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A Stubbly Sunday in Cornas

Rugged soul at A. Clape and Jean-Luc Colombo
Photo by: James Molesworth
Not to be outdone by Hermitage's famed La Chapelle, Cornas has one of its own sitting atop its vineyards.

Posted: Nov 27, 2013 11:50am ET

Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth is in France, visiting select domaines of the Northern Rhône Valley, tasting the 2012 vintage and more in Côte-Rôtie, Condrieu, Hermitage and Cornas.

A. Clape

Those of you who've followed along over the years know I like to keep some stubble for my days in Cornas. The town is known for its rugged wines and ruggedly-bearded vignerons. I try to fit in …

For additional background on Cornas in general, you can reference my 2008 feature article along with a few accompanying profiles on some of the town's producers.

In addition to having regular stops (domaines I try to see every time I'm In the neighborhood), I also have what I call "regular days." These are days where I visit the same several vignerons on the same day. It's part logistics—those who are close to each other for example. But it's also another great way to learn by visiting producers who do things completely differently from each other. Today is one of those days, as I make stops at A. Clape and Jean-Luc Colombo.

As for A. Clape specifically, you can cycle back through my blog notes on visits here over the year, including my entry from 2012.

To put it simply, A. Clape is the leading example of the old school side of town. Little has changed here over my years of visiting, save for new plantings coming on line. Auguste Clape created the archetype Cornas wine—a briary, olive- and chalk-filled, muscular version that needs time to shows its best. His son Pierre continued the stylistic tradition, coddled together additional plantings in some of the town's best lieux-dits and elevated the quality even further. Pierre's son Olivier, 34, spent some time in New Zealand and California first, "just to see some technology," he laughed, before returning home and starting at the family domaine in 2002. He too now sports the requisite beard.

For fun we tasted a few lots from 2013, a vintage marked by a quick harvest as producers dodged raindrops and dealt with thin-skinned grapes that needed to be picked quickly or risk bloating or rot. From the Patou lieu-dit, the wine has a sappy kirsch edge, with a very primal, crunchy feel. From La Côte the wine is high-pitched, with bing cherry, violet and white pepper notes. The old-vine Reynard parcel is open, with black cherry and fig notes and a fleshy rather than crisp feel as the other lots have. But it's also more advanced, even at this very young stage, as quixotically the normally late-ripening Reynard was harvested earlier than the other parcels, and this old-vine lot was actually done with its malo when the young-vine lots were just being racked to foudre (large oak casks) for the first time.

"But that was '13," said Olivier calmly. "No rules. Everything was all over the place."

The Clapes picked all their vineyards in just eight days following the first rain in early October, and now all the malos are already finished and the wines have been racked to cask, even more surprising considering the harvest was fast, but later than usual.

"But it's been warm so far, so that probably pushed the malo along," said Olivier. "And there was a lot of acidity too. It's a nice vintage, but with all the acidity, it's tightened up already in cask and it will take some time to evolve."

For the 2012s, we started with the 2012 St.-Péray, bottled in June. Even though some new parcels have come on line, yields were so low in '12 for the wine that there is even less than usual, just 100 cases. That's a shame, because it's often one of the best wines in the quietly emerging white wine appellation. The all-Marsanne cuvée shows lovely pear, almond and piecrust notes with a creamy, flattering feel through the finish, and just enough of a floral edge to give it lift.

The 2012 Vin de France Le Vin des Amis is a Vin de France in name only (well, technically all French wines are Vin de France, but this is the new designation for what used to be the lowly Vin de Table designation). This Syrah is sourced from 40-year-old vines just outside the Cornas appellation. Bottled in August, it delivers plum pit and cherry preserve notes with a flicker of tobacco. The finish is unadorned except for a light stony note.

"In 2012, spring was really tough, like '11 and '13," said Olivier. "It was an early start but suddenly cold and rainy, so a lot of work in the vineyard had to be done. July and August were nice and we started picking Sept. 11 which, was just a little bit early, as the warm July and August helped things catch up a bit. Yields are below average. It's a generous vintage in terms of feel, with lots of tannins, but round. It's showing well now but it will age nicely too, we think."

Also bottled is the 2012 Côtes du Rhône, which has nice focus with a beam of bitter cherry, cherry skin, violet and stone notes with a pleasantly firm finish. The wine is sourced from vines just south of the town, on a flatter stretch of the poor, decomposed granitic soils that are basically the same as within the Cornas AOC.

"But the wine is always wider, not as austere or structured as the Cornas," said Olivier.

