One must always have in mind that the oak cask is a container, not a medicine. To add the taste of wood to a grape variety is to demolish one’s work. The late Auguste Clape, quoted by John Livingstone-Learmonth, 2005.
Conclusions from the Clape Cornas tasting ... characterising syrah the wine-style:
I have been presenting formal tastings to groups of people (21 people, not counting the presenter, is my preferred number, still intimate) for over 40 years now. Participants in this tasting had been circulated with a 5,000 word handout about the Clapes, their approach, and their wines, a few days beforehand. On the evening, the atmosphere in the room was both expectant, and vibrant. As tasters poured their wines, and settled into the tasting, the feeling of pleasure and anticipation amongst tasters was exciting. By the end of the tasting, establishing a ranking of the wines, and then the detailed discussion, it became apparent that this was an exceptional experience, with the wines presenting in superb condition. I ended up feeling this was one of the most important and satisfying tastings I have ever presented. The best of the wines were an absolute joy to taste.
Once the 22 sets of wines were poured, with their wonderful colours ranging from glowing transparent ruby washed with garnet, through to almost midnight-deep magenta and velvet, the winey smell that filled the room was matched only by the air of expectation amongst tasters. Glasses 1 to 6 in the front row, 7 to 12 behind. Glass one, the 1998, in effect the ‘sighter’ for the tasting, nicely in the middle for colour, glass 6 the 1985, and glass 7 the 1983, the lightest colours. In contrast glass 3, the 2009, and glass 4 the 2015, the two deepest wines. Glass 11, the third deepest, is my first 20 / 20 points red wine – the sensational 2010 Clape Cornas.As the background material below shows, for many years critically informed wine people who love syrah have felt that the Clape family led by the late Auguste Clape (1925 – 2018) have made a unique contribution to the definition of syrah as one of the truly great red grapes of the wine world. John Livingstone-Learmonth, author of the standard work The Wines of the Northern Rhone, 2005, states baldly that Auguste Clape, Gerard Chave, and Georges Vernay are the key people responsible for the esteem in which syrah and the Northern Rhone Valley are held today. Perhaps Marcel Guigal should be added to that list. Robert Parker, 2011, speaking of the 2009 Domaine Clape Cornas says: This historic reference point for the wines of Cornas is one of the world’s most enviable small estates. … I believe the 2009 and 2010 Cornas are the finest wines they have yet produced.
Yet at the same time it is fair to say that Cornas has had a modest reputation, when compared with the now-elite sites Cote Rotie and Hermitage. Vertical tastings of any depth, for either the Clape wines, or Thierry Allemand, are unbelievably rare in the literature covered by the Net. In recent years this modest reputation has been rather cemented in place by an article by Jancis Robinson first published in the Financial Times in 2000, and later re-published on her website, titled: Cornas - an old but sorry tale.
In my view, this article is unfortunate at best, and ill-conceived at worst. Nobody now can know exactly how those wines reviewed that day opened up, nor indeed what the mood of Robinson herself and the group she tasted with was on that day. For no matter how we strive to be objective, even with a science training as Robinson has, nonetheless mood does enter into wine assessment. And anybody who has shared in critical wine tastings (with a quizzical eye) knows only too well how easily even the most carefully set out blind tasting can be derailed by a negative or ‘know-all’ taster.
What is known, by those who have studied Robinson's writings for many years, is that her palate preference is for fresher / refreshing, supple and more delicate wine styles. Not exactly light wines, for she has many favourable reviews of red wines which are substantial in their youth (notably in her eagerly-awaited Bordeaux en primeur evaluations each year), but she shows a marked antipathy to tannin-rich wines, even when the tannin is largely grape-derived and 'natural'. Robinson has in effect confirmed this predilection, with her generally dismissive reviews of a number of 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Papes, a year noted for its tannin, yet wines which are both revered by many other well-respected winewriters, and at the 20-year point, are gradually starting to reveal their charms.
This slow opening up of the 1998 Chateauneufs has certainly been my experience, as for example in tastings reported on here and here. In contrast Robinson in 2005 published a subscribers-only review titled: 1998 Rhones - not so glorious, alas which includes a number of well-known 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Papes. Only five wines rate 17 or higher. Her thoughts on the wines include: Some horribly unbalanced wines ... tannins very distant from fruit ... horribly tannic ... Nothing to make you want to drink this. The latter wine, the well-regarded Clos des Papes, Livingstone-Learmonth rates ***** -- 'a real winner', while around the same time as Robinson's review, RP@R. Parker rated the wine 90 points. And Wine Spectator's long-experienced Rhone reviewer James Molesworth rated the same wine 96 in 2007, saying: A beauty, this is all about finesse ... I think in this instance Robinson's assessments lack the long view. I expect the 1998s to provide great pleasure for some years to come.
