The battle for supremacy in the northern Rhône has long been a fight between two rivals: the seductive finesse of Côte-Rôtie at its northern extremity versus the might and majesty of Hermitage further south. But now there’s a third hand reaching for the crown.
Cornas lies even further south, 8 miles (13km) from Hermitage on the opposite bank of the river. It has long been considered something of an ugly duckling, but the quality of the wines has been increasing year on year. Now it’s indisputably the source of some of the most characterful and thrilling Syrah-based wines in the world, accessible at lower prices than its two celebrated neighbours.
There’s not much to see in the village itself (population 2,318), but you can’t miss the vineyards. Abruptly, they rise up on slopes and terraces behind the village, a rumpled granite amphitheatre that swelters in the summer sun. It’s a small appellation of just 145ha, and individual holdings are tiny because the labour is so arduous. Some of the slopes are so steep that they need to be ploughed with a blade attached to a metal cable, dragged up the hill by a winch. They run with blood and sweat.
It’s a tough, uncompromising terroir that makes tough, uncompromising wines. Only 20 years ago it was considered by many to be a source of powerful but rustic reds, often gamey, sometimes unkempt. It’s since cleaned up its act, retaining its untamed, brawling style but with more freshness and precision. These are full-bodied, concentrated wines with substantial tannic muscle. The best can last for decades, and they are generally best approached armed with a steak.
The mid- to late 1990s saw a new generation of vignerons establishing themselves – some the descendants of old winemaking families, some entirely new to the profession. Together, they pursued a more modern style, expressing itself in a riper, more polished expression. It made for a refreshing contrast against the gruff, savoury traditional style.
The 2016 vintage is widely considered to be truly great – in the southern Rhône. In the northern Rhône, the weather wasn’t quite so clement. Much of spring was cool and damp. Thankfully, a warm, dry summer followed, leading to an unhurried harvest. The result is a classic vintage in the very best sense: the wines will be delicious and approachable relatively early, with a good sense of freshness and balance. What impressed me most of all was their consistency.
It’s hard to say that 2016 is a better vintage than 2015 just from this tasting – they weren’t the same wines after all – but among these 2015s I saw some of the shortcomings of what is considered to be an exceptional vintage in the northern Rhône. It was a very hot growing season, and though some of the wines are impressively concentrated, others displayed overripe flavours, high alcohol or low acidity. Both 2014s showed well, in a leaner, more austere style that is the hallmark of this cooler year.
Blind tastings are always instructive. This one revealed that the stylistic gap between traditionalists and modernists is shrinking, and is an oversimplification to question whether one style is necessarily better than the other. There are excellent winemakers and compelling wines in both camps. Concerning specific producers, I would have expected Domaine Alain Voge’s Vieilles Vignes to show better than it did on the day. But it was pleasing to see Johann Michel’s Cuvée Jana do so well. Cornas runs in his veins: his great-grandfather helped set up the appellation in 1938, but he was entirely new to winemaking when he started out with half a hectare in 1997. What he’s achieved in such a small space of time is impressive. And this is true of Cornas as a whole – an ugly duckling no more.