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Conundrum in Cornas?

Per-Henrik Mansson
Posted: February 3, 2000

Conundrum in Cornas?

By Per-Henrik Mansson, senior editor

What used to be sold as Domaine Clape's Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Spéciale is now released under the Cornas appellation.

But wait a moment. How can a simple Côtes du Rhône be uplifted to Cornas, which is one of the Rhône Valley's loftiest appellation? Surely, Gerard and Pierre Clape are up to something.

Not so. Read on and you'll get an idea of French bureaucracy at work.

The Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Spéciale, in fact, is wine that came from young Cornas vines. The Clapes didn't want to blend the grapes from these young vines into their regular Cornas, which is made with the richer fruit from the old vines. So they made this Côtes du Rhône.

Actually, the Clapes could have bottled the wine from the young vines as Cornas all along. Now the authorities have given them no choice, so the Clapes have created this second Cornas label, named Renaissance. The old-vine wine remains, as always, a simply labelled Cornas.

Domaine Auguste Clape is well-known as a staunchly traditional winery, where oak barrels are eschewed in favor of large wood vats (known as "foudres"). Gerard Clape, 74, and son Pierre, 49, always seek to make a powerful, rich and tannic Cornas that needs five to 10 years to soften in top vintages. The '97 Cornas is a "terroir"-driven Syrah that rated outstanding (92, $42) and the 1996 Cornas (96, $35) ranked No.3 on Wine Spectator's Top 100 list of wines released in 1998.

The best-exposed and oldest vines of the Clapes' 11.1 acre (mostly) hillside vineyard go into their Cornas bottle (1,600 cases made, 300 case shipped to the United States). One third of the wine comes from vines that are 60 years old, one third from 40-year-old vines and one third from 20-year-old vines.

But old vines must be replaced when they get too old, and the Clapes expand every year by planting new vines. So, the Clapes' vineyard has young vines too. And since 1992, it's the fruit from these vines that the Clapes have used to make their Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Spéciale.

It was always kind of an insider's item. Pierre Clape said he didn't want to make a big fuss that this Côtes du Rhône was actually from Cornas. But in blind tastings this wine sure stood out among the other Côtes du Rhônes. For instance, the 1996 Clape Côtes du Rhône Cuvée Spéciale (90, $19) is a hedonistic red with ripe berries and smoke and floral complexity (see Rhône tasting report, in the Dec. 15 issue).

In 1997, however, the Clapes had to change the labelling of their wine after French authorities made it clear that they would start enforcing a set of rules that had gathered dust in the bureaucrats' offices in Paris.

Pierre Clape said the authorities left him no choice. The Clapes were afraid that they could no longer expand their vineyards. In 10 years, they've planted an additional 2.5 acres.

Their concern was well-founded. To receive the right to expand in an appellation, a winemaker must show that he's bottling all the wine he makes in that area. Since the Clapes didn't bottle all their Cornas as Cornas (but bottled some of it as Côtes du Rhône), the authorities could have concluded that the Clapes didn't need to expand their production of Cornas. Now, the Clapes have preempted the authorities from preventing them to expand.

And this is why the Clapes dropped the Côtes du Rhône label and bottled their '97 young-vine wine as the Cornas Renaissance. This second Cornas label rated 88 points in a recent tasting of '97s; one fourth of the 400-case production is imported to the United States.

French winemakers often complain they spend more energy on haggling with bureaucrats and silly rules than doing what they do best: tending vineyards and making wine.

They've a point.

This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives.

(And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns written just for the Web, visit Laube on Wine.)

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