In this context, one can only conclude from the meticulous detail presented by John Livingstone-Learmonth in his Rhone book, that the Clapes father, son, and now grandson are in fact striving for wines with high initial grape tannin loads, producing wines which remain inscrutable for maybe 20 years – in the best years. Livingstone-Learmonth (in correspondence, discussing how I might present this tasting) mentions for the firm years 2005 and 1995: 1995 and 2005 go together – firm tannins, delayed opening, solid length from dry conditions, the sort of wine that Auguste loved because of its cussed Cornasien nature. That last phrase is critical, in seeking to understand Robinson’s views (on the Clape wines) in a wider and more long-term context for the wine.
It seems a fair assessment to comment that Robinson's article, more than any other single factor, has resulted in Cornas these many years (since 2000) labouring under the general misapprehension that the wines are old-fashioned, heavy-handed, high in tannin (‘obdurate’, Robinson said), and generally ‘rustic’. This impression has even been unfortunately augmented by Livingstone-Learmonth, in general a firm Clape supporter, when he details on p. 586 the Clape view of appropriate ripeness in Cornas syrah (précised):
The precision of their blending is extreme. If either father or son finds a wine atypical – for example a foudre gives a wine too full of black-currant flavour, they won’t blend it in, and instead it will go to a lesser cuvée. ... Auguste’s view is that in less ripe vintages … Cornas shows black-currant fruit. In ripe years, like 1999, the associations are black cherries, olives, truffle and chocolate. In the Introduction to the Cornas section (p. 573) he further records: The classic style of wine from the centre of the vineyard … is said by Auguste Clape to be one of grilled or cooked fruits, with prune and coffee touches, plus a good tannic structure.
Conversely, a few years ago I published a ripening curve for syrah (in: The World of Fine Wine, London), in which I argued that: Perfect ripeness / maximum complexity for syrah is where florals, pepper and spice, cassis and dark plums are all equipoised. These wines, as in the best examples from Cote Rotie and Hermitage, epitomise the syrah wine-style. I went on to specifically say that prune notes bespeak sur-maturité / over-ripeness. That assessment was based on careful study of Northern Rhone syrahs since the 1969 vintage, very much augmented in recent years by the emergence of syrah in New Zealand as a variety which we can ripen to pinpoint perfection, to (when appropriately cropped) produce wines closely matching the style achievements of Cote Rotie and Hermitage. And as an aside to those observations, it is worth mentioning that not one of the (relatively few) Californian and Washington syrahs I have been able to taste since then has come within cooee of my optimal ripeness prescription for fine syrah, all being bigger, riper, and more lumbering.
Thus with Livingstone-Learmonth’s thoughts in mind, I approached this rare Clape vertical tasting with some forebodings. Would some of the wines be ripened beyond florality, which for me is a key concept in defining fine syrah – as it was for an earlier syrah enthusiast, Prof. George Saintsbury. Speaking of one of the greatest wines he ever tasted, he said: … this was a red Hermitage of 1846 … the bouquet was rather like that of the less sweet wallflower. And as to the flavour one might easily go into dithyrambs .... With Saintsbury in mind, therefore, for great syrah I seek a wine showing wallflower (and sometimes dianthus) florality, cassis grading to darkest bottled plums berry, and sweetly aromatic black-pepper spice – in other words a wine in one sense related to fine Cote de Nuits pinot noir, but a whole size more substantial and more aromatic. The ideal syrah is much more floral and subtle, more grape-aromatic, less ripe, and often much less oaky, than the winestyle ‘shiraz’ … with its over-ripened and loud boysenberry fruit.
And the short answer is, no. The best of these Clape Cornas wines are simply glorious examples of syrah the grape, when grown in a temperate climate. Further, the florality possessed by syrah ripened perfectly is enhanced by the Clape approach of no new oak, with its spurious vanillin. I therefore conclude that for the best wines of Cornas, Robinson has seriously misled nearly a generation of wine lovers, and done the leading winemakers of Cornas including Domaine Clape a disservice. And that even Livingstone-Learmonth, despite his admiration for the Clapes and their wines, has somewhat misrepresented the details of the wine style that the Clapes are striving for. It is hard to imagine any syrah wine more floral than the Clape Cornas 1995; equally, it is hard to imagine syrah more varietally perfect through both bouquet and palate than the Clape Cornas 2010. Never before have I marked a syrah 20 points.
