas and flavors.

There are four red cuvées, starting with a Merlot from the Vin de Pays de l’Ardeche, which offer plump smoke, herb and plum flavors. The AOC wines start with a 2006 St.-Joseph, made from 10-year-old vines located 30 km north of Cornas. It has pungent lavender, iron and violet notes, with a nice racy beam of black cherry fruit.

“2006 is less concentrated than ’05, but with more perfume,” noted Paris.

The two Cornas cuvées are named for the various parcels' approximate vine age and their relative position on the slopes of Cornas. Using younger vines and from parcels lower on the slope, the 2006 Cornas Granit 30 is pure and racy, with precise minerality, while the 2006 Cornas Granit 60, from older vines at higher elevation, is packed with brawny, dark fruit, solid muscle and notes of chestnut backed by vibrant acidity.

Of course, growers like Paris, Barret and Durand would not be where they are today without the previous generation, producers like Thierry Allemand, Alain Voge and Auguste Clape. So I visited those domaines today as well.

With a salt-and-pepper beard and close-cut gray hair, Allemand takes on a professorial look. At 44 years old, he’s still young, but he has 24 vintages already under his belt, having started his own domaine from scratch in 1982.

“It wasn’t expensive then,” said Allemand dryly. “Today, it’s not so easy to get started.”

As is typical of Cornas domaines, Allemand’s is small, just 5 hectares. He produces less than 1,200 cases per year and sends a scant 150 or so cases to the U.S. market. But if you’re a lover of brawny, traditionally made Syrah and you see some Allemand on sale, pounce.

Allemand ferments in a mix of stainless steel and open-top wood fermentors, uses all of the stems and punches down by hand.

“Stems are an important antioxidant and they give natural tannins,” said Allemand, who considers ’91 and ’01 his best vintages.

Though he only has a few hectares of vines, they are spread over numerous small parcels, which he divides along vine age. Younger vine lots go into the Cornas Chaillot cuvée, older vines (40 years and up) go into the Cornas Reynard. The lots are kept separate for 24 months in barrel and foudre before the final blend and bottling. Consequently we tasted through various lots of the 2006 vintage, with the young vine parcels showing more perfume, red fruits and tangy acidity as opposed to the black fruit, game, iron and intense tannins of the old vine parcels.

The 2005s have been assembled and will be bottled shortly. The 2005 Cornas Chaillot is floral and pliant in the mouth, filled with kirsch, pepper, chalk and herb notes. The 2005 Cornas Reynard is really taut but offers great length, with a long, stony undertow carrying grilled herb and a mix of red and black fruit notes. Both are easily outstanding, with the Reynard flirting with classic quality.

Domaine Alain Voge is one of the leaders in Cornas. The domaine has survived with an injection of outside capital and expertise.

In keeping with his minimalist, traditional approach, Allemand has a third cuvée, labeled simply Cornas, which he produces without the addition of sulfur (and referred to as sans soufre). Both a 2001 and 2004 were made, and while Allemand admits such a technique is “a risk, sure, a big risk," the bottled wine shows the essence of sweet kirsch fruit with cherry pit and floral notes on the very long finish. “The wine is finer, the most elegant, which is what I prefer,” he said. Allemand represents artisan winemaking at its most basic.

Located just off the main road through town, Domaine Alain Voge is another long-standing property in Cornas. Alain Voge has taken on investors and help in order to keep his domaine going, though he remains involved on a day-to-day basis. Winemaker Albéric Mazoyer is one of the new part owners (along with Michel Chapoutier), and counts a decade of experience at Maison Chapoutier on his résumé.

While still a reference point for Cornas, Voge is also committed to the white wines of St.-Péray, just to the south, where granite and limestone soils mix, and the Marsanne grape produces fat but bright, mineral-driven wines. There are three cuvées: the Harmonie which is made all in stainless steel, and the Terres Boisées (formerly Cuvée Boisée) and Fleur de Crussol which are both barrel fermented. They are tight after bottling, but after a year’s bottle age all three cuvées open up to show bright white flower, peach and mineral notes with fresh, creamy textures, the Fleur de Crussol being the most powerful of the three.

Three Cornas cuvées headline the red wine portfolio, with the 2006 Cornas Les Chailles coming first. It’s fresh, with red berry fruit and a nice briary grip to the finish. The 2006 Cornas Les Vieilles Vignes is tauter, with mixed berry fruit, tangy minerality and a chalky spine that needs to stretch out more. The top cuvée, the 2006 Cornas Les Vieilles Fontaines, from a single parcel of the domaine’s oldest vines, is typically a big step up from the first two cuvées (though in ’03 and ’04 that difference was minimal), offering noticeably darker, juicier fruit, crunchy acidity and a long, structured finish.

Just across the Route National is the cellar of Auguste Clape, one of the great names in Cornas. His son, Pierre-Marie, 57, is now in charge, and is in turn joined by his son, Olivier. Pierre-Marie left his business in Valence to work by his father’s side starting in the 1988 vintage, and everything he knows about Cornas comes from that relationship, as opposed to formal winemaking school. The domaine totals just 7 hectares, producing just over 2,000 cases annually, though a solid 30 percent comes to the U.S. market.

The two Cornas cuvées are fermented in cement vat along with a large percentage of stems. Various parcels are kept separate in foudres and are then blended after 14 months, before being moved back to foudre for an additional four months before bottling.

The 2006 Cornas Renaissance (from young vines) and 2006 Cornas are still in their various parts, but show the bright, fresh acidity and piercing fruit of the vintage. The 2005 cuvées, which have been bottled for a few months, are superb young wines. The 2005 Cornas Renaissance shows a chewy wheat biscuit edge along with chestnut, earth and black fruit notes that will need time to round into form.

“The Renaissance is usually for early pleasure, but in ’05 ...,” said Clape, trailing off with a shrug and a chuckle.

The 2005 Cornas, bottled in July, offers a gorgeous nose of hoisin sauce along with flavors of blueberry and fig compote, graphite and mesquite, with a long, tarry, authoritative finish packed with ironlike grip. It’s clearly classic in quality, and should be among the best wines ever made at this domaine.

While Allemand, Voge and Clape could easily rest on their laurels, or shrug off the dynamics of the new generation of vignerons, they have instead welcomed them into the fold. Pierre Clape summed it up best when I asked him about the new crop of vignerons in town, responding, “They have learned and they have integrated, but they have their own style too. And we need that. We don’t have a big house here to give us fame, like Guigal in Côte-Rôtie."

Tomorrow I begin to break out of Cornas, as I head into St.-Joseph and Hermitage ...

David A Zajac
November 1, 2007 3:30pm ET
Like I said yesterday about Paris and Allemand, these guys are making some great wine.

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