Small in size but massive in terms of influence, the northern Rhône is an absolute gem for serious wine lovers. Only five per cent of Rhône wine is produced here, and yet the region is acknowledged as providing the ultimate expression of one of the world’s great varieties, Syrah. Maybe because of its modest size, it is also recognised as one of the most obvious templates of the sometimes elusive and always challenging concept of terroir.
Here, a spindly corridor of vines is cramped on granitic terraces that are the legacy of a violent compression between the Massif Central and the Alps. There is a liminality hewn into the region’s identity. Head north, and we are in the varietal world of tension and purity, with Burgundy at its centre; go south, and almost without realising it, we bask in a broad palette of multi-variety warmth, best illustrated by the pebbly indulgence of Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
As a result, the northern Rhône has an almost Janus-like personality, often turning further north for inspiration but sometimes cleaving to the Mediterranean model. Protestant versus Catholic, Matisse versus David. Call it what you will, there is – and always has been – a temperamental shift between northern and southern Europe, and in vinous terms, one may say that the corridor of the northern Rhône bridges that gap. Overall – climate change notwithstanding – this is a positive thing.
At its core are three small villages: Ampuis, in the centre of Côte-Rôtie; Tain, at the foot of the hill of Hermitage; and furthest south, sleepy Cornas. If the vineyards of Côte-Rôtie are rather amorphous in shape, and the slopes of Hermitage are pushed back from the village/town where the wine is made, in Cornas, by way of comparison, the village is the centre of attention. Its significance is illustrated and underlined by the magnificent church spire that hints at 19th-century optimism, God-fearing and confident in the blessing of the harvest. Even the modest street that threads its way through the village is called La Grande Rue. Grandeur, it seems, lies in the eyes of the beholder.
There is a temperamental shift between northern and southern Europe, and in vinous terms, one may say that the northern Rhône bridges that gap
Cornas, however, seems to have been somewhat forgotten over the years, never allowed to share the glorious reputation of its siblings. One wonders why that might be. For those who love the Rhône, there will be a nostalgic familiarity with some of the famous names inscribed on the headstones in the cemetery: Marcel Juge, Auguste Clape, Alain Voge and Noel Verset – all of whom, incidentally, lived to a great age. Yet for all the historical allusions to Charlemagne’s vin noir and celebrated admirers such as Louis XV and Cardinal Richelieu, Cornas has long been seen as a poor relation. Impossibly tannic, rustic and frighteningly austere are three of the epithets commonly thrown out. If Côte- Rôtie has aromatic poise and Hermitage recalls an iron fist in a velvet glove, Cornas has long been perceived as a rather uncouth cousin – a iron fist in a iron glove, if you like.
Well, I do like. I like it very much. Change has been slow and subtle, but the village is now, at last, starting to be recognised. This slow pace is in part because, unlike in the other communes, there has been little influence from the bigger houses – influential négociants such as Jaboulet, Chapoutier and Guigal. Jaboulet is famous for La Chapelle, and Chapoutier for its single-vineyard Hermitages (Le Pavillion and Le Mél are notable examples), whereas Guigal significantly raised the stakes in Côte-Rôtie with its famous ‘La-La’ triptych (La Turque, La Mouline, La Landonne), all aged for 42 months in new oak, all three championed by Robert Parker. On the back of these legendary names have sprung up very large companies, flamboyant reputations and, let us not forget, the bulk of income made from mass bottlings of generic Côtes du Rhône, all of which are sourced in the southern Rhône.
Somehow, Cornas has missed out on all this sound and fury. Why so? Hard to say, really; it is a little out of the way and a little warmer, the vines missing the cleansing vigour of the mistral wind and maybe thereby losing some of the tension found elsewhere. In other respects, nothing is radically different: the same granitic soil, the same modus operandi, and the same steep erosion-prone terraces. Even the Right Bank names are similar: Cornas has Celtic derivation, meaning ‘burned earth’, whereas Côte-Rôtie may be loosely translated as ‘roasted slope’. Cornas, in a sense, might in fact be seen as Syrah’s most faithful adherent; when the AOC was instigated in 1938, it was decreed that all the wines were to be 100% Syrah. And so they are: there is no Viognier or Marsanne here to temper the blends. But still the négociants have stayed away – until recently, that is. Latterly, broader recognition has prompted increased activity from the houses of Chapoutier, Delas, Ferraton and Jaboulet, to name but a few.
Cornas has long been perceived as rather uncouth – an iron fist in an iron glove, if you like
For all that, the appellation remains relatively ‘pure’, and many of the names on the headstones are still very much alive in a new generation, as with the families of Lionnet, Clape and Balthazar. Even where the names have changed, there is a still a familial thread – Johann Michel and Vincent Paris, for example, are both related to village doyen Robert Michel. There is continuity, then, but the youngsters have subtly changed the rules of engagement. Nothing quite as ambitious as 42 months in new oak; rather, a more enlightened (if that is the right word) and certainly pragmatic approach to such leavening tools as destemming, the type of oak used for ageing, pre-fermentation maceration and extraction methods. All of these have been modified to tame the more ascetic impulses of the past, thereby underlining innate aromatic intensity and ensuring that, 10 years hence, when one brings out a bottle of Cornas to accompany goose or partridge, the megalomanic tannins will not grate with the fat of the former or the gamey depth of the latter.
