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Day 1: Some New Faces in Cornas

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 30, 2007 2:35pm ET

A trouble-free flight landed 30 minutes early, making my normally tight connection to the TGV that much easier. After catching some Z’s on the train down to Valence, I arrived a little before noon at Maison Pic, which seems to be riding high after finally regaining its long lost third Michelin star (and a well-deserved one).

The bistro at Pic, always a popular spot, was already full by 12:30, and there were either bottles or glasses of wine on every table. If only the typical weekday American lunch was so civilized. A simple glass of Côtes du Rhône washed down my bavette et frites, and gave me the energy boost I needed to head out into a cold, gray and very windy day.

Destination: Cornas, where I had scheduled visits with Eric & Joël Durand followed by Matthieu Barret at Domaine du Coulet.

Young Eric Durand, 35, joined his older brother Joël, 42, at this small domaine in the mid-1990s. Their father had previously sold off the domaine’s grapes to négociants, but the brothers began bottling their own wine in 1991, and have added some parcels along the way to bring the domaine’s total to 32 acres of vines. Eric & Joël Durand produce just over 4,000 cases annually and are now sending a little over 10 percent of that to the U.S.

The Durand wines emphasize elegance and minerality, though their fruit profile is decidedly black. There are five red cuvées, two from St.-Joseph and three from Cornas. Winemaking is very simple here: The grapes are fermented in cement vats, punched down twice a day, then pressed directly into a mix of barrels (225 liters) and demi-muids (600 liters).

“2006 has the texture of Syrah, but the finesse of a Pinot,” said the silver-haired but boy-faced Eric about the domaine’s wines in this fresh, racy vintage.

The 2006 St.-Joseph Les Coteaux is sourced from 8- to 15-year-old vines spread over several parcels in Châteaubourg and Glun. It sees no new oak and is very taut, with racy olive and black licorice notes. The 2006 St.-Joseph Loutaret, sourced from a single 20-year-old parcel in Châteaubourg and which sees 25 percent new oak, offers a dark plum profile, along with hints of bacon, toast and garrigue.

Of the three Cornas cuvées, the 2006 Cornas Prémices is the introductory. It too is sourced from young vines (the domaine was planted mostly by their father so there are no significantly old vines) and sees just a drop of new oak, but manages to push out dark plum and spice notes with a hint of beef on the finish. Eric feels these vines might end up in one of the top cuvées in another decade or so.

Those top cuvées are the Empreintes and Confidence. The 2006 Cornas Empreintes is a blend of 20-year-old parcels that is aged in a combination of demi-muids and barrels (20 percent of which are new). It’s got lots of dark berry fruit, fine-grained structure and a pronounced iron note on the finish. The 2006 Cornas Confidence, which is aged all in barrel, one-third of which is new, is really juicy, with blackberry fruit, bright acidity and a sappy, minerally finish.

The portfolio of 2005s here is predictably strong, and the wines are just being released into the U.S. market. Official reviews on the bottled ‘05s will appear in the near future.

From one small domaine to another, I drove down the road to Cornas and met up with Matthieu Barret of Domaine du Coulet. This biodynamically farmed domaine caught my eye with their solid 2004s, which I reviewed in this year's June 30 issue of the magazine. Coulet has only been around since the 2001 vintage, as Barret, 32, has coddled together his grandfather’s vines (his grandfather had sold the grapes to négociants) along with some vines from Jean Lionnet’s Domaine de Rochpertuis to form his own 32-acre domaine. Barret bottles less than 2,000 cases annually, with about 10 percent coming to the U.S.

These Marsanne vines in the Les Royes parcel of Domaine Courbis are getting ready to shut down for the winter.

“They are ideological selections, as well as vineyard selections,” said Barret with a chuckle when I asked him to break down his various cuvées for me. The 2006 Cornas Les Terrasses du Serre comes from 35-year-old vines and sees no new oak. “A classic, traditional expression of Cornas,” said Barret. The wine comes across like a young vintage of Cornas from A. Clape—loaded with dark fig and tar notes—but with far more refined tannins. Barret ferments everything in stainless steel (he just started experimenting with cement eggs in 2007), which lends a modern feel to the wines, but the terroir comes blazing through. The 2006 Cornas Billes Noires, which includes some 80-year-old vines, is packed with dark fig and currant fruit, with a powerfully built tannic structure that manages to stay ultraracy, pumping out sweet tapenade and licorice notes on the finish. Both are easily outstanding.

Barret features a rugged, bearded face and broad shoulders, and manages to produce his wines in a small ramshackle cellar tucked in the back of the town. The 2005s, which are on their way to the U.S., showcase the vintage’s power and depth, and are among the most exciting new wines I’ve ever tasted from this overlooked appellation. I recommend getting in line now.

Both Durand and Domaine du Coulet’s wines will be hard to track down because of their limited production, but they are among the new leaders in Cornas, an appellation that is finally beginning to show it can stand alongside the elite wines of Hermitage and Côte-Rôtie.

Since I was still feeling strong, I called in for a last-minute appointment at Domaine Courbis, where Laurent Courbis turned in his strongest performance yet in the solid 2005 vintage (reviews of the finished wines will be published in the near future). As for 2006, Courbis has once again produced a range of stylish reds and surprisingly exotic, creamy whites.

“It’s a pleasant, tender vintage,” said Courbis. “Not the concentration of ’05 obviously, but very, very good.”

Of particular note is the 2006 Cornas La Sabarotte, a 50 percent new oak cuvée that easily absorbs its wood influence while letting dark tobacco, plum sauce and graphite notes shine.

With the cold, knifing wind getting stronger, it was time to call it a day. I’ll return to the front lines in Cornas again tomorrow.

David A Zajac
October 31, 2007 9:06am ET
Looking forward to the report, from what I am drinking (lots of Rhone's) Cornas has probably come the furthest in the last 10 years. It seems there used to be only 3-4 top producers, now everyone seems to be in on the action. Hopefully you'll get a chance to visit Vincent Paris, his wines have been sensational since 2003, and I just had my first ever bottle from Thierry Allemand (2004 Chaillot) and all I can say is "WOW". With Hermitage and Cote Rotie being as pricey as they are, looks like I will be buying more and more Cornas and St. Joseph.
Bruce Harvey
Syracuse, —  October 31, 2007 9:17am ET
"The bistro at Pic, always a popular spot, was already full by 12:30, and there were either bottles or glasses of wine on every table. If only the typical weekday American lunch was so civilized."

Bravo! I would lift a glass in toast but, alas, I'm at work...
Thanks for your efforts, James, and keep up the good work!
Bruce Harvey
Syracuse, —  October 31, 2007 10:22am ET
The bistro at Pic, always a popular spot, was already full by 12:30, and there were either bottles or glasses of wine on every table. If only the typical weekday American lunch was so civilized.

Bravo, James! I'd raise a glass of wine in toast but, you know, I'm at work...

Keep up the good work!

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