Cornas and All Its Wild Beauty

Posted by | Posted in Wine Education | Posted on 10-15-2012

The vines of Cornas.

For me, Syrah is one of those grapes that I love in all its shapes and forms. But it’s the rustic and searching wines of Cornas that routinely put a smile on my face, primarily because so many demand contemplation.

The wines certainly aren’t for everyone. While powerful and masculine, they rarely offer rich, ripe fruit. Instead, they present raw, oftentimes rough notes of blood, meat, and pepper — backed by fruit that’s more savory than rich. I often say the wines of Cornas are gentle giants — as they’re powerful, but can offer a tremendous amount of elegance, especially as they age.

These qualities no doubt come from Cornas’ unique terroir.

The AOC itself is very tiny. In fact, it’s one of the smallest appellations in the Rhone Valley — the vineyards cover just 225 acres. To put that in perspective, Lafite Rothschild has 277 acres under vine, simply for its Grand Vin!

The region is incredibly rugged, with steep hills that make growing extremely difficult. The vineyards are narrowly cut into the hills – mainly facing south and southeast — and form what the locals call “chaillées.” The hills protect the vineyards from the Rhone’s famous Mistral wind. This protection allows the region to have a more stable temperature, allowing it to be one of the first appellations harvested.

The soil varies significantly from one plot to another, but all sit on granite subsoil. In the north, many vineyards feature chalky soils, marked by sand and rocks. In the south, the soil is mostly clay. Producers like Thierry AllemandEric and Joel Durand, and Domaine Courbis produce single vineyard wines where you can see the differences in the varied soils of Cornas.

By law, all Cornas AOC wine must be 100 percent Syrah. This differs from the rest of the Northern Rhone, where blending of Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussane is allowed, if not always practiced. (Many vintners feel that white grapes help with color stabilization and floral aromatics.)

Winegrowing has an ancient tradition in the region. Wine has likely been made in the region since Roman times, with the first written record dating back to 885 AD. Legend has it that Charlemagne was a huge fan of the wines, and often had them shipped to his residence in Aix-la-Chapelle. He was just one of several famous French lovers of Cornas.

In the Celtic language, Cornas means “burnt land” – perhaps a reference to the notes of charcoal and smoke one can find in the wine. Cornas became an official appellation in 1938.

For me, the wines of Cornas are always a real treat. While I’ve mostly sampled young bottlings, they reward real aging – the ones I’ve had with more than 10 years of age really show their stuff.

Check out some recent tasting notes below the fold. All bottles were purchased, either by me or acquaintances at small tastings:

2005 Domaine Courbis Cornas La Sabrotte
Nose: real deep and powerful nose of olives, black cherries, all sorts of meaty tones, liqueur and some bits of purple florals. Tight, but showing off a real brute of a wine.
Taste: big and full bodied with big tannins and deep tones of olives, black cherries, liqueur and a lot of black fruits. A lot of depth on this with the tannins that one would expect from a young cornas. The palate is being held back a bit.
Overall: This could be a real stunner in the making. A lot of depth and power, this had a real class to it to go with the power. Will certainly need time, but it should really blossom when it does get some age on it. (92 pts)

1999 Domaine Auguste Clape Cornas
Nose: very tight and was unforgiving at first. I kept this in my glass for a while and it started to reveal great tones of black pepper, black olives, black cherries, tapenade tones and bits of spices as well.
Taste: full bodied with very gripping tannins. This is very young on the palate but has good depth with tones of black pepper, black cherries, tapenade, spices and dark florals.
Overall: this is a bit unforgiving right now. Everything is there though for this to become something special. (92 pts)

1999 Noël Verset Cornas
Nose: This is just pure, unadulterated cornas. On the tighter side, but showing off a ton of depth with great tones of black fruits, charcoal, bacon fat, black pepper, animal hides and black cherries.
Taste: Great full body with some ripping tannins. Underneath those tannins exist deep and searching tones of black fruits, black pepper, white pepper, animal hides and black cherries.
Overall: This was extremely young. It has tons to offer and is still tremendous right now. One really does owe it to themselves to experience a verset, because that’s exactly what it is: an experience. (94 pts)

1999 Thierry Allemand Cornas Reynard
Nose: this was utterly gorgeous from the get go with deep and wafting tones of black fruits, smoke, bacon fat, animal tones, violets, and dark spices. The nose is very savory as well and wraps you into it.
Taste: Full-bodied with a great feel and loads of depth. The tannins are still showing the youth of the wine, but there is a refined nature to the great tones of black fruits, black pepper, dark spices and loads of bacon fat.
Overall: This was just a flat out wonderful wine. Still young, but this was just a real pleasure to have. There was this great savory quality to it on both the nose and palate with depth to spare.(95 pts)

1998 Alan Voge Cornas
Nose: Classic cornas nose filled with black and white pepper, black cherries, olives, bacon fat, black fruits and some roasted meats. There is a bit of sweetness to the black fruits with real good balance overall.
Taste: Fuller bodied with good tannins still showing themselves off. Well balanced with real good depth and tones of black pepper, some meaty tones, bacon fat, black cherries, some bits of smoke and an underbrush quality as well and even some hints of lilacs lie underneath.
Overall: This had been decanted for about 90 minutes. Showing itself off very well and is pure Cornas. Some browning at the rim, this isn’t showing off too much age to be honest. This bottle could go a good way and is just entering its window. (91 pts)

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