Still in various foudres sit the lots that will eventually go to both Cornas bottlings here. The lots likely destined for the 2012 Cornas Renaissance are typically the younger vine lots, starting with the young vines from the Patou lieu-dit. It's very lively, with a chalky feel and bright cherry and red currant fruit.

"The vines are 20 years old. We've been saying they're 15 years old for five years now, so it's time to change," said Olivier. "But this lot usually makes up about 50 percent of the Renaissance cuvée."

Another large portion of the Renaissance bottling, about 40 percent, comes from the 30-year-old vines in the Reynard lieu-dit. It's darker, with black cherry and black currant fruit, while also showing a solid iron spine. It's not as long as the Patou part, but it has more flesh.

"A little of that might go into the Cornas bottling, but overall the tannins aren't there yet," said Olivier.

For the 2012 Cornas, the first component is a lot sourced from 35-year-old vines in the La Petite Côte lieu-dit, which is a big step up in terms of flesh and depth, with more tobacco, black currant and olive notes. It's much broader and deeper than the previous lots which go into the Renaissance bottling. The fruit from the Sabarotte parcel shows blackberry coulis, plus paste and charcoal notes with a very long, grippy finish. It's decidedly tannic and even Olivier mentioned how blending it needs to be handled with discretion.

"Too much and the final wine become too hard. We do have to be careful with the Sabarotte," he said.

From 50-plus-year-old vines in La Côte, the wine shows brighter red currant, plum skin and bitter cherry notes, along with a deeper, chalkier finish. The heart of the blend always comes from the family's vines in the Reynard parcel, arguably the top spot in Cornas. It shows aromas of freshly seared meat and charcoal, along with blackberry and cherry coulis fruit flavors, is lined with energetic acidity and backed by a piercing iron note that leaves a long, mouthwatering feel. The wine will be blended in March 2014.

"In 2011 we did a bit more Renaissance because the wines are a bit easier in style, not because we had more juice to make the wine," said Olivier. "And in '12 we might go the other direction, with a little more of the crop for the Cornas bottling, because the structure is there. We'll have to see."

The 2011 Cornas Renaissance, bottled in July and set to be shipped to the U.S. soon, is racy and fresh, with delightful violet and red currant notes. There's only modest grip, but the wine does tighten up a bit on the finish.

"It always does that for a few months after bottling," said Olivier. "But after six months, it opens right back up again and then starts to drink well. The Cornas is the opposite. It stays open for maybe its first year or two after the mis, and then it closes down for many years."

The 2011 Cornas, bottled in early August, shows a typically rugged edge, with lots of expressive black cherry and fig fruit. It has a nice briary feel throughout, along with a tobacco leaf note that lines the finish. It opens steadily with air but certainly has the spine for extended aging, though stylistically it's higher-toned and more acid-driven than the darker, more tannic 2012.

Jean-Luc Colombo

Jean-Luc Colombo couldn't be more different from A. Clape if it tried. The Clapes are a soft-spoken clan while Colombo is gregarious and outgoing. The Clapes live in the village, Colombo up on the hill above. The Clapes work traditionally in the cellar, with no destemming and the use of foudres, while Colombo destems and uses small barrels, including some new oak, for the élevage. Clape's bottle is the classic Burgundian shape with a label that has been unchanged for over a generation while Colombo bottles his Cornas in Bordeaux-shaped bottles, with modern, artist-drawn images on the labels. It's stylistic whiplash going from one to the other, and that's why I always try to pair my visits to these two estates on the same day.

For more background on Colombo, you can reference my previous blog notes, starting with my most recent visit in 2011.

Since 2010, Jean-Luc's daughter Laure, 29, has assumed a role in the winemaking here (Jean-Luc's wife, Anne, is also a winemaker and involved with the winery). With an education background in business, Laure has apprenticed in the hospitality and wine industry, including as water girl at Alain Ducasse's Essex House restaurant, which she mentioned with a laugh. To earn her wine chops before returning home to the family domaine, she worked harvests at Bordeaux's Château Haut-Brion and Domaine St.-Préfert in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, before going back to Montpellier to get a winemaking degree.

"That's probably a little backward, to do the business first, then go back to school for winemaking. Most winemakers need to go back to school to learn how to run a business," she said with a gentle smile. "Ultimately the plan is to have two part-time jobs. One at Jean-Luc Colombo, the other at my own domaine where I grow grapes but sell them to Jean-Luc Colombo," explained Laure. "I don't want to start my own domaine from scratch. I want to add to and help develop what my parents have already created. They've been doing this for a while and I don't want to compete with it. I just want to help add to it."

