NOËL VERSET, the Grand Old Man of CORNAS, died on the morning of Friday 11 September, 2015, just as his nephew FRANK BALTHAZAR, was bringing in the last of his harvest. It is a point not lost on FRANK, who purchased Noël’s vineyard on CHAILLOT in 2004.
While Frank was family, he didn’t really know Noël well in vigneron terms; he was a bit too young, and when he started, taking over from his father RENÉ BALTHAZAR, Noël had only two vintages to make, both in miniscule quantities. Noël’s last wine was 2006 – when, much aided by his son-in-law FLORENT, a horticulturalist, he was – wait for it – 87 years old. Mind you, Noël’s father EMMANUEL had lived until he was 104, according to THIÉRRY ALLEMAND, although others have told me 100. I will have to trot down to the Cimetière to check, faithful reader, which I have now done: see below. 100 it was - 1888 until 1988.
Thiérry Allemand’s relationship with Noël was close, as he explained: “when I was working with ROBERT MICHEL, I would go over to Noël in the evenings and weekends to earn some more money to help get me started. I did labelling, worked in the vineyard and so on. Noël sold me his REYNARD vineyard in 1986, and by then was suffering with his knees and legs going up and down the hill for so many years.”
A little known fact about their connection is Thiérry’s bed, yes, his bed, où il se couche. Over to Thiérry: “after Emmanuel’s death we were clearing out the house, and Noël said “we’ll put that on the fire.” I told him it’s far too good for that, so I paid him 100 Francs, cleaned and restored it, and that’s’ where I have slept the past years.”
CORNAS remains a village of the vigneron in my eyes – one of the most telling places that captures the ages old connection between working man and his environment. In part that is because it is a village at the foot of hills, a demanding landscape that speaks of France’s social history as well.
For Noël started like Thiérry – with nothing. In the nineteenth century, the richer members of Cornas lived in the village and cultivated vineyards on the near slopes. Their labour came from poorer families living above on the plateau – men who had a few goats, some fruit trees, grew a little cereal: the classic polyculture that I still encountered in the early 1970s. Their goods were moved out quickly after the harvest or when it was the time to send the animals to market, and there was no sense of romanticism about their work, a fact that can be overlooked by modern day reviewers.
Noël’s first harvest was 1931, when he was 12, and he then worked for his father until 1943, the year after marrying ALINE BALTHAZAR, upon which event he rented a vineyard for himself. Aline and René Balthazar were the children of CASIMIR BALTHAZAR, who owned a vineyard on CHAILLOT that he had bought in 1931 – and when Casimir died, that was split between the two children. 0.51 of a hectare duly became Noël’s to work and care for.
Noël’s first ownership arrived in 1948, when he bought the DOMAINE DE LA SABAROTTE from the local Cornas négociant Monsieur DELAYGUE. At the time, the swells of Hermitage in the shape of CHAPOUTIER and PAUL JABOULET AÎNÉ controlled the market in fine Rhône wines, even venturing into export. However, lowly CORNAS was not then considered worth an interest and its sale was left to merchants based either in Cornas or next door Saint-Péray.
Of course, this is ironic, given that CHAPOUTIER are a family from the ARDÈCHE, the département of Cornas. Names such as EUGÈNE VÉRILHAC, GILLES PÈRE ET FILS and DUBOURG would sell to local cavistes, including in the Vaucluse further south near Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I bought some 1959 and 1966 from a little shop in Orange around 1973 or 1974, for instance, and it cost a lot less than a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Cornas was a cheap, grossly underestimated wine, punto basta.
The SABAROTTE vineyard of nearly 1.3 hectares, containing First World War vines, lay at the heart of Noël’s wine until he sold it in 2002, half to AUGUSTE and PIERRE CLAPE, half to MAURICE COURBIS. Noël’s first choice for the sale had been MICHEL TARDIEU of the the classy merchant TARDIEU-LAURENT. MICHEL had helped Noël since getting to know him in 1994, when MICHEL started his business, then with DOMINIQUE LAURENT, who left in 2008.
