Cornas – The Northern Rhône’s Best Kept Secret

There are more famous wine regions in the Rhône Valley. There are wine regions with greater reputations. But it’s the little village of Cornas that makes some of the best value red wines in the northern Rhône.

The steep terraced vineyards of Cornas.

The steep terraced vineyards of Cornas in winter.

While you’ll be lucky to see any change from 30€ for a bottle of Côte-Rôtie bought at the cellar door, and red Hermitage tends to start somewhat north of that, good, often great Cornas can be had for less than 20€. Even the top cuvée from a fabulous winemaker like Johann Michel will set you back only 35€. Hardly cheap, I grant you, but a bargain when put up against the wines of its neighbours. And as Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and red Hermitage share the same grape variety – syrah – and similar steep hillside vineyards (up to 60º slopes in Cornas) with similar granite soils, it’s hardly surprising that there’s a family resemblance. All of which may explain why I work with four Cornas “vignerons”, as many as in any other appellation, and why there is more Cornas in my cellar than any other northern Rhône red. (You could argue that the vineyards of St. Joseph share all those attributes and its wines are even cheaper, and you’d be right, but there the vines face more east than south so, as much as I love a good St. Jo rouge, the wines are less ripe and less grand. Their qualities are different.)

The typical granite soil.

The typical granite soil. It’s spring and the young vines have just started to produce leaves.

It’s not even as if the wines of Côte-Rôtie and Hermitage are rarer. The Cornas vineyards cover 130 ha (about 320 acres), almost exactly the same area as Hermitage. And given the boundaries of the appellation and the nature of the terrain there’s little room for growth. In comparison, Côte-Rôtie is more than twice the size. And if we’re talking about history, well Cornas has that too: the Romans probably had vines in Cornas 2,000 years ago. By the 10th century, the Canon of Viviers was writing that the church in Cornas was “surrounded by vines”.

One thing Cornas hasn’t got is a long history of bottling and exporting its wines. Until the 1950s, much of the wine was still being sold by the winemakers “en vrac”, that’s to say in bulk, to local restaurants who would sell by the glass or by the carafe straight from the barrel, or to private individuals who would carry out their own bottling. It was only once a small number of merchant houses, particularly Paul Jaboulet and Delas Frères, started buying and blending wines from smaller producers and bottling the results under their own labels that Cornas started to be seen outside the immediate region.

Mika outside his cellar

Cornas winemaker Mickaël Bourg outside his cellar

Cornas’s reputation is as a full, burly wine, the country cousin of the more civilised Hermitage, a wine that needs many years for its fierce tannins to soften before becoming drinkable. That may have been true at one time, but that reputation is certainly exaggerated now – there’s a whole generation of producers making wines that lack nothing in concentration but which can be enjoyed in their relative youth: Mickaël Bourg’s 2011 “Les P’tits Bouts” has been delicious almost from the day it was bottled and the 2012 is promising to be almost as precocious (admittedly, his 2009 is still a bit of a monster); I tasted (and bought) Johann Michel’s 2012 “Classique” recently and although it would be a shame to drink it so young – it will only get better with age – it’s very easy to enjoy right now.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Johann Michel in his tasting room.

Jacques Lemenicier has a large part of his vines sited high up in the appellation, at around 300 metres. The slightly cooler temperature up towards the top of the hillside helps give his wines real finesse and elegance, rivaling many a Côte-Rôtie, without any sense that his wines are green or unripe. Of the producers I work with, only Alain Verset makes a wine that is determinedly traditional: no destemming of the bunches, a basket press for squeezing the handpicked grapes, maximum extraction, old rather than new barrels. His wine is equally delicious in its own way but does require a little more patience. Even so, the 2006, ’07 and, especially, ’08 are perfect for drinking now, less for the fruit (typically blackcurranty when the wine is young) and more for a whole host of spice flavours including cinnamon, clove and sandalwood. And that 2008 is available right now for just 17€, that’s about £14 or 22$.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset with the vineyards of Cornas behind them.

Alain and Emmanuelle Verset with the vineyards of Cornas behind them.

It would be remiss of me to not mention a few other producers – even if I don’t work with them, I’m not that biased. Auguste Clape is the star name in the region, although his wines aren’t cheap in anybody’s book; Stéphane Robert’s Domaine de Tunnel and Vincent Paris both make some delicious wines; I’ve never been disappointed by Alain Voge’s Vieilles Vignes wine; and Delas is also making very good Cornas at the moment. But whoever’s name you come across at your nearest wine merchant, the wine will be worth a try. It won’t be Hermitage or Côte-Rôtie, but it will be proudly Cornas.

Santé

Paul

Note: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. If you’d like to visit the region to see for yourself why we love Cornas you know who to contact. We also have a Facebook page with an ever-growing list of likes where you can keep in touch with what’s going on. Just follow the links.

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