It may not be the month of MAY, but the 80th anniversary of the appellation CORNAS that is being celebrated in late NOVEMBER/early DECEMBER 2018, prompts thoughts about just how long it takes for a wine village to ascend to the heights of having its own CRU, and to be recognised for its true worth, a pairing whose parts do not naturally run along the same timelines.
In the RHÔNE, the Daddy appellation is CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE. It was there in 1923 that the first French regulating laws were devised for table wines led by the BARON LE ROY of CHÂTEAU FORTIA – laws aimed at safeguarding CHÂTEAUNEUF from trafficking and general abuse, the first item of which stated: “only land capable of bearing lavender and thyme was to be cultivated, these two plants preferring an equally poor soil to the vine.” This charter led into the national laws of appellation, which were formally instituted across FRANCE in 1935, CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE joining in on that in 1936.
Politics and influence played a prominent role in the development and recognition of wine villages in the first half of the twentieth century, with BARON LE ROY the hero or villain according to your standpoint. He gave the green light to TAVEL, right across the RIVER RHÔNE from CHÂTEAUNEUF, to become its own appellation in 1935 – after all, it was ROSÉ, so presented no threat to CHÂTEAUNEUF! His hero status was confirmed with the TAVEL vignerons voting him PRESIDENT of their Union.
Meanwhile, at GIGONDAS, things were different. Growers would go cap in hand to the INSTITUT NATIONAL of APPELLATIONS d’ORIGINE – co-founder one BARON LE ROY – and ask for the right to ascend to their own appellation cru, away from the bottom of the pyramid, catch-all CÔTES DU RHÔNE designation. The answer, as CHARLES DE GAULLE said more than once in his life, was a resounding “NON”.
Unlike TAVEL, GIGONDAS and its red wines presented a threat to CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE. PRESIDENT of the INAO from 1947 until his death in 1967, LE ROY held the whip hand, prompting the then MAYOR of GIGONDAS, ROGER CHAPALAIN [DOMAINE DE LONGUE TOQUE] to record, with irony: “if we could prove that some POPE drank GIGONDAS, we would have our AOC appellation, and we would no longer be a CÔTES DU RHÔNE”.
LE ROY’s eventual passing was actually hailed by one of the GIGONDAS Committee when he wrote: “June 22, 1967, M FRANÇOIS AY announces to the Council that since the death of BARON LE ROY (this person having done a most beautiful thing for GIGONDAS, that is to kick the bucket, without any regret for us - on the contrary), the moment seems favourable for application of the noble appellation GIGONDAS.” GIGONDAS duly ascended in 1971, after 35 years of obstruction and delay, decades that were injurious to investment in the vineyard and cellars, injurious to the livelihoods of the growers, and damaging in placing GIGONDAS in the category of just another country wine.
In my lifetime, I have known CORNAS as a lowly drink at the bar country wine, while the merchants of HERMITAGE hoovered up hectolitres from domaines Cornasiens to place in their blended marvels such as the HERMITAGE LA CHAPELLE, or merchants from SAINT-PÉRAY such as EUGÈNE VÉRILHAC cherry picked excellent young wine for what was always a prized CORNAS under his colours. The presence of two barrelmakers at CORNAS attested to the shipping out of the wine in anything but bottle: such economics dictated a subsistence existence for most vignerons and vigneronnes of CORNAS, despite its status as an appellation since 1938.
I would say that it is only since 2010-12 that things have really taken off economically for CORNAS, although much of the heat around the price of its wines has centred on old ELVIS THE LEGEND bottles from deceased growers such as NOËL VERSET, or bottles from the 1980s and 1990s, whose current price is of no economic use to the growers today.
When considering the purchase of some vines at CORNAS in 2006, I researched the price vis-à-vis its most aligned appellation, namely HERMITAGE, since I felt CORNAS to be much underestimated. The price per hectare on LA GENALE, right in the best pound seats of the appellation, with a south facing granite slope planted in 1920s SÉRINE, a stream at the bottom, more rugged soils at the top, was the equivalent of a climat such as TORRAS ET LES GARENNES [alluvial, glacier soils] below the village of LARNAGE in the far east end of HERMITAGE, a spot closer in quality to CROZES-HERMITAGE than HERMITAGE in my view.
