Cornas is a picturesque French village with a clutch of houses lining small, winding streets and a 19th-century church at its center. Though National Route 86 knifes through part of it, Cornas remains a sleepy little town. Instead of a large open market, a single charcuterie van stops by once a week.
This obscurity has extended to its wines, long overshadowed by those of the famous Northern Rhône appellations of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie. The town's mayor even proposed rezoning parts of Cornas in order to expand residential building, and ripping up 8.6 acres of vines in the process. That urbanization plan was eventually put on hold thanks to a vociferous and united opposition from the town's vignerons. But the sting is still being felt.
"Our own mayor . . . " says Albéric Mazoyer, winemaker and co-owner of Domaine Alain Voge. "Can you imagine that [happening] in Bordeaux, Burgundy or Champagne? Our own mayor doesn't even appreciate the future of Cornas."
Cornas has enjoyed several successful vintages in recent years—not only in 2005, when the whole Rhône Valley excelled, but also, thanks to its unique climate, in 2001 and 2004, when it outperformed its neighbors. Add to that a wave of talented young producers supported by a core of experienced vintners with deep roots in the area, and Cornas appears ready for its turn in the spotlight.
The Cornas appellation covers somewhat more than 250 acres, compared with 330 for Hermitage and 555 for Côte-Rôtie. Situated on steep slopes at elevations that climb to 350 meters, the terraced vineyards of Cornas are rugged and windswept.
Cornas is not a singular, imposing hill, as is Hermitage, nor is it spread along a strip of land that runs parallel to the Rhône, like Côte-Rôtie. Instead, it's a set of steep hills that rises above the western edge of town and extends just 2 miles from end to end. These hills are threaded with tiny, winding streams and precipitous, narrow roads and are covered with terraced vineyards.
Sandy, decomposed granite is the dominant soil type, though limestone and clay can be found in several areas, along with soil types of differing depths and pebbles of various sizes. Seen from the village, the vineyards of Cornas seem clustered together, but their various exposures sweep over a quarter of the compass, ranging from east to southwest.
Cornas became an AOC in 1938, during the nascent years of France's Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée system. The region has a long history. It comprised 370 vineyard acres in the early 19th century. But a slow recovery after the 19th-century phylloxera menace left Cornas a shell of its former self; in 1948, just 17 acres of vines remained.
In 1970, there were 123 vineyard acres, with only 15 independent winegrowers bottling their own wine and an equal number of négociants dealing in Cornas wine. During the late 1980s, the region continued to grow—by Cornas standards—and by 1990 the appellation totaled 220 acres and 20 independent growers. Today Cornas comprises more than 250 acres of vines, and 30 growers bottle their own wine. But there is still no official appellation map that outlines the various vineyard parcels—part and parcel of the appellation's frontier image.
Scrambling down a vineyard slope with Cyril Courvoisier—the young vineyard manager for Jean-Luc Colombo who is working to clear and replant vines on some long-abandoned terraces—you wonder how anything can thrive here. But Syrah vines do just that.
For a wine to be labeled Cornas, it must be 100 percent Syrah—no Marsanne or Roussanne as in Hermitage, nor any Viognier, which makes its way into some Côte-Rôtie bottlings.
Differences in terroir contribute markedly to the distinctive characters of wines from these three appellations. Côte-Rôties are known for their elegant intensity, Hermitages for their concentration and length. In contrast, the wines of Cornas have historically been far more rustic than the silky reds produced across the river and farther north.
That rusticity has been both a defining profile and a burden. While some producers, such as A. Clape, have been producing great wine for more than a generation, others have struggled to achieve a balance between structure and fruit.
"Everywhere you look in the world, granite soils produce the best, most elegant Syrahs," says Mazoyer. "So why then is our reputation one of rustic wines? It has to be because of the vinification."
Cornas is hardly a prosperous village. It has taken longer for its vignerons to extricate themselves from selling the majority of their grapes to négociants who typically blended different parcels, often indifferently, into larger cuvées. Capital improvements in the cellar have also been slow to come to Cornas, with many vignerons relying on old oak storage vessels whose hygiene was questionable. Twenty years ago, overtly gamy notes and rustic tannins characterized many Cornas wines.
This flavor profile was typically written off as the result of terroir: The appellation is rustic, so the wines are rustic. But when pharmacist-turned-winemaker Jean-Luc Colombo arrived in Cornas in 1984, he set out to change that reputation with modern vinification techniques.