In a little more detail, the results of the tasting simply do not match Livingstone-Learmonth's recorded 2005 impressions of the Clape approach to ripening syrah, in his standard reference work The Wines of the Northern Rhone. To any careful reader who has studied the ripening sequence of syrah the grape, and the flavour analogies the grapes go through en route to the wine, the passage at p. 573: ‘The classic style of wine from the centre of the vineyard … is said by Auguste Clape to be one of grilled or cooked fruits, with prune and coffee touches ...’ can only convey an impression of the Clapes seeking the smells and flavours of sur-maturité / over-ripening of the grapes. But in this careful tasting of 12 vintages of Clape Cornas spanning the years 1979 – 2015, the wines do not show those attributes. Livingstone-Learmonth (in correspondence) is adamant that sur-maturité was not the impression he wished to convey, that those descriptors apply to only a part of the vineyards, and that the Clapes make a point of being relatively early to pick. Even so, from the point of view of florality and aromatics being key components of syrah the winestyle, there is an element of contradiction in the text.
In our tasting, the best of the wines, and indeed the majority of them, showed syrah ripened to an optimal point of maturity retaining both florality and berry aromatics. In other words, the kind of syrah varietal quality only achievable in a temperate viticultural climate. Perhaps there is a similar difficulty of exact meaning in the passage at p. 586 referring to the Clapes avoiding blackcurrant flavours. There is a world of difference between the rank almost-pyrazine-like smells and flavours of raw / under-ripe blackcurrants, and the exquisite sweetness of bouquet and aromatic harmony of flavour found in fully ripe blackcurrants, as captured in good examples of the liqueur cassis. The cassis analogy (grading to darkest bottled plums) is the defining hallmark of perfect ripeness in fine syrah wines.
Perhaps the difficulty here is semantic, the descriptors used for flower and fruit analogies, plus the subtleties of translation from French to English. I keep an extensive library of wine-related aroma substances, including Le Nez du Vin, plus wine chemicals and certain key garden plants classically associated with red wine, and take particular care in the meaningful use of descriptors. There are advantages in a science training. Whereas, some New World wine-writers you feel, use descriptors more like confetti. Worth noting also, that in New Zealand (where pinot noir is doing so well) we are hypersensitive to over-ripeness in syrah, being located adjacent to much warmer Australia, with its ubiquitous shiraz interpretations of the grape.
To sum up, overt raisin, prune, coffee and chocolate analogies have no place in wines made from syrah ripened to perfect physiological maturity in a temperate viticultural climate, as similarly they would not be appropriate in fine pinot noir. One would expect this to be particularly the case chez Clape, where they are at pains to not introduce new oak-artefact aromas. And the wines themselves confirmed this interpretation. Note that nearly all the vintages in our tasting are the ‘better’ (in various ways) ones of the last 40 years.
To emphasise the rarity of our New Zealand tasting, in his report on the Chapot vertical of Clape Cornas covering 26 vintages, Livingstone-Learmonth records Pierre Clape as saying: We never do something like this. We might have done ten vintages in the past, but no more than that.
Background to the Tasting:
This tasting is modelled pretty well on the work and writings of John Livingstone-Learmonth, author of the standard reference work The Wines of the Northern Rhone, and producer of the complementary website for the wines of the whole Rhone Valley: www.drinkrhone.com A subscription is needed to freely access all the reviews on this website, but a surprising amount of it comes up on Google, and bits of it are sometimes accessible – but as soon as you click on a link, it asks for a subscription. The notes for this tasting are drawn principally from the above two sources, plus:
# A detailed report Livingstone-Learmonth presents on his website www.drinkrhone.com of a vertical tasting of 26 vintages of Clape Cornas (1988 – 2013), presented in Saint-Peray by Dr David Chapot, then Professor of Mathematics at The University of Lyon, Sat. May 21, 2016;
# The Domaine Clape fact sheet at www.europvin.com, the website of Christopher Cannan’s merchant wine company Europvin;
# www.robertparker.com the website for Robert Parker and associates.
Domaine Auguste Clape, Cornas:
Auguste Clape (born 1925) married into the Cornas vineyards that now bear his name. His first vintage was 1949. Cannan records: In his fifties, M. Clape went back to school to study viticulture at Beaune. He learnt and accepted many of their theories, but refused to accept the “new oak” philosophy, keeping to his traditionalist stand point. He agrees that the Syrah needs to be aged in wood to allow it to loosen up and age steadily, but fervently insists that his wines do not need wood tannins, and therefore the wood used must be neutral. … [ M. Clape believes ] the expression of “terroir” is the most important factor when looking to make a great wine, and that the use of new oak masks and modifies the identity of the “terroir”. For Auguste Clape’s purposes, the use of older barrels is paramount. … In 1989 M. Clape was joined by his son Pierre-Marie, who shares the same enthusiasm and wine making philosophy as his father. Latterly, Pierre’s son Olivier also now works in the winery.