The decision to purchase at CORNAS, even setting aside the emotional ties I hold to the village and its growers, was straightforward. My children would have vines, rather than just books to remember me by, and that, surely, is the best of legacies – something running over a matter of decades – in fact just as long as it takes a wine village to achieve recognition and its true worth.
No sooner are vinifications finished, than off growers head once more into the vineyard to extract vines earmarked for the chop – they can be too old, or suffering from ESCA [a fungus that eats away at the wood of vines] or be SYRAH that is in bad shape from what is known as dépérissement [wasting away]. In the latter case, bright red leaves in autumn are a signal, as are crevasses or indentions in the vine wood leading them to gradually die. It is thought that vine grafting in part creates this problem, which is linked to clones, with some clones more susceptible than others, and to rootstock grafting, with the RIPARIA 110 & 99 graft the most vulnerable.
Heavy rain – several inches in a few days - in the last week of OCTOBER, 2018 did at least facilitate the digging out of the dead or very old vines. The replacements will be planted in the early spring, 2019. However, the extremity of the past two vintages has served to intensify the debate over what should be planted.
“Things are hurtling along now,” comments LOUIS BARRUOL of CHÂTEAU SAINT COSME at GIGONDAS. “Every year now, the approach of the grower is having to be more and more fine tuned, because of the extreme weather - drought, very high heat, seasons out of sync and so on. You can think it’s best to go up the hillside for fresher conditions, but you may be on a south-facing slope, which takes away some of that advantage. The micro-climate in each vineyard will be important.”
JEAN-PIERRE MEFFRE of DOMAINE SAINT GAYAN, also at GIGONDAS, has always been a keen weather watcher. He told me: “The Mediterranean at SAINTE-MAXIME, where my sister lives, is 21°C, instead of 14°-15°C – it was 28°C at the end of the summer, unheard of. With no MISTRAL wind this summer to turn the waters over, and bring the cooler water up from the depths, we are subject to these ÉPISODES CÉVENOLS – flooding in the AUDE, GARD and VAR départements, all along the Mediterranean, in fact – between the end of AUGUST and DECEMBER.”
“MAY 2018 was abominable with the onslaught of mildew after the wet spring. In a normal year, there are four to five days of mildew contamination; in 2018, there were 21 days of contamination. I know of one big estate at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE which treated the vines 22 times – in CHAMPAGNE, 15 times is already a lot!”
Certainly, the mildew in 2018 savaged the GRENACHE NOIR. After the coulure [flowers failing to convert into fruit] in 2017, it was the second consecutive year of near disaster for the region’s staple variety. By contrast, the MOURVÈDRE stood up better to the mildew in 2018, which was a saving grace for high quality organic properties such as CHÂTEAU DE BEAUCASTEL and CLOS DES PAPES. CÉSAR PERRIN of BEAUCASTEL remarked: “we had the luck of the MOURVÈDRE to bring complexity in 2017, while we now only prune the GRENACHE on biodynamic calendar fruit days, which has helped to restrict the incidence of coulure. The MOURVÈDRE has played a starring role the past two years.”
“I am more and more worried by the GRENACHE,” admits VINCENT AVRIL of CLOS DES PAPES. “Our spring cleaner was the MISTRAL wind, but that has been absent in the rainy springs recently. The MOURVÈDRE is now approaching 40% of our blend; I am glad we have had 20% of it since 1979, and that I increased it to 30% in 2001-2003, not just the other day.”
Hence MOURVÈDRE is more likely to be the vine of choice for replanting, but it must have its roots in humid soils, and stand in a sunny position. It does not do well in sandy soils – as opposed to the GRENACHE – nor does it do well fringed by trees and woods, which is why there is no MOURVÈDRE at CHÂTEAU RAYAS.
As for JEAN-PIERRE MEFFRE, he is taking a novel slant on his replanting of the 0.75 hectare he owns on JANASSE at COURTHÉZON in CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE. “I am going to be the only domaine making noting but white wine at CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE! I replanted this year, with 50% CLAIRETTE ROSE and BLANCHE, 20% PICPOUL [not prone to mildew], 15% GRENACHE BLANC and 15% BOURBOULENC. It’s too hot for ROUSSANNE, which gets too ripe, and the CLAIRETTE is an ideal base for the wine, well adapted to the region.”