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CORNAS DINNER AT 28-50, LONDON, Nov 2010

I have to confess that a Cornas evening without an Auguste or Pierre Clape wine present is a bit like having the Ghost of Banquo hovering in the background. The dinner held at the recently opened wine-centric restaurant of 28-50 in London turned out to be just that. Organised by amateurs of Cornas who contribute to the Wine Forum of Tom Cannavan's http://www.wine-pages.com/ website, it was a wholesome evening, with enthusiasm in liberal supply for Cornas, fine food and breezy conversation.

The emphasis was on aged or mature Cornas, with those present all asked to bring a bottle - 12 in total, with Richard Katz of 28-50 lobbing in a very agreeable 1991 Robert Michel La Geynale when his glass ran unexpectedly dry. It was encouraging for me, having known Cornas as long as I have, to witness such enthusiasm. I carry the baggage of the past four decades in my mind, and remember the days in the early 1970s when there were hardly any young people making wine at Cornas, and its vineyard was being ripped up to build villas on the southern end near Saint-Péray, and hence near the industrial town of Valence. "Cherie, I`ve just bought a plot of land in some silly vineyard, but it will allow us to get out of the town at the weekends, and let the poodle wander around outdoors. We`d better lock him up at night - you never know with those local people. What? Oh yes, of course, what do you expect? It helps to know people in the right places."

There were a couple of villas built before the forces of resistance, led by Auguste Clape, hit back. But there were turncoats in the Growers` Union ready to sell out - those who reckoned Cornas had little future, and who wanted to cash in some chips. It was not all sweetness and light among the viticultural ranks.

The dinner assembled wines from a good variety of sources, big families - Paul Jaboulet Aîné and Chapoutier - and small, that is to say the rest. Chapoutier was a négociant wine, while the Paul Jaboulet Saint-Pierre reflected the vintage - hot, sunny, abundant 1999 - more than the terroir, whose granite and high location lend the wines a certain snap and cut if their crop has been fermented when at a reasonable, not overripe state.

The star moments of the show were when three glorious wines were served together, all made by Thiérry Allemand from his central site of Reynards. Thiérry has cultivated the enfant terrible image (even more enfant and plus terrible than the modernist Jean-Luc Colombo), but his is a sharpo mind, along with a keen sensitivity towards his terroir, one built up from a completely grass roots base - nil. He started out with grand-père Joseph Michel - Vincent Paris is Joseph`s grandson, the last of that line cultivating Cornas; Joseph was a kindly, experienced man of nature, his son Robert less at ease with himself and with people, so Joseph proved a fine tutor for the young Thiérry, who arrived in 1981 having worked in electricity generation across the river in the Drôme département. His first plot was 0.26 of a hectare (0.61 of an acre) on the very good central site of La Côte - next to some very old vines belonging to Auguste Clape.

He was therefore surrounded by sage, experienced influences when he started. Nowadays his is one of the finest Cornas, absolute top two or three material, and his Reynard, the top wine of his two, showed it fully. I had been extremely enthusiastic about his 1994 when I tasted it as a young wine, and here it was again - the child of a decent, but not star vintage. Alongside the 2000 and the 1991, it offered feminine qualities, sweet and floral airs combining with tangy graphite, a most becoming assembly - very correct traditional Cornas doing very well at 19 years` old. Reynards is the heart of Cornas, and when tasting it separately from other sites, its insistent purr of silken depth comes through straight away - something that takes Cornas to another level, close to Côte-Rôtie in finesse, and Hermitage in close-knit, textured fruit.

My wine of the night, however, was the 1991, a vintage that the growers knew was good at the time, but which the market ignored because Bordeaux had been pretty poor (although Burgundy was good, and also underrated). Its compact and terrestrial qualities had further unfurling to perform, but it was delicious, which is at least a lot of the point of the exercise. In this company, the 2000 had to be pretty hot to come through, and it did - a vintage with a low tannin quota, and only mild depth. The Clape 2000 magnum had been at a particularly harmonious, improved stage when drunk at Macéo restaurant in Paris the month before, and the Allemand Reynard 2000 showed notably fine fruit with ways to go, a small step-up on its youthful tasting.

The other Cornas wines were all sound, with youth and modernism in the form of the 2006 Granit 60 from Vincent Paris, (his La Geynale, first made in 2007, comes from a vineyard in which I have a share - a few Syrah veterans from the 1920s) and also the Paul Jaboulet Saint-Pierre. Otherwise, it was pretty full-on traditional wines and winemaking, led by Gilbert Serrette`s Dumien-Serrette 1999 and 2001 - the latter an STGT (Soil to Glass Transfer) wine. These are built around whole bunch fermentation, with ageing in used oak of up to 400 litres. Serrette`s main plot is in the south - on the sandy granite "shores" of Patou, which I feel always give more accessible, pliant Cornas than the wines from the central or northern granite which combine more iron and greater depth of fruit if made from old, south-facing vines.

The other veteran wine from a veteran, traditional winemaker was the 1990 Noël Verset. The Verset wines have always been ripe, perhaps edging towards volatile, and smoothly textured. The Clapes would have more bite and attitude. I have bought some over the years, and when drinking it, always carry the picture of Noël, with his rather squeaky voice, sudden gestures and eye for a belle femme, having to go to Valence in the late 1960s when in his mid-fifties to unpack goods at the railway station until 10.30 at night. His 1990 here was a true representative of that sun-filled vintage, and of the ripeness that was achieved on his arch-central site of Champelrose from then 50-year old vines. True to style, this flourished its charm and was much enjoyed by all present.