The late Auguste Clape (right) and his son, Pierre-Marie (left), with grandson Olivier (centre), June 2007. Photo: Christopher Cannan's Europvin, with permission.Continuing to paraphrase Livingstone-Learmonth on Cornas and the Clape family from The Wines of the Northern Rhone:
The men of the soil who have most inspired this region in the past 40 years have been Auguste Clape, Gerard Chave, and Georges Vernay. … they never fell prey to whim. Nor did they stand rooted in an age gone by … Never … did they chase extra yields for commercial reasons, never did their belief in the quality and integrity of their vineyards waver. …
The precision of their blending [ chez Clape ] is extreme. If either father or son finds a wine atypical – for example a foudre gives a wine too full of black-currant flavour, they won’t blend it in, and instead it will go to a lesser cuvée. They are very respectful of what the wine should be like, with an innate clarity that comes from years of experience. Auguste’s view is is that in less ripe vintages …, Cornas shows black-currant fruit. In ripe years like 1999, the associations are black cherries, olives, truffle and chocolate.
The classic style of wine from the centre of the vineyard … is said by Auguste Clape to be one of grilled or cooked fruits, with prune and coffee touches, plus a good tannic structure. He adds that this is achieved when the grapes are well-ripened. … Wine made from older vines … is also notable for its oily, ripe texture on the early part of the palate. This is followed by the usual tightening of texture as the tannins kick in towards the final stages. … If growers seek a state of near-over-maturity in the crop – thankfully, not yet widespread – this can lapse towards dulled flavours.
Cornas is still … [ a wine ] apart from the other ‘big wines’ of the Northern Rhone, Hermitage and Cote Rotie. There is a grainier feel to it than that represented by the red fruits and warmth of Hermitage, while the more delicate fragrance of aroma on Cote Rotie is softer and more airy than the violets that can be detected on the Cornas bouquet.
… As the initial big cooked fruit effect settles, Cornas develops a more harmonious side. The austerity of the Syrah settles, and plum and dried fruit flavours emerge on the palate, while the bouquet gains in depth and complexity.
Livingstone-Learmonth goes on to say (again paraphrased):
The tasting confirmed that this is a most extraordinary domaine. The capture of the vintage - whatever the season had dealt its way - was supreme. Each wine held its own character, with an absolutely commendable precision and delineation. ... that is what the domaine Clape has achieved for so long – a telling combination of human art and skill with nature’s delivery of constant surprises and occasional presents.
The other feature was of course how amazingly well these wines live. The Clapes like it that way, much as they do when taking years to size up and get to know a new vineyard – the ex-Verset La Sabarotte being a case in point. … after ten years that they were still working out how it ticked, and therefore how its ripening could be best handled.
Within the discourse on the wines, another telling point came through. Auguste has always told me that the decision about the date of harvest was the single hardest action he had to take in any year. “The chef can go back into his kitchen and re-do the sauce that his customers doesn’t like, but the vigneron cannot do that,” he has said to me.
Vineyard and Site:
The vineyards for the two Cornas wines total 5.5 ha, and include some of the best hillside lieux-dits in the appellation: Tezier, Les Reynards, La Cote, Les Mazards, Chaillot and the recently-acquired Sabarotte (on the retirement of Noel Verset), amongst others. These sites have classic crumbly soil parent materials based on granite, with a favourable clay content. In contrast, the Cotes du Rhone wine comes from vineyards planted at the foot of the hills, on stony alluvium. Livingstone-Learmonth records that some vines are over 100 years old, all sources for the main wine being over 30 years. Cropping rate below. Younger vines go to Renaissance.
All fruit is hand-harvested, and the wine-making little changed since the 1970s. All stems are retained, the bunches are lightly crushed, fermentation is in open-topped concrete vats with wild yeasts only. Cuvaison varies around 12 days, with cap-punching by foot and pumping-over twice daily. The wine is run to 600 – 1,800-litre barrels traditionally sourced from breweries, and is typically in barrel 20 – 22 rarely 25 months depending on season. Light egg-white fining, no filtering. Production typically 1,250 – 1,500 x 9-litre cases of the Cornas proper, produced from 4.3 ha. Cropping rate for the Cornas proper is therefore in the range 3.4 t/ha = 1.4 t/ac to 4.1 t/ha = 1.65 t/ac. This is a conservative and ‘grand cru’ level of harvest.
