I wonder how many of you can vividly remember the financial crash of 2008. I was in a lift in New York when I heard about the imminent collapse of Lehman Brothers, a softly spoken, fearful comment from a friend of mine. That was September, 2008. It probably seems quite a long time ago now.
Well, imagine if you had started a project two months earlier, in July 2008, and that project only came to fruition just now, in February, 2016. That would represent what could be termed a lot of hard yards covered.
Such has been the epic struggle of DENIS ALARY, President of the Growers Union of CAIRANNE, who in July 2008 deposited a dossier at the Ministry of Agriculture requesting the promotion of CAIRANNE from CÔTES DU RHÔNE VILLAGES to senior status, stand alone CAIRANNE, appellation d’origine protégée (as it now is). It’s a path trodden by RASTEAU recently, and before that, by BEAUMES-DE-VENISE in 2005. It’s a natural progression if the quality runs deeply and widely in an appellation.
However, disputes arose, often because the proposed redrawing of the vineyard area excluded 262 hectares, cutting the Villages nominated vineyard from 1,350 to 1,088 hectares under Cairanne cru. The discarded zones were mainly in the southern part of the appellation, and their wine henceforth will either be CÔTES DU RHÔNE or CÔTES DU RHÔNE VILLAGES without the name of a commune attached. The last point has not yet been resolved, but currently RASTEAU and VINSOBRES have ex-Villages land allowed to produce CÔTES DU RHÔNE VILLAGES, so that may be an option for Cairanne as well.
The decree applies to the reds and whites of Cairanne; the rosé will be sold as CÔTES DU RHÔNE. In practical terms, the next decision for the growers is whether to sell their 2015 reds and whites as CAIRANNE or CAIRANNE VILLAGES. According to DENIS ALARY, about one-third of the domaines will opt for Cairanne Cru, and two-thirds for Cairanne Villages with the 2015 wines.
“There are two reasons for this,” he explains in his lucid fashion: “the first is that the Villages wine status allows a yield of 41 hectolitres a hectare for the red wine, against 38 hectolitres a hectare as Cru red. For the whites, it’s 44 hectolitres a hectare as Villages, and 40 hectolitres as Cru. So in what is a full yield vintage, people have more wine to sell if it’s Villages, albeit at a slightly lower price.
The second is that by selling the wine as Villages, it can go out on the market, in bulk or bottle, by 1 March 2016. Those wanting to sell as Cru will have to wait for the official stamp of approval from the French administration and Customs, which could take until May or June 2016. If they choose the latter path, some growers have told me of their worry of having 2015 wine taking space in their cellars at the time of the 2016 harvest.”
DENIS confirmed that both he and his ALARY cousins at ORATOIRE SAINT-MARTIN will be in the group waiting until they can sell their 2015s as CRU wines. Usually Cairanne produces 35,000 to 37,000 hectolitres (HL) per annum, and about 10,00-12,000 HL of the 2015 will be sold as CRU, it appears.
A welcome consequence of the promotion is also an immediate increase in interest in Cairanne from the Rhône Valley négociant or merchant trade. There have been just a handful of merchants involved with the appellation previously – the PERRIN family of CHÂTEAU DE BEAUCASTEL, JULIETTE AVRIL, also from CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE, PIERRE AMADIEU from GIGONDAS and ARNOUX from VACQUEYRAS.
“At the VINISUD show (Feb 2016) in MONTPELLIER, I was approached by eight or nine Rhône merchants,” Denis Alary related; “they are interested in Cairanne, especially given the void left by the ailing CAVE DE CAIRANNE; the Cairanne red wine in bulk price runs somewhere between €250 and €270 the hectolitre, and is being favourably compared with RASTEAU, whose bulk price has gone up quite rapidly to €360 a hectolitre. That’s why the usual 4-6,000 hectolitres of Cairanne in bulk has risen to around 14,000 hectolitres of the 2014 vintage, sold during 2015.”
The CAVE CAMILLE CAYRAN, once a marvellous, forward-thinking paragon of Co-operative virtue in the 1970s when I first knew it, has suffered from mismanagement and excessive costs and has slipped dramatically in recent years. Indeed, the exodus of growers who simply hadn’t been fully paid for their crop has meant that it is now producing under one-third of its usual capacity across all appellations – a fall from 55,000 HL to just 13-14,000 HL. Dramatic signs of this collapse have also been visible in the vineyard, with prime site vineyards untended and neglected.
For around two years the Cave was officially in “Redressment Judiciaire”, which is a form of receivership, whereby the finances and cheque book are controlled by an outside appointee. In February 2016, it emerged from that position, with a deal that sees the Rhône négociant LES GRANDES SERRES extend their rented space to over one-third of the buildings. Les Grandes Serres own the bottling line at the Cave, and its service will be rented out to the Cave as and when it is needed. Other sources of cash flow for the Cave will come from Grandes Serres paying for stockage of their wines, and for the use of vinification facilities.
The Cave now has a rolling annual repayment schedule programme to repay their outstanding debts, be they to the banks or creditors. In 2015, they will be issuing as much wine as they can as CRU in order to sell it at a higher price than were it Villages. So a start has been made on the comeback trail.
I have the greatest confidence in Cairanne for the future: there are 45 domaines, over half of which make good wine. There are six Co-operatives that can sell the wine, and there is a widening négociant level of interest.
The promotion excites me, and I am sure that this village will continue to issue extremely good quality, garrigue-inspired wines in the decades to come. The building blocks for the next generation have been put in place. I say Bravo to the tenacious DENIS ALARY, and thank you, Sir.
LOUIS SOZET, game as a pebble, is the oldest working vigneron at Cornas. He will be 80 on 22 April this year. He now has 0.85 hectare and sells part of his crop to CHAPOUTIER, vinifying enough to give 400 bottles, many of which he sells at the MARCHÉ DE CORNAS in December each year.
Louis was doing his military service in Algeria when news reached him of his father JEAN’s sudden death from a brain clot in 1958 – “he was misdiagnosed, and went in three days,” recalls Louis. I served my final month with the regiment, then started full time on the vineyards (3 hectares in those days). I had worked with him since I was a boy, so got straight on with it.”
Louis worked two hectares for most of his life, the wine his sole source of income; he now rents out vineyards to the talented STÉPHANE ROBERT of DOMAINE DU TUNNEL, based at SAINT-PÉRAY. His two sites are EYGAS and CHAMPELROSE, both well placed. He describes the average age of his vineyard now as 35 years.
He has three nephews, FLORENT, MARTIN and ROMAIN, and a niece, OLIVIA, who will start a CORNAS under the title LES ENFANTS DE BERNARD SOZET in 2016, so the name will carry on.
His vinification is based on the classic Cornasien habit of whole bunch crop; until two years ago the wine was raised in a mix of used 228-litre pieces and 550-litre demi-muids. Since 2013 he has raised it in stainless steel, cutting back from 18 months to 10-12 months.
Louis’ 2013 is *** wine, and I say “chapeau” to him, someone I have often seen when visiting Cornas. His tenacity fits the rugged countryside perfectly.
His last word comes on the sudden, rapid expansion of the Cornas vineyards, especially in the high zones way away from the village. “I see a lot of planting now, without reason, clearing scrubland. People have to be reasonable. Experiments have always been ill-fated (néfaste), and people should be prudent. There are too many merchants imposing whatever they want in the wrong places.”
The review of CORNAS 2014, with nearly 60 wines assessed, is now available under WINES AND TASTINGS, 2014 NORTHERN RHÔNE, THE LEADING WINES.