The Yvonne Verset wine I found more rustic, just less classy and smiling, but still capable of a decent show; along with the Chapoutier 1991, it showed again just what a good vintage this is. For some years, lunch at the Chaves in Mauves has been irrigated with their 1991 Hermitage red, a wine that Gérard loves with his hallmark dish of roast kid - kid with kid, really.

My bottle was a 1983 Guy de Barjac, from the old main family of Cornas, one that supplied most of the stained glass in the church, and resident in the village since the late 1400s. Guy died a few years ago, and now his sister comes to visit Cornas from Lyon, taking the train, and then the bus. A game mare, clearly, now in her mid-eighties. Guy was an innovator in his time, a person who accentuated elegance, as befitted a student of Latin and Gothic scripts. He worked with only massale, hand grafted cuttings of the old petite Syrah, and had cut down his fermentation time to 6 days in the mid-1970s - all in pursuit of a more pure wine: one could say that he was a precursor of much current, switched-on thinking. The 1977 vintage, a dilute year, prompted a re-think and a return to an 8 day fermentation.

Somewhere along the line a case of his 1982 and a case of his 1983 survived my moving around, and surfaced a few years ago. The hot vintage of 1982, which was especially and damagingly hot at harvest time if growers had no cellar cooling system, had given a wine that was rich, ripe, and sometimes overtly volatile. The 1983, a drought year with tougher tannins, represented those conditions accurately - it was reserved and rather funky to commence, but burned those notes off, and settled into a fine red fruit, somewhat stilted stride, its graininess always apparent. But it was well alive, and I enjoyed showing it to les enthusiasts - a piece of history in an agreeable bottle.

Cornas is now more expensive than it used to be, but to illustrate its quality, I would point out one or two observations. Hermitage was sold and shipped to Bordeaux in the 1800s to achieve three objectives: to act as medicine, saving poor vintages. To act as insurance, making borderline vintages more comfortable and easier to sell. To give star quality, making good vintages great, as happened in the Year of the Comet, 1811. Cornas was also sold to Bordeaux, but that is not much reported.

Cornas is also a supremely well-sited vineyard, a compact 3 km from north to south, its central areas in a concave bowl protected from the Bise, the North Wind that rushes down the Rhône valley. By 10 September in a typical year (but not 1999), it is 1.5° riper in alcohol than Côte-Rôtie. Thus there is always a rich heart to the wine.

When the 0.8 hectare of La Genale (the vineyard site name) was up for sale back in 2007, with Vincent Paris unable to afford the price wanted by his uncle Robert Michel, what struck me was that this was the same price as would be requested for what I consider to be moderate vineyards on the east end of the Hermitage hill, where the alluvion soils are also suited to apricot tree cultivation. So the central zone of Cornas was costing the same as the lowly east end of Hermitage: UNTRUE!!

What has held Cornas back has been the lack of a merchant to vaunt and distribute its wines; there were a few local merchants in Saint-Péray back in the 1950s to 1970s, names such as A Dubourg or E Vérilhac, whose wines I would find in crusty old liquor shops between Marseille and Vienne, but no-one of a high profile, nor a Restaurateur of standing, as Fernand Point at La Pyramide was for Condrieu. Paul Jaboulet and Chapoutier were mainly indifferent, Delas had holdings but let them go, and Guigal has never been interested - too busy getting things moving close to home in Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu. So it remained a peasant wine, made by worthy, but reticent locals. Hence a lot more verité than Showbiz, thank the Lord.

It is that verité that we can happily taste when drinking old bottles, but it is also a verité that survives, nowadays mainly in the hands of Clape, Balthazar, Allemand, Dumien-Serrette, Leminicier and Domaine Lionnet. Alongside are the wines of bright turks such as Guillaume Gilles, Domaine du Tunnel and Vincent Paris, with others also producing very correct wines such as Voge and Tardieu-Laurent. Floreat Cornas, I say, and that goes for the horse as well, more widely known around the world than the Mayor of this wonderful Ardechois village.

I would recommend 28-50 to those who want to drink on the spot or buy and take away. It is partly owned by Richard Katz, whom I knew back in the roaring 1980s, and to whom I introduced the Rhône (his words, not mine), in the shape of the then virile, complex Château de Beaucastel 1981. http://www.2850.co.uk/ 140 Fetter Lane, just off Fleet Street, London EC4A 1BT +44(0)207 242 8877.

THE WINES

*****  1991 Thiérry Allemand Reynard 
*****  1990 Noël Verset 
****(*)  2000 Thiérry Allemand Reynard 
****(*)  1994 Thiérry Allemand Reynard 
****(*)  1999 Dumien-Serrette Patou 
****  1991 Robert Michel La Geynale 
****  2004 Alain Voge Les Vieilles Vignes 
***(*)  2001 Dumien-Serrette Vieilles Vignes, STGT wine 
***(*)  1999 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Domaine de Saint-Pierre
***  1983 Guy de Barjac 
***  2006 Vincent Paris Granit 60 
***  1991 Yvonne Verset
**(*)  1991 M.Chapoutier special for Gauntley of Nottingham