"I had made a few suggestions to Noël as the years went by," recalls MICHEL TARDIEU - "maybe a racking here or there, that sort of thing. Noël took kindly to me, and one day said he would like to sell the SABAROTTE vineyard to me. I was very surprised, especially as I wasn't looking to buy vineyards. I have always said that, unlike many growers who these days seem to want to be merchants as well as vignerons, I was the rare case of a merchant who didn't want to be a vigneron!
Anyway a notary drew up the contract, but the day before it was due to go through, the SAFER organisation [the official body that acts on selling vineyards, notably to young or recently installed growers, then the most likely candidates after that] got in touch, and said they would be handling it. That was that. And it was sold to COURBIS and CLAPE, which was a decision taken by SAFER more than Noël.
There were, however, good reasons for both buyers being the chosen ones. AUGUSTE CLAPE was five years younger than Noël, and had worked prime Cornas vineyards for decades. They shared not only a mutual respect, but also an adherence to laissez-faire winemaking, the instinctive habits of letting the vineyard do the talking.
Meanwhile the more cavalier, disorganised and wily MAURICE COURBIS was also a veteran, but, like Noël, he was canny. And he had worked a vineyard on LA SABAROTTE since paying 120,000 Francs (£12,000 or close to US$20,000) to a notary’s wife in 1986 – a cheap price indeed for the 0.67 hectare of 1947 Syrah. So another 0.58 hectare on La Sabarotte went to a vineyard neighbour.
Over the years, Noël had shown that he could look after himself with a degree of tenacity, but no-one ever had a bad word to say about him. He had a tiny vineyard at the end of LES MAZARDS, for example, and sold this for construction in 1973-74, when the Cornas mayor was in thrall to the bigwig industrialists of Valence across the river. Planning permission had been given, so there was nothing shady, but having been there at the time, it was a moment when there was militant action (words more than deeds) against the building of villas on the vineyards of Cornas, with yours truly, TIM JOHNSTON (now owner of Juveniles Wine Bar in Paris) and the Clapes all shoulder to shoulder.
When I drink Noël’s wines, I feel they bear his soul in them, for there is mystery rather than an accumulation of obvious merits. That was how he was; his cellar had just a little brass nameplate, which was taken down in 2004, and when you walked the little way to the old door of basically his garage, you never knew whom you would find present.
Latterly, it was well possible that there would be disciples of KERMIT LYNCH – Californian girls or boys who wanted just to hang out, while Noël bestowed rather inscrutable smiles on them. The thought crossed my mind that perhaps B B KING received such visits from his fans to view both him and his guitar LUCILE. Certainly among such visitors was ERIN CHAVE, who then worked for Kermit.
Foot treading by the visitors was certainly on the agenda after the whole bunches had been introduced to the hangar, their juice placed in his little concrete vats. There were a couple of cap punchings and pumping overs, and the whole process lasted 15 to 18 days. Noël once told me the following anecdote with some relish: “in 2000 I had two American girls helping with the harvest, but I remember them most because they added a lot of style to the foot punching of the cap.”
After a manual pressing, the wine – dark Cornas of yore for much of Noël’s early years – would be raised in a 25 hl barrel bought from the south of France that boosted capacity, and 600-litre used oak casks, the youngest around five years’ old. Noël remarked to me that he preferred the demi-muid of 600 litres “because the wine ages more slowly, and just has more time than when it is in pièces of 228 litres.”
Two bottlings were performed, one after eighteen months and marked L1 on the bottom left of his front label, the other after 24 months, and marked L2. There was no filtration.
“Noël’s vinification was natural – there was a bit of SO2, but he was calm throughout, and served as an inspiration for me,” recounts Thiérry Allemand. “He did a few vineyard treatments, but worked completely between vineyard and cellar. ROBERT MICHEL, for instance, was more a vineyard man, while his father JOSEPH was more a cellar man.
Noël was also precise, and while his legs were tired, like all tranquil persons, he did his work and tasks at his own pace. He was a kind man – there was no noise, no scandal, and he appreciated life, enjoying jokes and being a bon vivant.”
PIERRE CLAPE also recalls Noël for similar virtues. “He never pushed himself forward,” he remarked; “he was discreet, and I never saw him enervated. He was simple, honest and super serious in his work. He was a force tranquille.”