For the whites, the 2012s are bottled. The 2012 Côtes du Rhône White La Redonne (70/30 Viognier and Roussanne) is a plump shortbread- and orange zest-filled white with a nice backdrop of apricot and salted butter on the finish, which has a lightly bitter hint of Brazil nut as well. The 2012 St.-Péray La Belle de Mai (70/30 Roussanne and Marsanne, atypical for the appellation) is delightfully pure, with a salted butter frame to the brioche, melon and white peach flavors. The finish is very pure, despite having nice weight and relying more on Roussanne, wich tends to be more tropical and apricot-like in profile..

"We've worked a lot in St.-Péray. I've bought 12 acres in the appellation to plant myself," said Laure. "I love the appellation because it's lots of small parcels here and there, like Cornas. Plus the soil in the parcels I bought is the same type of granite as Cornas."

The 2012 Condrieu Amour de Dieu has tasty, unctuous anise, apricot and green almond flavors with a rounded but bright finish.

"For the whites, I follow my parents' taste. And my mother taught me how they made wine and how they cooked. So not too much oak, residual sugar or alcohol, because I think in terms of food as well. I really like freshness in the whites, a delicacy, which is what my mother likes," said Laure. "Now that we are two, there's a balance with my father," she laughed. "But seriously, he has made wine for 30 years and his tastes have evolved as well. He decided to plant Clairette on the Blue Coast in Provence, an acidic grape. He also likes some freshness in his whites."

That Clairette goes into the 2012 Clairette Vin de Pays de Méditerranée Les Anthenors. It is fermented in barrel (none new) and then has its malo blocked to retain its brighter, crisper acidity. This is the first release from the vineyard, planted in 2009. The wine is bright, with honeysuckle and jicama notes, with a light citrus hint turning gentler on the finish. There are lingering lemon zest and sea salt hints too.

"He's spent 15 years putting this project together. And as you see, there's more of a freshness here and not the big style that maybe he liked more in the past," said Laure. "It's a very interesting area, as it's cooler than Châteauneuf, but there isn't a lot of acidity naturally in the grapes, which is why we block the malo to preserve what is there."

For the reds, the 2012 Syrah Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes Les Collines de Laure is the first red to be bottled from the vintage. A blend of young vines from Cornas, St.-Joseph and Crozes, it actually gives a more Southern Rhône feel for me, with a plump core of Bing cherry and red licorice flavors and an open, easy finish.

"It's not a wine influenced by old vines or the élevage. It's just young vines, fruit, simple," said Laure.

The rest of the 2012 reds are still in barrel. Starting with the 2012 Cornas Terres Brûlées, which has a nice racy, briary feel along the edges and a saturated core of plum and red currant fruit. It's very primal, though a twinge of iron is starting to show on the finish.

Since 2009 I've found the Cornas bottlings here to be both noticeably improved and shifting slightly in style, away from a less obvious oak influence. I asked Laure if that was a function of the power of the '09 and '10 vintages subverting the house style a bit, or if there has been a change in the élevage of the wines.

"We use only barrels, no demi-muids or foudres. We don't want the barrel to influence the taste, but since we do longer élevage—two years—we want some micro-oxygenation, which you don't get in larger vessels. But I haven't changed the percentage of new oak," said Laure quickly, as if this is the question being asked most often now of her. "I did get rid of a lot of the old barrels that I didn't like. The maximum is 30 percent new on Les Ruchets and even less on the others. The percentage has dropped over the years, because when my parents started, it was a lot of new oak because that's what they bought to start. Now there is a good supply of good, older barrels in the cellar, which is why maybe you see that shift in the style."

The 2012 Cornas La Louvée is sourced from the La Côte lieu-dit, whose full southern exposure provides typically the ripest of the Cornas bottlings here. This version is lush, with blueberry and blackberry notes, a lovely creamy feel along the edges and hints of violet and spice just starting to develop. It's a clearly modern take on the appellation in its mouthfeel and fruit profile. In contrast is the 2012 Cornas Les Ruchets, which displays more of a pebbly feel, with sweet tapenade, black currant and bay notes also showing. It's the more distinctly terroir-driven bottling, with a nice iron note grounding the finish. There is no Cornas Vallon de L'Aigle in 2012, so the fruit goes into the Terres Brûlées bottling.

Following the tasting, we took a short walk up the hill from the Colombos' home. There's a small chapel there, not nearly as old as the one across the river atop Hermitage, but no less pretty. It's fitting, as Cornas may be younger than Hermitage in terms of its winemaking tradition, but its wines certainly don't lack for soul.

You can follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at twitter.com/jmolesworth1, and Instagram, at instagram.com/jmolesworth1.

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