Drink like a King on a commoner’s budget

by Tom Fiorina on April 27, 2014

Our local wine shop, Le Temps des Vendanges (which I’ve written about previously), has held several wine-tastings this spring. This post discusses a dégustation that featured the wines of Thierry Allemand from the Cornas appellation in the northern Rhône Valley.

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Thierry Allemand’s wines from Cornas.

From more than 500ha (1,235 acres) in the late 19th century, the Cornas appellation has shrunk to its present size of just over 100ha (247 acres), the size of a large Bordeaux estate. Its fortune’s also sunk proportionally. Up until the mid-1950s, negociants sold most of the wine produced here, which was tannic and rough. The few winemakers who bottled their own wine used the generic Côte du Rhône label instead of the Cornas name.

Things started to improve in the 1960s when winemakers such as August Clape, Marcel Juge, Alain Voge and Robert Michel began showing why French kings since the time of Charlemagne had appreciated the Syrah wine (for this is the only grape variety grown here) from Cornas. Thierry Allemand started working with Cornas vigneron Robert Michel in the late 1970s, learning how to work by hand the terraced hillsides that are too steep for tractors and how to vinify wine the traditional way.

With almost monastic devotion Allemand would work early in the morning on his vines, before his day job at the Michel vineyard started, and then again in the early evening before the light faded, rebuilding terraces that had been abandoned to the garrigue, the Mediterranean scrubland made up of impenetrable, low growing bushy plants. Over a 15-year period, he added half- and one-hectare parcels until he had a total of five hectares. It doesn’t sound like much until you realize that each hectare of vineyard here requires up to 500 hours of manual labor annually.

Cornas vineyards are predominately on granite soil, but some consist of decomposed granite (called gore), and granite with clay in varying quantities. Because of the varied soil conditions, and different vineyard expositions that affect the time when the grapes ripen, Allemand vinifies each parcel separately. The two wines at the tasting I attended were his Chaillots (a north-eastern-facing plot with clayish soils) and Reynards, named for a sheltered, natural amphitheater facing due south, reputed, since historical times, to produce the best Cornas wines.

The two red wines are produced in similar ways: foot-stomping the grapes to gently squeeze out the juice; a long fermentation, using the entire grape bunches, with the temperature varying between 18° and 30°C (64° and 86°F); the use of indigenous yeast; the addition of little or no SO2; and up to two years of aging in well-used oak barrels.

Cornas vigneron Thierry Allemand (left) relaxes with Le Temps des Vendanges wineshop owner Eric Cuestas.

Cornas vigneron Thierry Allemand (left) relaxes with Le Temps des Vendanges wineshop owner Eric Cuestas.

The wines are similar to those made at the Domaine Léon Barral, where I did my winemaking internship. An intense, complex nose of ripe cherries, chocolate, and wet-stone and truffle aromas is followed by tasty, spicy red fruit that is supported by a slightly saline, mineral backbone. The wines have a brightness and texture that is alive with electricity, with a balance between the fruit and acidity that entices you to take another sip to discover another flavor. And the length is breathtakingly ethereal. These balanced, complex wines, with their silky tannins that accent meaty notes, balanced by aromatic fruit, are certainly wines fit for a king.

The Chaillots wine (2010) was slightly more elegant, while the Reynards wines (a 2011 and a 2010, with the 2011 being my favorite of the tasting) were more structured and full-bodied. My mention that the wines reminded me of Didier Barrals’s brought a smile to Allemand’s face. He said that they were good friends, and that they often exchanged information about viticultural techniques and non-interventional winemaking. He told me that Didier Barral had recently brought two of his black pigs to roast as part of a 50th Birthday celebration for Allemand.

While writing this blog post I opened the email alert that is sent out regularly from wine writer Jancis Robinson to profile new information on her website, JancisRobinson.com. This one talked about another wine-fraud case in the news, this time involving a London-based wine company that was auctioning a very rare bottle of Château Yquem wine. The details aren’t important, but what she said hit home, particularly since I was writing about Thierry Allemand wines.

Robinson wrote: “If I have one piece of advice from this unsavoury episode, and indeed in general, it is this: do not on any account pay a four-figure sum (much less the five-figure one asked for the Yquem) for a bottle of wine.

“Why would you,” she continues, “when there are so many absolutely delicious bottles available for two-digit sums?”

Those looking for such two-digit Kingly pleasures need look no further than Cornas, and the winemaker, Thierry Allemand, who put this region back on the fine-wine map.

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