Ardent supporters of the northern Rhône set up a vertical Cornas tasting in response to negative press. STEVEN SPURRIER took part and here shares his thoughts on the wines. As far as I know, nobody has bothered to come up with collective nouns for wines, so perhaps Decanter could request ideas from their readers and contributors. A Dance of Champagnes and An Inflation of Pomerols come to mind, but so does A Concentration of Cornas, for not only would this aptly describe the wine, but also the phalanx of bottles presented at Maceo, Mark Williamson's elegant restaurant in Paris, at a vertical Cornas tasting.

Ardent supporters of the northern Rhône set up a vertical Cornas tasting in response to negative press. STEVEN SPURRIER took part and here shares his thoughts on the wines.



As far as I know, nobody has bothered to come up with collective nouns for wines, so perhaps Decanter could request ideas from their readers and contributors. A Dance of Champagnes and An Inflation of Pomerols come to mind, but so does A Concentration of Cornas, for not only would this aptly describe the wine, but also the phalanx of bottles presented at Maceo, Mark Williamson’s elegant restaurant in Paris, at a vertical Cornas tasting.

The spur to this tasting was an article by Jancis Robinson in the Financial Times following a tasting she had with Cornas wines collected by importer Roy Richards and author Julian Barnes. Her opinion was

negative, finding dried-out wines, fruitless and severe when young and worse with age. This triggered two fervent supporters of the robust wines from the Rhône, Mark Williamson and Tim Johnstone, to enter the fray. They proposed another tasting to change the Robinson perspective. Jancis,

gallantly admitting that they were both more likely to be made Freemen of Cornas than she, gracefully accepted. The tasting – see notes below – covered 14 vintages from 1998 to 1971, with a magnum of 1971, brought by Auguste Clape, the father-figure of Cornas, showing that these wines can

easily last a generation.Cornas is the most southerly of the red wine appellations in the northern Rhône, just across the river from Valence, with the little-known Saint-Peray as its neighbour. From a possible 450ha (hectares) in an appellation created in 1938, 95ha are planted. Between 25 and 50ha of viable land are still available, for houses have been planted on the rest, and the current total shows an increase of 25% from 10 years ago. Three decades ago, there was less than 50ha under vines.

Syrah is the only grape allowed in Cornas, and chaptalisation is forbidden. No wonder the wine in cool years is a little lean, but then the average yield is 35 hl/ha from an allowed 40, which helps natural concentration. Most of the vines are planted en terrasse, like Hermitage, and all the work is manual. There are currently 32 growers and one Cave Coopérative (Tain) which owns 15% of the appellation. Until the arrival of the oenologist Jean-Luc Colombo, new wood was unheard of, although old barrels were replaced from time to time. For the true Cornas lover, using new oak is akin to putting milk in an expresso. Wines are listed under each vintage in descending order of how I rated them.

1998

Unquestionably a great year for the northern Rhône and thus for Cornas. Wines of dense colour, power and grip, but with such ripeness of fruit they may live forever.

l Thierry Allemand, ‘Chaillot’

(magnum)

Huge colour, pure extract of fruit and even a touch of violets. All ripeness, depth, length are a perfect expression of Cornas.

l Auguste Clape

Superb colour, deeply extracted ripe fruit, softer than the older Clape style. Very good but not the pure frisson of Chaillot.

l Eric & Joel Durand

Deep purple colour, ripe blackcurrants, firm fruit, supple tannins, lovely structure.

l Domaine Saint-Pierre,

Paul Jaboulet Aine

Good deep colour, pure blackcurrant/black cherry fruit, good concentration and quite a lot of oak, fine finish.

l Jean-Luc Colombo, ‘Les Ruchets’

Lovely deep colour and balanced ripe fruit, sophisticated, but a little jammy in this range.

l Domaine du Rochepertuis,

Jean Lionnet

Deep, rich colour, slightly smoky fruit, quite a bit of new oak, fine tannins, quite open.

1997

A dry and sunny September allowed growers to wait for optimum ripeness, with good results.

l Auguste Clape (magnum)

Big colour and deep, chocolatey fruit, warm and ripe, backed by Cornas earthiness,

lovely long fruit, very natural.

l Delas Freres, ‘Chante Perdrix’

Superb colour, lots of vibrant, ripe fruit, good berry acidity, typical Cornas, good ageing potential.

l Eric & Joel Durand

Good colour and ripe, slightly tobacco-y fruit, almost chocolatey as well, quite lush, fruity, quick maturing.

l Jean-Luc Colombo, ‘La Louvee’

Good firm colour, ripe, animally fruit, smooth, soft tannins, not evidently Cornas.