The new generation has been supported by those who are new to the village, the three key names being Jean-Luc Colombo, Thierry Allemand and Stéphane Robert at Domaine du Tunnel. Colombo has divided opinion over the years but provided a necessary impetus, whereas Allemand, misanthropic and magus-like, has retreated to the hills, sending down bottles that are probably now the closest to Cornas icons. Yet the prices are still relatively modest. How long can this last? Well, with 156ha planted, a village population of 2,318 and a burgeoning reputation among sommeliers and collectors alike, the answer is not long. A sure sign is that, just as with Hermitage and lieuxdits such as Le Méal and Les Bessards, there is increasingly a familiarity with specific sites in Cornas, including Les Reynards and Les Chaillots. Higher prices will surely follow, and more of the bigger négociants will clamour to buy the land that occasionally becomes available. This wonderfully self-contained gemstone will gain in polish, for sure, but let it be hoped that it never loses its rugged lustre.
Six Cornas wine producers to know
Reticent to a fault, Vincent Paris was an unlikely candidate for president of the Syndicat des Vignerons de Cornas, a post he held for more than a decade. ‘No one else wanted to do it,’ he jokes. The slow and measured progress of the appellation has been in his gift, and the same discreet approach is evident in the winery. Ultimately, it is the wines that shout the loudest: a pair with pithy and supremely informative names (Granit 30 and Granit 60, the numbers referring to the gradients of the slopes) and one of Cornas’s great jewels, La Geynale, inherited from his uncle Robert Michel, one of the founding fathers of ‘modern’ Cornas. Intervention is minimal, and the wood – judging from the disarray of the cellar – is varied in size and age. There is nothing chaotic about the wines, however. Haunting aromatics mark them out, as does a purity of fruit to rival the greatest sites in Côte-Rôtie.
Alain Voge is among the legendary names from the Cornas hall of fame, slightly younger than Juge, Verset, Clape père et al, but very much a stalwart, enduring, among other things, an upbringing in Algeria during the troubled 1960s and, later in life, a liver transplant. He died in 2020, in some ways the last of a generation, even if, in the early years, he had been viewed as something as an iconoclast: destemming; 225-litre barrels (some of them new); the occasional cultured yeast – whatever next? I have always placed him in the traditionalist camp (a good thing, by the way) and anticipate that his successor, Lionel Friasse (above), scion of another well-known Cornas dynasty, will continue the excellent work. Having a generous allocation of old vines in the most famous sites (especially Les Mazards and Les Chaillots) cannot be an undue hindrance. The same can be said for the full conversion to biodynamics in 2016.
Private and sometimes (in the vein of the late Jacques Reynaud at Rayas) almost perversely secretive – hence the absence of a photograph here – Thierry Allemand proves, summa cum laude, that a lack of self-promotion can often lead to the greatest demand. His two Cornas wines (younger-vines Les Chaillots and older-vines Les Reynards) are now the most sought after in the appellation. He certainly needs to be sought after. If one is lucky enough to have arranged a meeting, it will usually be in his former winery in the centre of the village. A terrifying drive up to the plateau of St-Romain-de-Lerps, at over 400 metres, will ensue. Here is the new chai, and from here the master surveys the panorama of the valley in silence. Oh, well – the wines speak for themselves. There is a touch of eccentricity in the Allemand philosophy: he sometimes employs a degree of carbonic maceration, for example and is an advocate of very low sulphur intervention, citing it as a reason for allowing Syrah to mature without the risk of the taint of reduction. It works, however. It all works.
Antithetic in so many ways to the more populist, extrovert Jean-Luc Colombo, Auguste Clape, who died in 2018, was, to many, the face of the ‘real’ Cornas. I met him but once, in a restaurant in Tournon, of all places. The combination of his quiet authority and my reticent deference did not make for the longest of meetings, but it was enough. Now the work is continued by his son Pierre-Marie and his grandson Olivier (pictured above). What is bred in the bone… And beyond the stark, monosyllabic name are stark and almost monolithic wines. Nothing by way of a single-vineyard cuvée and little by way of intervention in the winery. This is the sine qua non of Cornas, for better or for worse, its message set in stone and best left unread for several years.
Few Rhône winemakers have divided opinion more over the past three decades than Jean-Luc Colombo (above), originally a pharmacist from Marseille. When I met him in London last year, between lockdowns, it was hard to discern much by way of an enfant terrible. His mission in Cornas was, after all, laudable – namely, to soften the famously drying tannins. This, up to a point, he has achieved, albeit initially with a regime of such dogged intervention that it was sometimes hard to discern the Cornas imprimatur at all. Now he leaves a lot of the vinification to his daughter Laure (pictured right with her mother Anne), while he tours the world as a valiant ambassador for the region, entertaining and enlightening. ‘An irrigated organic wine is an oxymoron’ is but one pithy example, echoing the fact that his entire estate has been organic since 2016. Love him or loathe him, it is fair to say that the Colombo cahier des charges – complete destemming and cool pre-fermentation maceration, for example – is now widely read throughout the village. Let’s not forget that he was the one who got us all taking about Cornas again.
Domaine du Tunnel
Stéphane Robert (above) is quite simply one of the nicest people I have met in the world of wine – a fairly competitive field, it has to be said. When I first visited, everything took place in a somewhat shambolic winery/shop/residence next to the chemist in the centre of St-Péray, the next village down from Cornas. My colleagues were especially enamoured of the flashing pinball machine in the tasting room. Lots of bull’s-eyes, if I may confuse sporting metaphors – and for the wines, too. Success has resulted in an elevation (in both senses) to a photogenic winery up in the hills, its facilities located in a disused railway tunnel dug into the decomposed granite (hence the name of the domaine). An ‘outsider’ (he comes from Valence, which is 10 miles away), Robert may be described as a pupil from the modern school, keen on destemming and ‘clean’ fermentations, although he eschews new oak. Especially wondrous is his top wine, appositely named Pur Noir. He makes fantastic St-Péray, too, for those who need a brief interlude from the Syrah bacchanal.