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The renaissance in Cornas is finally coming to the world’s attention, yet it started in the 1980s, when the success of a handful of older growers—including Clape, Verset, Michel and Juge—gave confidence to the town’s sons, encouraging them to return home from well-paying jobs elsewhere.
One of the top growers in this movement is Franck Balthazar, who left his engineering career in 2002 to answer the siren song of Cornas’ steep granite slopes and take up the classic farming and winemaking methods of his father René. A dozen years later, Balthazar is making some of the most expressive, and rigorously traditional, wines in Cornas.
“Balthazar’s elegant Cornas bottlings are among the very best in the appellation right now.”
- Josh Raynolds
The Balthazar domaine dates back to 1931, when it was founded by Franck’s grandfather Casimir. René took charge in 1950 and followed his contemporaries Auguste Clape and Noël Verset into domaine bottling on a small scale in the 1970s. All the while he continued to sell most of his wine in cask—as Casimir and so many others of his generation had done—to the local cafés.
Franck now bottles all of his tiny production, made by methods little changed from those of his grandfather. The domaine’s vineyards are planted exclusively to la Petite Syrah, the ancient local clone whose small, olive-shaped berries produce a wine of greater aromatic complexity than modern clones.
Balthazar is so dedicated to the domaine—and the traditional ways of his ancestors—that he plows his holdings with a horse. His approach in the cellar is just as “old school.” His time-honored regime includes whole cluster, native yeast fermentation in concrete vats; manual cap punching; and aging in old, neutral demi-muid barrels before bottling without fining or filtration.
The aging in demi-muid rather than the smaller pièce is fundamental to the domaine’s philosophy. As René Balthazar told Rhône wine guru John Livingstone-Learmonth, “We raise the wine in 600-litre demi-muids because they keep the wine’s perfumes better than the 225-litre casks.”
A key to the superb quality and character of Balthazar’s Cornas are the domaine’s great holdings. These include not only half-century-old vines in Mazards but a 1914 planting of Petite Syrah in the revered Chaillot vineyard, acquired from Noël Verset.
Balthazar is also slowly expanding the amount of land under vine; a true son of Cornas, Franck has created terraces and planted vines on previously overgrown land on the steep Légre slope above Sabarotte—demonstrating the Cornasien willingness to develop a backbreaking site for the reward of the aromas and flavors that only Syrah grown here can express.
This is in keeping with Franck’s humility. Every time we visit his tiny cave we are struck by the contentment he has with a life spent working on Cornas’ steep slopes, while making wine as it had been in the past. Fame and fortune are of little interest. As he told us, “The greatest potential compensation for me is that people may appreciate my wines.”
Franck’s flagship wine is the Chaillot bottling, from the fruit of century-old Petite Syrah vines that create a wine of stunning depth, concentration and complexity.
The other brilliant Cornas in his portfolio is the much smaller production Cuvée Casimir. Named in honor of Franck’s grandfather, it comes from two sources: the old vines in Les Mazards combined with the new plantings in Légre. Powerful yet elegant, it forms the perfect complement to the heroic Chaillot.
Both wines have classic Cornas character in spades, thanks to this quiet, thoughtful man’s deep dedication to the methods that produced the great Cornas wines of the past. And his wines grow finer with each passing vintage. It is because of men like Franck that Cornas remains a bastion of traditional northern Rhone Syrah.
“The greatest potential compensation for me is that people may appreciate my wines.”
- Franck Balthzar
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