As usual, Wine Spectator gives the most easily accessible and seemingly accurate summary of Northern Rhone vintages, back to 1988. Their rating is given in each wine summary, below. In his report on the review of the 26 vintages presented by David Chapot in Saint-Peray in 2016, Livingstone-Learmonth breaks up the vintages in an intriguing way, like with like approximately. I have cross-referenced each year (within his bracketed vintages) with his quality score for each vintage of Clape Cornas on his main website page for Clape, and then re-sequenced his brackets into a thus-revealed rough hierarchy of quality. Comments courtesy Livingstone-Learmonth, 3 means ***, note J.L-L marks out of 6 stars.
John Livingstone-Learmonth's bracketting of recent vintages:
|2002 = 3|
1993 = 3½
1992 = 2½
|Rain affected vintages|
|2008 = 4|
1996 = 3
1994 = 3½
|Vintages with high acidity after cool, sometimes cold summers, rain a factor. Full ripening difficult to achieve, so work to do in the bottle. Livingstone-Learmonth (in correspondence) advises 1979 to a degree fits in this grouping.|
|2007 = 3½|
1997 = 3½
|Two vintages with some drought stress in the vineyard, and ones that fly low on winelovers’ radar. The wines when young were not a real ensemble.|
|2011 = 4|
2004 = 4
2000 = 4½
|Quiet years when the vines took a pause following high sun years of 2010, 2003 and 1999; tannins were low-key, structure less in play than in the best vintages.|
|2009 = 4½|
2003 = 4
|Shut the shutters at 09.00 hours, and sit out the high heat vintages. Full-on solar influences, so terroir in the back seat ...|
|2006 = 5|
2001 = 4½
1998 = 4½
|Good quality harvest, openly fruited years, bonny freshness|
|2012 = 4½|
1988 = 5
|Classic, balanced years, with the vineyard dry during summer. Livingstone-Learmonth (in correspondence) advises 1983 fits best in this grouping.|
|1999 = 5|
1989 = 5
|Dry conditions, a lot of sun, prominent tannins.|
|2013 = 4½|
2005 = 6
1995 = 6
|Years of small, compact bunches, a high skin to juice ratio, with stems ripe but firm, leading to striking, backward tannins, wines need time and patience.|
|2010 = 6|
1991 = 5
1990 = 6
|Supreme balance years, well-timed rainfalls, not too many hot nights, all parts an ensemble. Livingstone-Learmonth (in correspondence) advises 1985 to a degree fits in this grouping.|
To mark the death of Auguste Clape of Cornas on 13 July 2018 at the age of 93, we need a vertical tasting of his top wine. The Northern Rhone Valley syrahs of Auguste Clape have long been the most famous of the Cornas district. Eric Asimov, writing at the time of his death in The New York Times, says: Mr. Clape was one of a pantheon of midcentury winegrowers in the northern Rhone whose wines, though made initially for the local market, were eventually celebrated internationally as among the most profound expressions of the syrah grape. It was Mr. Clape’s wines, with their chewy textures and savory, smoky flavors, that compelled people to take tiny Cornas seriously.
The famed Kermit Lynch, wine merchant extraordinaire of Berkeley, says of Auguste Clape (précised): In the world of wine, there are many good winegrowers. However, there are only a very select few who are truly great, and Auguste Clape is among them. Critics and connoisseurs alike all agree that he is one of the greatest pioneers of the Northern Rhone, and his Syrahs from the cru of Cornas are among the most celebrated wines of France. … Auguste was the first [in the district] to bottle his own wine … Though the Clapes farm only eight hectares, the challenge presented by the rough, tightly stacked terrace vineyards of Cornas is largely enough to handle by anybody’s standards. … All work must be done by hand. ... The vineyards sit on granite subsoil, behind the village, with optimal sun exposure.
We will consider the following 12 vintages of Clape Cornas proper: 1979, 1983, 1985, 1990, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2005, 2009, 2010, 2015, with 1996 and 2013 on hand, in case of TCA. This top label is made only from vines more than 30 years of age.
The listed 12 vintages score 87 through to 99+ in robertparker.com, with most in the 90s. Their values on wine-searcher range from $NZ165 – $NZ864. This will therefore be a memorable tasting, particularly since it includes virtually all the best vintages (i.e. warmer, in this district) in the Northern Rhone Valley, over the interval represented.
Only fair to comment that a few people find the wines of Cornas in general, and Clape in particular, a little rustic. Also fair to say, all too often, such views reflect received wisdom. Latterly winemaking has passed to his son Pierre-Marie, and grand-son Olivier is now in the winery too. Therefore we can expect to see subtle changes in the later vintages. This is an unprecedented opportunity (in Wellington) for wine-lovers to form their own opinion on this matter. Note the wines are tightly rationed in New Zealand, so such opportunities are rare.