For Pierre, the diamond in the Verset vineyard was CHAILLOT; “this gives very fine, very elegant wine,” he commented, “whereas SABAROTTE is very Cornas, and on the austere side.” Both Pierre and his father have remarked to me that it took them many vintages to work out Sabarotte – how to nurture its vines, select the good date for harvesting, and also slot it into their blend: this from the champion blenders and terroir men of Cornas.
I was sent a text by Thiérry Allemand telling me of Noël’s passing; he had spent his last four years or so in a home opposite Valence, his mind slipping as he did so. A few days later I was contacted by ERIC ASIMOV of the NEW YORK TIMES asking for a comment on Noël. Eric subsequently published an obituary of Noël. Had you told Noël in 1970 that he would have an obituary written on him in the premier newspaper of the USA, there would have been P G Wodehousian goggle eyed looks all round.
Thus it came to pass that RICHARD ZAMBUNI, who considers Noël’s wines as his favourite and most inspiring of all, sent me a mail asking if I would like to attend a Tribute Dinner for Noël in London on the last day of September. You bet I would. Richard is a London-based wine enthusiast and has a wide network of friends across the TOM CANNAVAN www.wine-pages.com forum.
Six people attended the dinner, each of us bringing a much treasured Verset wine. The vintages were 1988, 1991, 1994, 1995, 1998 and 1999. The venue was The Harwood Arms in Walham Grove, Fulham, south-west London, land of my football team, and a gastro pub with a healthy emphasis on game dishes, and therefore deemed entirely suitable for this occasion.
Hence we were going to drink and enjoy work by Noël Verset from when he was a mere 69 years’ old, until he was 80 years old. And wines that were made in the innocence of the day, when the grower hoped for the best, did his best, and was pleased if people liked the result. As GÉRARD CHAVE of HERMITAGE has always said to me since I was a young man: “where is the truth? The truth is in the old bottles.”
We started with an extremely bright HEIDSEICK BLANC DES MILLENAIRES 1995. A touch of age, but a delightful pitter patter about it. Then we got into proper matters, with a 2010 SAINT-PÉRAY LES PINS from BERNARD & FABRICE GRIPA, brought along because I knew Monsieur VERSET would have seen these vineyards during his life. This was genuine table wine, well balanced and parading 2010’s virtues of depth and freshness, with a little complexity, and several good years ahead of it.
The game dishes then came along, starting with Berkshire wood pigeon faggots with crisp shallots. Berkshire is a Royal County, since it houses Windsor Castle, so perhaps these were high pedigree birds before us. Their pals were the 1988 and the 1991, both fresh and accurately redolent of their summers and vintages. The birth year of my son and daughter respectively, also, which tied in agreeably.
The 1988 was more a bonhomme, a grounded fellow probably wearing blue, and just a bit baked from the dry summer. The 1991 had the alert features of the year, and swung along well. Both were fresh and admirable.
Next came a roast Yorkshire grouse with blackcurrant, wild mushrooms, cabbage and bacon, a darned good dish for the 1994 and the 1995. I considered the 1994 to be the surprise of the night – it was a year when ripening was difficult to achieve, so tannins could be a little sharp and intrusive, with a question mark about the depth of content for them. Not with Noël, however; this was a true STGT wine, well textured and possessing a salty, extended finish – vrai Cornas, very expressive and not in thrall now to its vintage.
The 1995 was quite rightly more linear than the 1994, gripping with its tannins, and closer to its vintage for the time being rather than the land whence it came. All the wines so far had been fresh and well defined, a tribute to the terroir and to Noël’s calm procedures in his cellar, never seeking to “go further”, to extract more than his grapes could stand.
The final duo of 1998 and 1999 were served with roast and braised Berkshire (royal, again, natch) fallow deer with crispy garlic potatoes, baked beetroot, pickled red cabbage and field mushrooms. Here there was almost a mixture of singing and crying from yours truly. These were both supreme wines, the 1998 an absolute tour de force, Cornas as true as it gets and as mysterious as it can get, a cornucopia of prompts, nudges, emotions – one of the best Cornas I have drunk since I started out in the early 1970s.