Colombo, who completed his first Cornas vintage in 1987, destemmed his grapes, fermented his wines in temperature-controlled, stainless-steel tanks and used new oak barrels for the élevage—all heretical concepts for Cornas at the time. Colombo even used Bordeaux-shaped bottles rather than traditional, slope-shouldered, Burgundy-style bottles. Some Cornas vignerons took Colombo's iconoclastic ideas and methods as a sign of arrogance and as a slap in the face for the appellation.
His wines were a radical departure from typical Cornas bottlings, showing the influence of oak when young. Over time, however, the new-style wines' terroir began to show through, though not every bottling was a success, proving that more than just changes in vinification were needed to harness the potential of Cornas.
Colombo's new ideas were met with antipathy in some quarters of Cornas, which had long been dominated by a small group of staunchly traditional producers including Noël Verset, Marcel Juge and Robert Michel. The wounds apparently run deep, as even today the mention of Colombo's name can elicit the word "catastrophe" from members of the old guard.
"It's a Bordeaux vinification," one vigneron says of Colombo's methods. "It might as well be a New World wine—it's not Cornas."
But while tradition is tough to break, Colombo got a foothold in the appellation with help from an unexpected source: Alain Voge. Voge, 68, has worked nearly 50 vintages and is among the leaders of Cornas. With no children interested in continuing the family domaine, Voge turned to outside investors, including Mazoyer and Michel Chapoutier.
Encouraging the Cornas newcomer was a move characteristic of Voge, who, like Clape, follows his own traditions without casting aspersions on other people's ideas. Though he did not agree entirely with Colombo's techniques, he nonetheless saw a vigneron with passion for the appellation, and he extended a helping hand to Colombo, who was scraping together small parcels of vines to form his domaine.
"Your choices are co-ops, négociants or domaines," says Voge of his decision to help Colombo. "I'd rather have domaines [in Cornas]."
Through the remainder of the '90s, with Colombo's wines on one side and those of traditionalists on the other, Cornas had a distinctly split personality.
"In the past, the style was Clape or Colombo," says Eric Durand, whose eponymous domaine is situated just north of Cornas in the even smaller town of Châteaubourg. "But now you have a lot in the middle."
That's because as the older generation of vignerons—Noël Verset, Alain Juge, Robert Michel and Jean Lionnet among them—has slowly but surely moved into retirement, the new generation of vig-nerons has filled the ranks. And rather than choose sides, they're crafting wines by drawing aspects from both camps and synthesizing them into their own style.
As with Voge aiding Colombo, the new generation has gotten help from one of the deans of the appellation, Pierre-Marie Clape of A. Clape. Instead of shunning new ideas, Clape has also extended a helping hand to the new vignerons. In a step that's both symbolic and consequential, Clape recently stepped down after serving for 14 years as president of the local growers' syndicate. Vincent Paris now shares the role with Jacques Lemencier, another local vinegrower.
With his thick beard and gravelly accent, Clape is the epitome of old-school Cornas. He learned while working alongside his father, Auguste, before assuming control of the domaine in 1988. During his tenure, Clape has continued to produce the ageworthy and powerfully built wines loaded with dark fruit, tar and olive notes that Auguste pioneered. While gaining a near cultlike following for his wines, Clape has also earned the respect of his fellow vignerons on both sides of the appellation's divide. "He's the only one who can get along with everyone in town," says one Cornas vigneron.
As for the newcomer Paris, his eponymous domaine is representative of the amalgamation of styles now taking hold in Cornas. Though he doesn't use new oak on his reds, he makes sure to rotate out barrels after using them for at the most five years, feeling hygiene in the wood is critical.
"My uncle had barrels he used for 20 years," says Paris, 33, with a bit of a sigh. Paris' uncle Robert Michel typically produced wildly sauvage wines until his retirement after the 2006 vintage. They featured overtly gamy character, frequently enhanced by brettanomyces, a spoilage yeast that can lodge in older barrels if cleanliness is not maintained. As one Cornas vigneron notes, "You can argue about new oak or not. But you can't argue about clean oak."
Other new producers in the appellation include Matthieu Barret, who farms biodynamically and is making some thrilling reds at his Domaine du Coulet, and Stéphane Robert and his promising Domaine du Tunnel. Laurent Courbis, arguably the most experienced of the new generation of vignerons, hit his stride in the 2005 vintage as well, producing his best wines to date.
This is an exciting time for Cornas, a small appellation that has long been overlooked. But what may seem like a sudden lurch into modernity to the casual observer is actually the result of a generation of work. "It's an evolution," says Durand about the shift. "Not a revolution."
Senior editor James Molesworth is Wine Spectator's lead taster on the wines of the Rhône Valley.
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