A number of wine people helped me prepare this tasting, and then the written report. I would like to thank: John Livingstone-Learmonth particularly, for information and advice (in correspondence) about running the tasting, and then making careful reply to a preview of this article; and Jancis Robinson for also previewing the article. Both caused me to think carefully about aspects of the review – it seems safe to say neither is happy with the final article. Also Christopher Cannan's Europvin, for permission to reproduce their photo of three generations of Clape winemakers in their cellar; and the late Dr Ken Kirkpatrick, discriminating wine-lover, for the bottle of 1990 Clape Cornas. My understanding of the wines at the time benefitted from discussion with John Comerford of Wellington, Mike Parker of Masterton, winemaker John Kavanagh of Te Kairanga winery, Martinborough, and Dr Rebecca Deed, who had recently tasted 12 vintages of Clape Cornas, with some years in common with this tasting, in Auckland. These people do not necessarily agree with my ranking or my conclusions, but their contributions towards making this review of a remarkable tasting more useful are greatly appreciated.
Europvin (Christopher Cannan), no date: Domaine Auguste Clape - Fact sheet: Link in text.
Kelly, Geoff, 2011: A Syrah Ripening Curve in New Zealand wine terms. The World of Fine Wine 34: pp. 130-137 (London)
Livingstone-Learmonth, John, 2005: The Wines of the Northern Rhone. University of California Press, 704 p.
John Livingstone-Learmonth, 2016: Domaine Clape Cornas vertical 1988-2013 Link in text.
Kermit Lynch, no date: Auguste Clape https://www.kermitlynch.com/our-wines/auguste-clape
Saintsbury, George, 1978: Notes on a Cellar-Book. Macmillan, London, 166 p. First published July 1920.
www.drinkrhone.com = John Livingstone-Learmonth, subscription needed for reviews
www.robertparker.com = Robert Parker and associates, vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
www.jancisrobinson.com = Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, subscription needed for reviews
www.winespectator.com = vintage chart, subscription needed for reviews
THE WINES REVIEWED – SYRAH:
Domaine Clape 1979 – 2010: the top bottles from an extraordinary tasting. How often in a retrospective tasting spanning 31 years, do nine of the 12 wines merit gold medal / 18.5 (or more) marking ? Sequence in photo not the same as the final ranking in the text – the wines opened up. From the left: the 2015 remarkable for its depth of near-cassisy and darkly plummy berry, still some black pepper spice despite the warm year, 19 +; the almost burgundian 1999 from that beautiful and restrained year, 18.5 +; the 1995 now at full maturity, a little old-fashioned but fragrant and supremely attractive with food, 18.5; the 2005 an explicitly varietal wine with beautiful florals like the 2010, now just starting to soften, 19; the 2009 another warm year, but like the 2015 the wine still explicitly varietal, though not quite matching the glorious 2010, 19.5; and finally the 2010 Clape Cornas, wonderfully wallflower floral, supremely fresh and aromatic, yet rich and long. How could syrah be more perfect, 20.
For the 'admin' section of each wine review below, I am indebted to the two English-speaking people who know most about the wines of Cornas, John Livingstone-Learmonth in the United Kingdom, and Robert Parker (and increasingly one hopes, his associates) from the United States. The goal is to contrast a British view on each wine with an American one. ‘Prices’ shown below are the current wine-searcher world value, expressed in $NZ. They give an ‘independent / collective wisdom’ slant on how each vintage is rated, with the advantage that it is current value, whereas the winewriter ratings for each wine may be historic. Where known, the original New Zealand purchase price is shown in the introductory ‘admin’ section.