The 1998 wasn’t from an obviously grandiose vintage such as 1978 or 1990, which was all the more pleasing. It was a year that came good from mid-July onwards after hail had hurt some of the growers. At the outset, the 1998s lay in the shadow of the more overt 1999s with all their beating sunshine, but held a comfortable content that would stand them in good stead over time. Their proximity to place, rather like the 1994, was therefore greater than the 1999s.
Here the 1999 was a big wine filled with prancing red fruits and keen tannins, a wine that was ripe as a button. It started to stoke up some good Cornas mineral qualities after around four hours open as the vintage backed off and the terroir moved up the scale.
Thus we celebrated the life of the admirable NOËL VERSET, a man who was a true hillside dweller, whose efforts up the hill came to glorious fruition, and to late in life recognition. I never knew him as well as AUGUSTE CLAPE, GEORGES VERNAY at CONDRIEU or GÉRARD CHAVE, whom I consider to be my Professors, but he fitted into their mould of being wise and hard working.
I can see his shadow in blue overalls moving with a little discomfort around his tiny cellar, his pipette ready to dispense. He wasn’t as gregarious as RAYMOND TROLLAT at SAINT-JOSEPH, who would always have a saucisson ready to be carved with his pruning knife while tasting together. But he stayed the course in extraordinary fashion, and illuminated the lives of many people, including those such as KERMIT LYNCH, his American importer, and MARCEL ORFORD-WILLIAMS of THE WINE SOCIETY in Britain, who imported Noël’s wines from 1988 onwards.
To end I reproduce some words from MARCEL in a moving tribute to Noël, and after that there are some tasting notes from the Tribute Dinner.
“Seeing him at work was like seeing a glimpse into the past. Winemaking wisdom was passed down the generations. All the work was manual and over the years, sixty-degree slopes would have their revenge with surgery on hips and joints. ‘I can still climb up the slopes but find it hard to walk down,’ he told me. In his prime he was still making his own grafts to replace dead vines though towards the end of his days he became reliant on others.
His cellar was tiny, just a garage next to the house and everything again was done by hand. There is a concrete tank where the wine was made; treading was done the old way by foot. And in an age of making umpteen different wines, Noël made just the one wine.
I first met Noël in 1989 thanks to his UK importer, Roy Richards and Mark Walford, and the first wine I tasted was the 1988 vintage, from barrel.
I was smitten. Technically, it was hardly the most accomplished of wines; they were more than a little rustic yet there was honesty, generosity and simplicity that made so attractive. And with a stew served for the lunch at the local restaurant, his wines were fantastic. Vintages followed suit, each offering a slightly different facet on the same theme. I’ve only just started to drink the 1990, which is outstanding.
Noël Verset was a gentleman with a short stature, a bald head and deeply wrinkled face which would crease whenever he smiled, which he did quite often. He would chuckle and laugh when thinking of the past and amusingly he spoke with the squeakiest of voices. He was always dressed in blue, true ‘bleus de travail’, no longer seen quite as much.
He once drove me around the vineyards in an ancient little Renault van. He was so short; his head was barely visible above the wheel. I remember mentioning the fact that he didn’t seem to be applying any brakes when driving. ‘You don’t really need brakes to stop,’ he said, and pointed to a heavy stone in the back of the car: ‘I use this to stop it rolling down the hill.’
He walked with a pronounced limp, swaying a bit from side to side. In the cellar, he had two oval oak casks, then one 500-litre barrel and one smaller barrel, mostly used for topping up the others. When I turned up in October to taste the wine, he would grab a decidedly rickety old wooden ladder which had one foot shorter than the other and then swinging somewhat, compensating for both the ladder and the uneven earthen floor, he would climb to the top of each of the two casks to take a sample. The young wine was dark, limpid, with the smell of dark fruits, sometimes olive and Provence herbs. If ever there was ever a wine that told of its origins it was Noël Verset’s Cornas.
Rest in Peace, Noël.”