1996

Not as easy a vintage as 1995, but with good concentration and successful overall.

l Thierry Allemand, ‘Les Reynards’

Fabulous colour, deep, almost black,

tremendous fruit, pure blackcurrants,

excellent balance, still very young,

wonderful extract of fruit, a triumph!

l Thierry Allemand, ‘Chaillot’

Huge colour, big, even animally nose, superb extract of fruit, great ripeness with

a touch of wild violets, most impressive.

l Auguste Clape (magnum)

Wonderfully deep colour, ripe, rich fruit, even approachable now, seems to lack

the earthy tannins of Clape’s usual style, fine, à point.

l Eric & Joel Durand

Fine, deep colour, rich, blackcurrant nose, pure fruit jam, sweet but with high acidity and a touch of coffee, should balance out.

l Domaine du Rochepertuis,

Jean Lionnet

Big, youthful colour, a little chocolatey and almost sweet, good, spicy Syrah, but lacks the Cornas grip.

1995

A very good year in the northern Rhône, ripe and concentrated wines, open already, but

will last well.

l Auguste Clape, magnum

Huge colour, still almost blackish-red,

magnificent bouquet of pure, deep Syrah, even a hint of violets, ripe, good tannins, perfectly balanced.

l Eric & Joel Durand

Deep colour, no age at all, ripe, rather rustic fruit, still firm and tannic, good future.

l Domaine du Rochepertuis,

jean lionnet

Good youthful colour, quite ripe with an edge of acidity, supple and forward.

1994

Better than expected wines from a difficult, rainy vintage.

l Thierry Allemand, ‘Les Reynards’ (magnum)

Very big colour, ripe, meaty fruit,

fragrant, elegant, very good but just

lacks a little length.

l August Clape (magnum)

Big, solid colour, fine, violetty fruit, firm tannins, a stern rather than ripe wine.

1993

Constant rain in September combined with warm temperatures caused widespread

rot. Very uneven.

l Jean-Luc Colombo ‘Les Ruchettes’

Good colour, beginning to age, nice spice and soft sweetness, not evidently Cornas.

1991

A lower than average crop produced wines of great depth and concentration.

l Noel Verset

Very deep, intense, youthful colour, masses of fruit, ripeness and richness, now softening and maturing well, excellent.

l Thierry Allemand, ‘Chaillot’

Good deep colour, soft attack, ripe violetty fruit, well defined personality, fine, à point.

l Auguste Clape (magnum)

Fine colour, showing a little maturity, softer than expected but still showing the earthy Clape style, ready now.

l Thierry Allemand, ‘Reynard’

Huge colour, very deep for nine years

old, ripe Syrah spice, but a little soft and chocolatey, lacks a little grip.

l Domaine du Rochepertuis,

Jean Lionnet

Good colour, ripe, spicy fruit, a little on the sweet side, but good depth and roundness.

1990

A spectacularly good vintage. Rich, robust wines of great quality, the best since 1983.

l Auguste Clape (magnum)

Good solid colour, fine, meaty wine but also superb elegance, good balance and length. Classic Cornas and classic Clape.

l Thierry Allemand, ‘Vieilles Vignes’

Fine colour, really complex and almost Côte de Nuits black fruits and violets nose, very smooth, showing the ripeness of the vintage and the firmness of Cornas, excellent.

1989

A drought-affected year producing high levels of concentration, but not the 1990s’ elegance.

l Auguste Clape (magnum)

Huge colour, superb for 11 years old, nose packed with fruit with ripeness and spice, very ripe tannins, a beautiful, welcoming wine, ready now but will keep.

l Thierry Allemand, ‘Vieilles Vignes’

Good colour, ripe, mature fruit, very open, even tiring a little. Drink up.

1988

A very good year, producing wines strong in colour, extract and tannin.

l Auguste Clape (magnum)

Very good colour, powerful, meaty nose, robust, vibrant fruit, ripe with almost sweet concentration, a lovely wine.

1986

A large crop which was generally lacking in concentration.

l Auguste Clape (magnum)

Good colour, fine fruit, a bit chocolatey and hollow, but good for the vintage.

1985

Very ripe fruit produced wines with deep colour and good concentration.

l Auguste Clape

Deep colour, still firmly red, lots of fruit, tannins well blended in, ripe and earthy, very ripe grapes but has kept the Cornas firmness, very good.

l Noel Verset

Good mature colour, rather gamey nose with a touch of violets, superb expression of northern Rhône Syrah, attractive, almost pretty fruit, à point.

1983

Very concentrated wines for long-term ageing.

l Delas Freres, ‘Chante-Perdrix’.

Solid, mature colour, meaty wine, ripe fruit backed by leathery tannins, passing its peak.

l Auguste Clape

Bottle (from my own cellar) was corked.

1971

Balanced wines, but less good than either 1970 or 1972.

l Auguste Clape (magnum)

Good firm colour, still ripe with firm, sweet tannins, in the style of the 1997, quite plainly from the same terroir and family.

Even though the superb wines from

Thierry Allemand seemed to outclass those of Auguste Clape in recent vintages, it should be remembered that Clape produces a single cuvée from his 5.7ha, while Allemand makes a series of micro-cuvées. Just how micro they are is shown by the fact that Mark Williamson’s yearly allocation is just 12 bottles of each. We drank the Clape and Allemand wines with lunch, and they tasted even better.

Written by STEVEN SPURRIER