Ruby, carmine and velvet, a sensational colour, the third deepest. Right from the moment of opening, bouquet on this 2010 wine presents syrah ripened to absolute perfection, sweet dianthus and wallflower florals with some darkest red rose, on cassisy berry notes underlain by darkest bottled black doris plums, all enlivened by sweet freshly-cracked black peppercorn. Alcohol lifts the bouquet, yet is restrained. The wine smells wonderfully rich, essence of syrah, yet not heavy. Palate reveals blackcurrants ripened to the maximum, but still critically fresh and aromatic (i.e. none of the sur-maturité notes Livingstone-Learmonth has recorded the Clapes as seeking, quoted earlier), no hint of dark notes such as coffee which so many wine-writers like to use as a descriptor, but which have no place in temperate-climate winestyles such as pinot noir and syrah, impressive berry length resting on grape and old oak tannins, the tannins still youthful and furry, but promising smoothness and beauty, with time. This is glorious syrah, showing one exceptionally rare and desirable attribute in fine syrah: the floral notes are sustained right through the palate. How could the 2010 be more perfect, or more varietally accurate ? No, it is not Cote Rotie: this is closer to Hermitage, and it speaks volumes for the wine style ‘Cornas’. As Livingstone-Learmonth points out, Cornas is critically warmer than Cote Rotie. The 2010 was clearly the most-favoured wine on the night for the group, six first places, one second. Cellar 10 – 35 years. GK 09/18
Ruby, nearly carmine and velvet, the second deepest wine, not quite so brightly-hued as the 2010. Bouquet on this wine is wonderfully close to the 2010, nearly as floral, not quite so aromatic and black-pepper-lifted, again glorious cassis but also a hint of blackberries in the sun, as also seen in warmer years in Medoc wines. Like the 2010, you can't exactly smell oak, yet the wine would be totally different without it. This too is an exhilarating syrah bouquet, as big-year and warm in style as is possible while still retaining varietal accuracy and authenticity. Palate is just a notch riper than the 2010, more darkest plum and less cassis, less thought of florals suffused right through the wine, yet magically still retaining suggestions of sweet black pepper. In one sense, that is the test of maximum ripeness versus over-ripeness in syrah. Length of palate and finish is slightly softer and not quite as tannin-furry as the 2010. This 2009 was clearly the second most favoured wine by the group, two first places, six second. Cellar 10 – 30 years. GK 09/18
Ruby, carmine / magenta and velvet, a midnight-deep wine, the deepest wine, totally remarkable for its depth and freshness. Bouquet is sweet, ripe, and deep, but not as floral / aromatic as the 2010 quite clearly, and maybe even less so than the 2009. The difference in age makes that comparison hard, the youth of the wine having its own fresh-fruit fragrance, but the thought arises that 2015 may be an even warmer year than 2009. I wonder if the floral and aromatic qualities of perfectly ripened syrah will emerge, as the obvious youth retreats. There is still delicate sweet black pepper, a vital marker for syrah not being too ripe. Palate is remarkable for its purity and velvety texture, the depth of near-cassis and darkly plummy berry lifted by black pepper a delight. All the reports from the Rhone Valley suggest that the 2015 and 2016 vintages bear the same relation to each other as 2009 does to the more aromatic 2010 vintage following. At this stage the 2015 seems fractionally riper again than the 2009, so it is therefore pushing the limits for syrah varietal accuracy. One person had the 2015 as their top wine, and three their second favourite. This 2015 is a totally modern wine, which dispels completely any lingering ideas that Domaine Clape or Cornas are old-fashioned. To judge from the 1983 today, this can be cellared for 15 – 35 years. GK 09/18
Ruby and velvet, markedly lighter and less youthful than the 2009, above midway in depth. The 2005 shows the pinpoint ripeness of the 2010, but on a smaller scale. There are dianthus and wallflower florals on cassisy berry, just a suggestion of older berry notes creeping in, not as vibrant as the younger wines, but you can't yet say browning. Below the floral notes and cassis aromatics there is again bottled dark plums, the black pepper notes not quite so easily recognised here. Palate shows beautiful syrah at the first stage of maturity, remarkable tannin balance, again shaped by older oak but scarcely flavoured by it. The tannins are just starting to soften, hints of velvet in the texture, great palate length. Three people had the 2005 as their first or second-favourite wine. Cellar 5 – 25 years. GK 09/18
Ruby, hints of garnet appearing, still some velvet, below midway in depth. Top notes on the bouquet in this 1995 are dramatically floral, epitomising the dianthus / wallflower / floral aromas that so characterise fine syrah, which Prof Sainstbury so enthused about in his wonderful Notes on a Cellar Book. He was referring to Hermitage, though Cote Rotie captures them more commonly than Hermitage and Cornas. Below, the berry qualities are now moving into the fragrant alchemy that is superb florals plus browning cassis at 20-plus years of age, with some red as well as dark bottled plums below. This seems a slightly cooler and smaller year than the 2010, explaining the heightened florals. Palate likewise is a little lighter, but still a beautiful depth of maturing berry, the tannins softening, the whole wine superbly syrah-varietal. This wine was well-liked, three first places, two second. In some ways, it is perfection now, with its extraordinary florals / almost perfumed bouquet. It will hold another 10 years or so. GK 09/18
