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stirring the lees with james molesworth

Finishing Where I Started

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Nov 15, 2007 11:43am ET

On this trip, I finished up where I started. My final visit was in Cornas again, this time with Jean-Luc and Anne Colombo. Before tasting though, I headed out into the brisk mistral with Cyril Courvoisier, the young vineyard manager for Jean-Luc Colombo, and Julien Revillon, who manages just about everything else for the hyperkinetic Colombo.

We hiked our way through some nasty thickets and come upon some long-abandoned terraces. Courvoisier, 26, has been charged with the task of clearing and replanting these terraces that sit a healthy 350 meters above sea level. The mistral really cuts like a knife up here, but the exposure is full south, so despite the blasting wind, the sun is bright. Still, with the poor, sandy granite soils, you wonder how anything can thrive here, but as you look around, green oaks and wild herbs seem to be doing just fine, and you realize that Syrah vines will be joining them soon. While the vineyards of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are all planted and well charted at this point, Cornas is still in transition, with new vineyards slowly taking root and some excellent terroir still being unearthed.

Colombo is the modernist of Cornas. After arriving in 1984, he shook things up by using stainless steel tanks and clean, new oak barrels with his first vintage, 1987. Cornas, known for its rugged persona (both its vignerons and wines) resisted for a while. But with a generation of old-school vignerons now recently retired—Marcel Juge, Noël Verset, Jean Lionnet, and Robert Michel—there are openings. And they are quickly being filled by young vignerons who have synthesized a bit of Colombo with a bit of the remaining old guard, producers such as Thierry Allemand and Pierre-Marie Clape. Colombo’s style may not be for everyone, but he deserves a lot of credit for helping to bring Cornas into the modern wine world. Plus, despite his modern image, Colombo is a true terroirist at heart, and he’s working hard to push Cornas to the same level as Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.

Colombo, along with most of the appellation, excelled in 2004. Cornas has a knack for performing well in vintages when the rest of the valley doesn’t, which may partially be why the appellation is so often overlooked (think 2001 as well). As for the 2005, Cornas is in lock step with the vintage, producing ripe, well-structured reds that will benefit from extended cellaring. It may be Colombo’s strongest set of wines to date.

Colombo’s trio of Cornas bottlings is set to expand (more on that below) but, as usual, the portfolio starts with the 2005 Cornas Terres Brûlées, sourced from purchased fruit and rented vineyards. It’s very strong, with kirsch and sweet spice notes and a long, gravelly undertow. The 2005 Cornas Les Ruchets is sourced from a parcel of 90-year-old vines that benefits from a southeastern exposure. The wine is very taut and minerally now, with a strong chalky spine and mouthwatering acidity. The 2005 Cornas La Louvée is sourced from 75-year-old vines with full south exposure, the benefit being additional afternoon sunlight that results in a more powerful wine than the Les Ruchets. The '05 sports a gorgeous core of red currant layered with blazing minerality, sweet tapenade and roasted game bird notes. The two wines should provide a great tandem of cellar-worthy Cornas. Colombo has also added a new cuvée, the 2005 Cornas Force One, of which just two barrels were made. It is sourced from the Verset lieu-dit, a terraced parcel located above the Rochpertuis lieu-dit. Colombo has long wanted to bottle the fruit from these 60-year-old vines separately (they previously went into the Terres Brûlées bottling), and finally felt in '05 that the vintage was strong enough to do so. The wine is really dark, with black forest cake, fig, plum sauce, chalk, graphite, sage and bay leaf notes backed by massive structure. Along with the La Louvée, it’s potentially classic in quality. (Note: The 2005s have just been released to the marketplace, formal reviews based on official blind tastings will appear soon.)

The rugged terraces of Cornas are now being used by a new generation of vignerons who have combined modernity and tradition.

In 2006, the line expands even further, with the return of the 2006 Cornas Les Méjeans. This cuvée stopped after the 2001 vintage, but it will now contain a selection of the purchased fruit culled from what used to go into the Terres Brûlées bottling. It will see only a one year élevage (as opposed to the two years the other cuvées receive) and, consequently, it shows a fresher profile, with briar, kirsch and pepper notes. With the Les Méjeans bottling returning, the selection for the 2006 Cornas Terres Brûlées becomes stricter (and it will include fruit from nearly three hectares of vines in Rochepertuis, rented from Jean Lionnet)), resulting in a juicy, sappy wine filled with black cherry, dark olive and cassis bush notes. The 2006 Cornas Les Ruchets is really driven, with blackberry and tapenade notes and a slightly chewy finish, while the 2006 Cornas La Louvée offers sage bush, logan berry and linzer torte notes followed by a long finish loaded with fruit and garrigue. The whole set of '06s is really lively, with a mouthwatering edge. “Acidity is never a problem in Cornas,” said Anne Colombo. (Note: No Force One cuvée was produced in '06.)

In addition to Colombo’s Cornas bottlings, the portfolio here also includes outstanding négociant reds and whites from Côte-Rôtie, Crozes-Hermitage, St.-Joseph, St.-Péray and Hermitage along with some solid Côtes du Rhône bottlings (the Les Forots bottling in particular, from Syrah vines planted just outside the Cornas appellation). A tireless worker with a burgeoning consulting business (his clients stretch from Sicily to the Languedoc and Bordeaux), Jean-Luc is a dynamic winemaker. His wife, Anne, also deserves a lot of the credit for the wines—she minds the store while Jean-Luc juggles a heavy travel and hunting schedule.

All in all, it was another superb visit to the region. I tasted at nearly three dozen domaines in 10 days, and got a great read on the '06 vintage, plus a fun sneak peek at '07. In addition, the remaining '05s not yet released only confirm my impression of this vintage as well. I'll file a formal report on the vintages soon, and in the meantime, feel free to let me know what Rhône wines you've had recently.

Scott Volmer
Davis, CA —  November 27, 2007 9:40pm ET
James:I noticed your description in Cornas of "nasty thickets, long-abandoned terraces that sit a healthy 350 meters above sea level. Poor, sandy granite soils, yet green oaks and wild herbs... I have a parcel in the Sierra foothills at 470 meters that suits those descriptors to a tee. I gather very little about the real effect of soil and weather in wine writing, do you think Cornas is a good place to see in forming an analog for my future vinyard? Do you have any others come to mind? As an example, I was shocked how closely parts of Tuscany resemble our property, what to make of it? Many thanks...
James Molesworth
November 28, 2007 9:19am ET
Scott: It's fascinating how sometimes similar soils and exposures can be found around the world, yet the wines produced from these spots are totally different. That's because everything from rainfall (the French can't irrigate their vineyards while other countries can) to wind, amount of sunlight, diurnal temperature swings (difference between day and night) and more all affect the character of the final wine. And there's no way all of those factors can be identical in different areas. Similar yes, but never identical...

So yes, you should definitely get around and see other spots in the wine world...from Cornas and Colchagua to the Voor-Paardeberg, there's a lot worth seeing to draw inspiration from.

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