Winemaker, consultant and bon viveur, Jean-Luc Colombo is a driven man. STEPHEN BROOK finally tracks him down
It seemed like a bright idea to suggest a profile of Jean-Luc Colombo. Over the past 12 years this dynamic man has done much to banish the last traces of rusticity from Rhône wines and, in his role as consultant, has persuaded growers throughout the region to polish their winemaking.Colombo readily agreed to an interview. Then I remembered I’d have to get him to sit still for long enough. Eight years ago he stood me up for an interview, and though I have met him many times since, history almost repeated itself. An appointment to visit the vineyards he is developing near Marseille, and stay near Les Baux, was soon cancelled, and I finally caught up with him at the end of a meeting of the Rhône Vignobles, the marketing group he helped to found for producers throughout the Rhône and the Midi.
We met at his house, perched high among the almost vertiginous schist slopes of the Cornas vineyards where he first acquired land in 1986. How did he get here? ‘I studied pharmacy, as did my wife Anne,’ he explains, ‘but I couldn’t help being interested in wine and studied at Montpellier and Bordeaux, where I worked at various châteaux before continuing my studies in Epernay. I set up my lab as an oenologist here in 1983. But it was hard to make money, as most producers paid me with wine or rabbits, not cash. By 1987, I was making wine here, and we also opened a pharmacy in the village. But in 1993 we sold the pharmacy and used the money to buy more vineyards.’
Today he owns about 10ha (hectares) in this small appellation and expects to buy 10 more. In addition he leases various parcels. ‘It has been a huge amount of work. We had to clear the scrub, rebuild terraces, create access roads, plant vines and look after the vineyards. I like to develop them, but then I hand them over to Anne, who manages them and in some cases makes the wines too. This is a great help to me, as I spend about three months of the year travelling.’
We take a tour of the vineyards by jeep. First stop is Les Ruchets, his finest vineyard in Cornas. We slither down, admire the old vines, then stagger back up to the jeep. It is fast growing dark but the tour continues, with Colombo telling me his story as he drives. I try to take notes as we bounce over the ruts, but my notebooks come to look like a Jackson Pollock painting. He shines his headlights onto barely discernible patches of vines, which I do my best to admire. ‘It is getting dark,’ remarks Colombo, as though he has only just noticed. And so we return to the house, where his dog Haut-Brion is waiting, soft toy in mouth. Colombo clears some space in the dining room and hauls in a dozen or more bottles.
Labour of love
It’s not easy to get a grip on the Colombo range. Some wines appear under his own name, but he also runs a négociant business. A few are produced from his own vineyards such as Les Ruchets, others from purchased grapes or a blend of sources. They include four cuvées of Cornas (the best tend to be Les Ruchets and La Louvée), red and white Hermitage, St Joseph (notably the new-oaked Les Lauves); a joint venture with Etienne Montes in Roussillon, which is now being phased out; and a new joint venture with Mas de la Dame in Les Baux, with whom Colombo is developing the vineyards near Marseilles. This is clearly his current obsession and why he was so anxious for me to drive there with him. The particularity of this vineyard, Côte Bleue, is that it lies between the Mediterranean at Carry-le-Rouet and an inland lake, giving it an unusually cool microclimate. There were old vines planted here, which have been partly grafted over to varieties such as Roussanne.
Although Colombo is best known as a consultant, he is a different creature from, say, the typical Bordeaux consultant, who may only visit a property once or twice a year to help blend the wine, while underlings take care of wine analyses back at the lab. Jean-Luc takes a clear personal interest in the properties he works with, advising on the strengths and weaknesses of the vineyards as well as the winery equipment. Practices he insists on include destemming, selective harvesting at optimal ripeness, temperature-controlled vinification and a healthy dose of new oak, but he takes care not to impose a uniform style on the wines he oversees. He has a powerful personality, and if he is a prophet, he’s not recognised as such in his own village, where he is still regarded by some with suspicion as a dangerous subversive. Nor is it surprising that sometimes things go wrong.
The wines he and Anne are producing under their own label are impressive. Not all are aimed at the top of the market. From the Côte Bleue under the Moulin de la Dame label comes a pretty 2000 red, full of spicy cherry fruit. The same vineyard also provides Les Pins Couchés, a more tannic and complex offering, half Syrah and half Mourvèdre. Collines de Laure, named after their daughter, is a bottling of young vines from the Cornas vineyards. I particularly enjoyed Les Forots, made from 60-year-old Syrah vines just outside the Cornas appellation, thus sold as Côtes du Rhône. The top reds include the Cornas Ruchets but also Cornas Méjeans (from rented vines), which in 1998 showed redcurrant and pepper tones; the 1999 Ruchets is all black fruits. Les Lauves is his top St Joseph, densely packed with fruit which easily absorbs the new oak. The 1999 Hermitage Rouet is more fleshy and velvety, powerful but not heavy.
Among the whites, the 2000 St-Peray La Belle de Mai from Roussanne, vinified and aged in new oak, is too sweet and broad for my taste. But the 2000 Condrieu has honeysuckle on the nose and is all silk on the palate. The 1998 white Hermitage is rich and creamy, with little of the austerity that can mark young white Hermitage but then it is boosted with 50% Roussanne, which makes it atypical. Overall, Colombo’s touch is surer with reds than whites. Or perhaps it’s that the characteristic voluptuousness of his style is a touch over-the-top with oaky whites.
Colombo lives his life in a state of high-velocity chaos, but this seems to work well for him. Rhône Vignobles has remained loyal and coherent for over a decade, in spite of a few defections. His own wines have improved, showing a modernity of style that may shock some old-timers in the Rhône. He is restless, with a zest for innovation, and this year’s obsession is the Côte Bleue. Who knows what he’ll be up to next?
Stephen Brook is a contributing editor to Decanter
Written by Stephen Brook