Cornas is one of the world’s few blue-chip addresses that we still associate with traditional winemaking. For this, we can thank Auguste Clape, the village’s icon, who has demonstrated for more than half a century how to make old school Cornas of beauty, typicity and character.
Clape Cornas is the very essence of traditionally made Northern Rhône Syrah, born of the ancient clone, “la Petite Syrah,” planted in the village’s best sites, blended for balance and complexity and allowed to “make itself” as much as possible.
All of this is a result of Clape’s vast experience and open mind; he has always worked traditionally, but not bound by rules, both in the vineyard and in the cellar. As John Livingstone-Learmonth states in The Wines of the Northern Rhône, “... he is one of the few growers I have ever met who succeeds in bridging the connection between man and nature … Belief on the one hand, listening on the other. No closed walls. The true philosopher born of the exceptional opportunity that winemaking can confer.”
Today, octogenarian Auguste continues to make the quintessential Cornas, with son Pierre-Marie and grandson Olivier at his side. Most importantly, Pierre-Marie has worked with Auguste since 1989, thoroughly absorbing his methods and philosophy, ensuring a seamless transition from one generation to the next. In fact, Pierre-Marie’s rich, two-decade “apprenticeship” reminds us of Maria-Teresa Mascarello’s years of collaboration with Bartolo.
Today’s Clape wines are greater than ever before—and not just because of the arrival of a new generation. The vineyards are obviously older and they’ve benefited from the addition of century-old Petite Syrah vines purchased from Auguste’s fellow icon, Noël Verset. Today, few French growers have a more impressive palette of crus with which to work than does Clape.
And finally, there has been the creation of lesser cuvées, which allow Clape’s flagship Cornas to have even greater depth, complexity and typicité than in the past. More than ever, Clape’s Cornas is the very definition of the appellation.
The winemaking today is of course largely unchanged. The family harvests only when the fruit is fully ripe, and the old vine fruit is not de-stemmed. The primary fermentation takes place in concrete tanks for six to seven days, followed by three to seven days of maceration to extract fine tannins.
After malolactic, aging is in old demi-muids and piéces; there is no new oak. As Auguste Clape told author John Livingston-Learmonth, “as for aging casks, here you need neutral wood with no tannin in it. The Syrah must breathe.”
Clape’s masterpiece is of course the classic Cornas, precisely blended from five to six cuvées of the oldest vines in the best sites. The backbone comes from Reynard, La Côte and Sabarotte. The old vines here are la Petite Syrah—the old clone considered by many to be the true Syrah—which creates a stunningly deep and complex wine that will develop for decades.
The domaine now bottles three other Syrah wines as well. The least expensive, but still ageworthy, wine is the Le Vin des Amis, a blend of young-vine Cornas and Syrah grown just south of the village. Next up is the Côtes du Rhône, which includes fruit from 120-year-old vines near St. Peray and declassified Cornas.
Since 1998, a second Cornas has also been bottled: Renaissance. It’s made from 20 to 25-year-old vines on the domaine’s best slopes as well as older vines from the lower slopes. An earlier maturing wine than the classique, it should develop for two decades.
Clape was the village’s first producer to bottle his own wine in 1957, having previously sold it in barrel to négociants such as Jaboulet. Since that time, Clape’s wine has been the essence of Syrah grown in Cornas’ suntrap of steep granite slopes—dark berries, black olive, dried herbs, woodsmoke and violets when young, developing astonishing depth, complexity and velvety texture with age.
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