Ruby and velvet, fresher than the 2003, just above midway in depth. 1999 was a fragrant and aromatic year in both the Northern Rhone and Burgundy, and this wine lives up to the vintage's reputation. There is a freshness to the dusky rose florals (a deeper floral note than dianthus) which is a delight, on dramatically clear cassisy berry notes scarcely browning. Palate is vibrant, not as rich as some, almost a Cote de Nuits quality to it, but more substantial and clearly more tannin, with a thought of sweet black pepper. There is a wonderful purity to this 1999 wine, a crystal-clear focus on syrah varietal qualities, yet in some ways it is understated relative to the 1995. It will be good to see it in a later tasting some five years hence. Will the bouquet build ? Tasters appreciated the style of this wine too, one first place, but four second places. Cellar 5 – 15 years. GK 09/18
Ruby and garnet, below midway in depth. This is a beautifully fragrant wine, which on John Livingstone-Learmonth’s suggestion was paired with the 2010, as years illustrating perfect climatic conditions and ripeness. The wine to me illustrates delightful dianthus florals lifting and making racy browning cassis berry, so in that respect it illustrates optimal ripening for syrah. A couple of the more technical tasters commented that the bouquet was also amplified by a little Brettanomyces chemistry, a Martinborough winemaker agreeing. Once my attention was drawn to it, I could see and taste the more appealing 4-EG fraction of brett, which is fragrant in its own way. And on palate the wine might show trace drying of the tannins, which would fit in with a light brett component. At this level, a brett component should be seen as wine-complexity, not a fault. The nett flavour is still beautifully accurate maturing plummy syrah, and still surprisingly rich with appreciable fruit. At the dinner table the wine would be perfect. And at nearly 30 years of age, no two bottles will be the same, now. No first or second places, but two least. Well along its plateau of maturity, but ‘clean’ bottles still have life ahead. GK 09/18
Garnet and ruby, the lightest wine, nearly an old burgundy colour. Bouquet too is nearly ‘sweet’ in a burgundian sense, not really floral in a definable way, yet very fragrant, clear browning cassis hinting at the forest-floor notes of Burgundy, yet tauter than a fine pinot noir of the same age would be. On palate that tautness immediately shatters the burgundy analogy, there being a tannin backbone more akin to the Medoc than Burgundy, yet with beautiful mature browning cassisy berry. Wellington’s most acute / experienced taster of European reds commented specifically on the ‘impeccable balance’ in this wine, at full maturity. My thought was, that I couldn't wait to see this Clape 1983 against Jaboulet’s 1983 Hermitage La Chapelle, the latter a wine which promised so much young, but when last tasted appeared to be succumbing to the tannins of that hot summer. This 1983 Clape is in contrast like velvet. Four first places, and interestingly, four least places. Nobody in between. Fully mature, enjoy it while it is still so vital and beautiful, over the next few years. GK 09/18
Ruby and garnet, still some velvet, midway in depth. Surprisingly for what is regarded as a hot year, this 1998 is beautifully syrah-floral, not as fragrant and dianthus-dominant as the 1995, but still wallflowers and dusky red roses. Below is sweet cassis browning now, and attractive bottled plums both red and darker. Palate follows perfectly, but with the attraction that the florals permeate the entire palate, like fine Cote de Nuits, but naturally here with much more tannin backbone, and still nearly black pepper spice. I was staggered at the varietal accuracy of this wine, considering the reputation of the vintage. Accordingly, at the stage of creating a presentation sequence to best reveal the nature of syrah the grape, as well as Clape the interpreter, I therefore placed this 1998 as wine number one. It illustrated the nature of syrah at near-maturity very well, as well as introducing the scope of the tasting. As always, it is psychologically near-impossible for wine number one (in a blind line-up of 12 wines) to be rated the top wine, but one person rated 1998 their second-favourite in the set. On its plateau of maturity, will hold for 10 years at least. GK 09/18
Garnet and ruby, the second-lightest wine. Relative to the 1983, this seemed a slightly richer but also slightly older wine. Any floral components are now lost in the more noticeable forest floor / slight decay notes – the only wine of the 12 to show this quality to any degree at the tasting. The next day, the fruit had expanded markedly. There is still a clear red and darker berry quality browning now, and a suggestion of tannin too, even on bouquet. It is however hard to differentiate an impression of tannin from a fading black pepper note, at this age. Palate is clearly richer, more vigorous, but also more tannic than the 1983, almost as if 1985 were the hotter year, not 1983. It is still in remarkably good order on palate, for a 33-year-old wine, with more fruit than one supposed on bouquet. No first or second places, but no least places either. This wine too is well along its plateau of maturity, even though the palate is younger than the bouquet. Will hold a few years yet. GK 09/18
Ruby and garnet, fractionally deeper and younger in appearance than the 1983 or 1985. The better colour may (perhaps) be explained by the wine being bought in California, and thus not having crossed the equator (by ship) in pre-temperature-controlled container days. This wine is astonishingly fragrant and in remarkable condition for its age, still retaining near-floral notes and a hint of spice, on browning cassis. But it also somehow smells of tannin, with a whisper of brett. Palate fulfils the promise of the bouquet perfectly, the whole wine bigger and more tanniny than the 1983 or 1985, still almost vigorous in one sense, yet drying in another – the tannins contributing to that. It must have been a big and sturdy wine in its youth, and yes, maybe this is an example of the ