Cornas lost one of its' most dedicated, longest-serving, knowledgeable and under-stated vignerons when Auguste Clape died at the age of 93 last year. He leaves a fine legacy in the work of his son Pierre and grandson Olivier who joined the family-run estate in 1989 and 2002 respectively. Since his first harvest in 1949 Auguste helped shape the appellation of Cornas from a little-known viticultural backwater whose output was sold en vrac to the bars and cafés of Vienne and Valence to an internationally acclaimed enclave of fine wine production. The family have much to be proud of.
The Clapes' flagship Cornas, which many believe represents the epitome of the appellation, hails from their mature rootstock and is blended from fruit from up to 15 plots, including old vines on the central 'Reynards' escarpment. It undergoes a 20 month élevage in 1,100 litre oak foudres before assiduous blending and bottling. It is always a dense, dark and ageworthy offering, even in comparatively light vintages, and although it can be impenetrable in youth it usually starts to reveal its potential at 5-10 years of age and superior vintages will mature gracefully over 3 decades. The hallmarks here are intense, brooding, black fruit scents and flavours interwoven with a complex structure of tannins (that sweeten and soften with age) and an inimitable grainy texture on an elegant and persistent finish. It is quintessential northern Rhône Syrah - an iron fist in a velvet glove.
The Clapes also produce a more forward-drinking Cornas called 'Renaissance', which hails from their younger vines. Although this lacks some of the complexity and depth of the Grand Vin it has a wealth of black berry fruit with delightful peppery undertones a fresh acidity and good tannic structure. It will cellar well for a decade or more.
Since 2009 Thomas Schmittel and Maxime Graillot have produced a terrific négociant bottling of Cornas under their 'Equis' label. With a sleek black fruit bouquet and concentrated briary, hedgerow berry palate offset by a granitic mineral streak, ripe tannins and some deftly integrated oak it shows increasingly sophisticated wine-making and represents good value for money.
Another négociant wine that we were keen to snap up is Julien Montagnon's 'Domaine Lombard' Cornas. It sees no oak and was matured for 2 years in concrete vats before bottling. With subtle aromas of blackberriesand a mid-weight palate of dark forest fruits it is already approachable but should age well for 3-5+ years.