Winemaker Jean-Luc Colombo, 50, jokes that he's a bit of a Rhône outcast since he relies on modern techniques in one of France's most traditional wine regions. At the same time, it's hard to imagine where the Rhône would be without him, since Colombo was among the first to travel outside the area and not only aggressively market his own wines, but also tell the story of the entire region. Colombo grew up in a family of cooks, so he knew about food and wine early on, but at first he chose to be a pharmacist instead. It was a short-lived career move; he purchased his parcels of vines in the 247-acre Cornas region in 1986. From that humble start, he now makes his small-production, sought-after Cornas cuvées (Terres Brûlées, Les Ruchets and La Louvée), as well as a range of other wines, mostly from purchased grapes, reaching all the way down the valley to a $9 Côtes du Rhône.
Colombo has even begun to make wines from the Côte Bleue, near Marseilles, from old and neglected vines he found in a national park. The project is near to his heart since it brings him back closer to where he grew up. In addition, Colombo remains in high demand as a consultant, in and out of the Rhône Valley. But wherever he works, his focus remains squarely on making wines that work well with food. He took a quick break between tastings and consulting appointments to talk about his inspirations and his own influence on Rhône winemaking.
Wine Spectator: How did you first get interested in winemaking?
Jean-Luc Colombo: I was first interested in the taste of wine. My mother was a chef--I grew up in a kitchen environment, with a grandmother and a mother who were great promoters of the culinary tradition of Marseille. Not all winemakers have a passion for food, but because everyone in the family was a chef, all we talked about was food. Then, I really discovered enology during my pharmaceutical studies. I got a pharmacy license, and decided to open a lab. The lab was [similar] to winemaking.
WS: What makes Cornas so different from the rest of the Rhône Valley?
JLC: Cornas is part of the Northern Rhône hillsides, which is where Syrah comes from, and where Syrah gives its greatest expression. At the same time, the hills of Cornas benefit from Mediterranean influences, which bring a lot of character to the wine.
WS: And your wines from Côte Bleue?
JLC: That's very different from Cornas. Cornas is the best landscape and soils for Syrah--it's very porous. So we can have a good Syrah with a lot of aromas of flowers like lilac and iris. With the fruit it's black currant or licorice. But the Côte Bleue is more for Mourvèdre and Syrah because the land is chalk. It's also a peninsula--almost like an island. You have the huge Lake of Berre, maybe a 30-mile circle, and then south is the sea. It's almost like Long Island. When you're there it's always cool. Not cold, not hot. So the Côte Bleue is a very good terroir to grow Syrah and Mourvèdre. The taste of the grape is never too mature--it's always 13.5 percent alcohol. We never get 15 percent. There is no residual sugar, and we don't use irrigation, because we have the humidity on the leaves.
WS: You've joked sometimes that you're the most hated and loved winemaker in the Rhône. Why?
JLC: Well, when I arrived in the Northern Rhône, techniques were very old-fashioned, and I shook some habits (I use new oak, destemming, green harvest). Obviously, this did not please a few narrow-minded winemakers. Conversely, I did get credit because I contributed to improving today's wine quality and also because I myself invested a great deal to promote the wines of the area.
WS: Who have been some of your greatest influences?
JLC: When I discovered enology I read Le Gout du Vin, by the great Bordeaux enologist Emile Peynaud. In the early years of my career, I also got to meet Michel Rolland, who showed me the importance of the role of the consultant, when most enologists were only interested in analysis.
WS: What would you say is the main difference between someone like you and Rolland?
JLC: We share common ideas, but we have always worked in different wine regions, either different by size or notoriety. I'm very close to the thinking of Michel Rolland--I work like him, he works like me--and we are very close. He's a good friend.
But maybe the difference is I think more about the food [that goes with the wine]. The food 40 years ago and 20 years ago and five years ago is different. But the wine [has always been] the same. I love the fruit of the grape. When you eat the grape in September, the taste is of blueberry, blackberry and strawberry, and I like to find the taste of the grape in the wine, in the glass. I try to have the fruit in the bottle, in that glass of wine.
WS: How do you get that?
JLC: We need to be very clean. Clean cellar, clean barrel. You need to wash your hands, wash the baskets. Simple, but in fact, it's very difficult to be clean.
WS: What are some of your favorite things to cook and eat with your wines?
JLC: Very simple things. Like a truffle with a T-bone and marrow. Maybe not in summer … but very good in winter or autumn. Cornas is also much better with venison. And of course, Lièvre à la Royale, which is stuffed and braised rabbit. There is a very famous recipe--it's cooked for a long, long, long time, maybe 18 hours. The stuffing is truffle, foie gras, a lot of spice and good fleur de sel. Usually the hare is like a big sausage. You cut the hare in slices. It's the best! In the U.S. it's very difficult to find, but one chef who cooks it very well is Didier Virot at Aix. It's wonderful. It's a food to dream, because it takes so long to make.
WS: What is your favorite non-European wine?
JLC: Ridge, by winemaker Paul Draper. Usually you have to like the wine and drink it and you get pleasure, and that's it. The winemaking is good when you get pleasure in the glass. But when you know the guy--and we enjoy sharing food and wine with him--or the philosophy of the person, it is much better. I like him very much because he's very knowledgeable and he knows food and wine.