1988 **** the robe has tiling in its red. The nose summons a farmyard density and stewed plums, a ferrous clip – it reminds me of old fashioned, 1960s or 1970s Pinot Noir from the Nuits; there is a little crispness in the fruit. It is grainy and still right in the game after three hours, with red fruits on parade, and a clearer tone to it. The palate unveils a lithe, sinewy run of red fruit, cooked fruit, with a dentelle freshness on the end. It fires its shots in different directions, and the texture envelops you well. There is a little baked quality on the run to the finish, which captures the vintage and the dry conditions well. The finale is live and really clear. This would give many a 1988 Côte-Rotie a good run. After four hours (six open, thus) it understandably becomes more Spartan and clipped on the aftertaste. This was double decanted two hours before its entrance on stage. This is L1, the first lot bottled. 12.5°. 2022-24 Sept 2015, London
1991 ****(*) attractive red robe is till full of running. This has a classic, violet-inflected first aroma, an intense plum centre, comes with dance in its step, a beguiling trail of mixed airs, a nudge of black pepper. This is classy, calm, and has a floating, misty elegance. After three hours, the bouquet gives the picture of small, very ripe grapes. There is a wonderful debut to the palate, a ferrous-tinted essence of red berry and red stone fruit, with still vibrant tannins. It has a delicate tenderness along with the steel of a younger wine, the texture silky. The finish is fresh. This offers joy in the glass. This is the only bottling of 1991. 12.5°. 2025-26 Sept 2015, London
1994 ****(*) healthy, nicely full red robe. This has a curvy bouquet, which is grounded, de la terre, gives airs of brewed stone fruits with a direct zip about it, a little varnish, violets and a spark of iron together. This is true and STGT wine. The palate is ripe, fully fronted, broad, textured from within. The finish is salty, extended. This is a surprise – the vintage is humble, the wine isn’t. Allez Cornas! It is wonderfully true Cornas, and spreads the picnic rug widely, expressively. Joy here. After 3+ hours it tightens up on the nose, suggests pine trees and resin. The palate is also tight, with a real ping of grip, and is very long lasting. It turns out to be the surprise of the night, when keeping company with the 1988, 1991, 1995, 1998 and 1999. This is L1, the first lot bottled. 12.5°. 2027-29 Sept 2015, London
1995 ***(*) the robe is still a full red, and doing well. The bouquet is crisp, clear, direct and full, very 1995; there is also a caramel aspect, airs of simmered black berries, bacon fat, black olives. This is pretty seamless, a compact density present. This is like spare ribs – it has a linear quality, and ends with a calm push. Droplets of blueberry fruit and salt tang appear on the aftertaste. It is a very accurate 1995 in its linear expression; there is lovely detail on the tip of the tongue, real precision. It grips with its tannins, and is good and true to its year. It is just a touch quiet on the finish, as the content’s drive recedes, the fruit dips - this shows as it breathes. There have been better bottles of this from the same lot, it appears. This is L2, the second lot bottled. 12.5°. 2026-28 Sept 2015, London
1998 ****** full red robe, legs visible. Has a sweetly inflected nose, a profound, floral and gently simmered red fruit aroma, notes of fresh grip, just a tiny volatile edge perhaps, noble VA. It develops and extends its breadth and persistence as it airs, and along come blueberry fruits, summer flowers, menthol. This is a feast of variety on the nose. The palate is brisk on the attack, its depth well founded; it courses with a dark berry fruit stretch of self-contained matter. It could, but doesn’t, give freely of its undoubted depth, and prefers to tuck away multiple cards up its sleeve. The acidity is lively – this is very beau, is Grand Vin, an STGT wine that assembles suavity, balance and expression, and all important mystery. A Beauty, quite exceptional. It is one of the best Cornas I have drunk for decades, right out of the top drawer. Noël made this when he was 79 years old, for goodness’ sake! This is L1, the first lot bottled. 12.5°. 2031-33 Sept 2015, London
1999 ***** still dark red; the nose is bold, more bold than the 1998, more en avant and plump. It is still very solar, has rays of sun all over it, along with red meat and droplets from that ripeness. The depth comes from within, is a real accumulation of smoky, dark berry fruit, has a light spicing. It is ripe as a button. The palate runs with prancing red fruit, keen tannins lining it, a jeune homme here. It is crisp and fresh as it ends. It is a cousin to the 1995 – one the Nord, this the South, both wines still on their vintage. The aftertaste is meaty, and it runs fiercely as it finishes after four hours, has good mineral qualities. This is L1, the first lot bottled. 12.5°. 2029-30 Sept 2015, London
Bonne Nuit, Noël.