To understand the wine, look at the native flora. The vineyards of Cornas, which soar above the Rhône near Valence, are punctuated by holm oak, cade juniper and sage-leaved cistus rather than the downy oak, ash, heather and broom more common on the hills just a few kilometres north. Something is changing. Winemakers here are within walking distance of the 45th parallel, the symbolic point of equidistance between the north pole and the equator (the true halfway point lies 16.2km north of the parallel). This is where the temperate north begins to give way to the Mediterranean south, and plants more typical of the acid-soiled maquis begin to replace the classic heathland species which mark vineyard edges in Burgundy or Beaujolais.
Wine lends a sensual presence to nuances of climate, soil and topography. St Joseph, whose vineyards begin where those of Cornas end, and which then carry on north, intermittently, for 50km, is a red wine with great purity and force of early plum and blackcurrant fruit, in a light frame. If the wines of this region were a choir, Cornas would almost be a baritone: its wines seem to have a width and sometimes a texture which elude St Joseph. Cornas goes beyond the simply fruity to include something more savoury. The vines, in other words, have responded to the subtle climatic modulation.
Cornas and St Joseph are made from Syrah alone, and are grown mostly on steep south-facing slopes of decomposed granite. A decade or two ago, Cornas was regarded as the truant among Northern Rhône appellations. Louis Jaboulet, who directed the merchant house of Paul Jaboulet Aîné for many years, summarised its style as “hard and acid”; rusticity and unripe stalkiness were also once common here. As with other Northern Rhône wines, its drinkers were misled by the wine’s characteristically dark colour into thinking that it ought to have something gutsy and thumping about it. Every Northern Rhône red, though, is always structured by acidity; when grown on slopes and harried by the wind, Syrah at the 45th parallel must be a wine of edge, poise and perfume. In today’s wine world, which is awash with richness, even the “roasted slope” of Côte Rôtie now qualifies as cool climate.
The growing conditions in Cornas, moreover, vary enormously. It’s not a single hillside, but a pretty succession of constantly inflected parcels cut by streams. The wild plants settle and flourish where the slope angle lies shy of the sun. There are just 131ha of vineyards here (Châteauneuf-du-Pape is 24 times bigger), and they vary in altitude from 125m to over 400m; ripening dates thus vary, from the bottom to the top, by three weeks or more. An understanding of each parcel’s potential, and the willingness to garden rather than farm them, has refined Cornas.
So, too, has solicitous winemaking – though anyone wanting to understand the appellation should be aware that there are two contrasting schools here. The key point of difference is whether or not the grapes are removed from their stems prior to fermentation. Those winemakers who de-stem the grapes will produce wines of lighter and smoother textures, higher acidity and purer fruit flavours; those who leave the grapes on the stems will not only produce more palpably tannic wines, these will also tend to be riper in style and lower in acidity (if you are going to use the stems then full ripeness is vital, and the fact that stems contain water and potassium lowers acidity further). The use of stems, in other words, seems to reinforce the “southerliness” of Cornas.
New oak is sometimes used by those who de-stem; those who prefer to retain the stems often favour old oak barrels or tuns. Jean-Luc Colombo, now joined by his daughter Laure, has long been the Cornas champion of de-stemming, fruit purity and new oak (though he uses less new oak these days; no more than 20 per cent). He works with an astonishing 23ha of the appellation. Meanwhile, the Clape family – Pierre-Marie and his son Olivier – produce the reference Cornas for those who love ripeness and structure, in part by retaining all the stems in every vintage. Fans would no doubt like them to acquire a little more than their existing 5.5ha.
Colombo’s 2011 Les Ruchets is impressively complex, with notes of tar, cocoa, spice roots and incense, but its concentration is built around a smooth core of vibrant acidity.
Clape’s 2011 is much more rugged, full of pippy red and black fruits, with a powerfully grippy finish – though the sweetness of the fruits lends the wine a sensual appeal, and it is wonderfully textured. Despite the stylistic differences, what they have in common is an intense inner energy: there is often something vital about Cornas.
Most growers’ wines fall somewhere between the north pole of Colombo and the equator of Clape, often using between 20 and 50 per cent of stems. On the previous page I have listed the best performers from a recent 2012 blind tasting. This was a much more consistent showing than for any previous Cornas tasting I’ve attended, and the finest wines have a grandeur that was elusive in the past. However, they are also more ambitiously priced than they once were (£25 to £75 a bottle).
The Northern Rhône is lucky in that its four leading merchants (Chapoutier, Jaboulet, Guigal and Delas) are all well-run at present, and they are taking Cornas more seriously than they have done in the past – though if you are looking for tannic wealth, you should note that they are all total or partial de-stemmers.
Jaboulet’s high-grown Domaine de St Pierre has, in the 2011 vintage, much of the shapely classicism of this house under its new owners, the Frey family; not quite chunky, but almost. More shaggy and rugged, despite the absence of stems, is the 2012 organic Cornas produced by Michel Chapoutier with chef-restaurateur Anne-Sophie Pic.
Andrew Jefford’s blog “Jefford on Monday” appears each week on decanter.com
Illustration by Ingram Pinn