When I first visited Cornas, the village that abuts the granite flanks of the Ardèche hills in the Northern Rhône, it bore its own tapestry of everyday agricultural life, the rhythms determined by the seasons: fruit trees, vegetables, vines, a few goats up on high, an acceptance that life was a cycle of working the land and handing it on to the next generation, hoping that their lot would gradually improve.
In those early 1970s, Valence, the large town across the Rhône, had an occasional bearing on Cornas, not so much as a draw for office labour, more as a threat to the Cornasien hillsides, eyed by la gente rica valencienne as potential land for building their glitzy villas.
I was involved in a campaign to halt such building, the international support group to Auguste Clape and his friends who led the charge in opposing such desecration. One or two houses had got through the net before the shutters came down - for a while. Take a look from the vineyard of Patou towards Saint-Péray these days, and carbuncles do sadly exist on former vineyard slopes.
50 years later, the rhythms of Cornas have changed on the surface, with commuting to Valence from new build zones all around the village. Nowadays, it is the growers who have to fit in with the previously external forces, such as furiously driven cars hooting at tractors around the rush hour, and other signs of urban impatience – the antithesis of a viticultural setting.
And yet, scratch below the exterior, and there is still the pulse of a wine community, manifested by little rituals that evoke the times of yore. One such example is the dwelling of Mickaël Bourg, whose path into being a vigneron resembles that of the once outsider Thiérry Allemand when he made his way in the early 1980s, Thiérry starting with 0.16 hectare of 1961 Syrah, and another 0.1 hectare of overgrown land beside it – scraps, good scraps even, but scraps nonetheless.
Mickaël had no connection to the land – his grandfather was a mason at Cornas - and worked for two years as a mechanic before his first steps into the life of a vigneron in 2004, when he was 27. He started by working for Matthieu Barret of Domaine du Coulet, whose family owned around 10 hectares, and whose father had served as Mayor of Cornas – very much the top table.
His first vines were rented from Matthieu, and gradually he increased his holding, creeping up to one hectare, then bit by bit up to two hectares: the image of a patch here and a patch there gradually accumulating would be an accurate one. Two plots of Saint-Péray – 0.26 hectare and 0.36 hectare – and a smidgin of 0.2 hectare on the plain of Cornas for a vin de pays complete Mickaël’s empire.
In 2021, Mickaël took a firm step forward, moving into the house of the late legend Noël Verset, and also working from his cellars, which he has tidied up himself. Mickaël fully acknowledges his little part in extending the history of Cornas viticole, regarding it as great good fortune to be where he is now, the mystique of Verset acting as a spur for him.
Noël’s legacy endures in other ways as well, one of them less obvious, for Thiérry Allemand sleeps in the maestro’s old bed – “it was far too good and antique to be thrown away”.
Hence there is still a continuity, a viticultural theme, simmering below the surface of Cornas, and long may that continue.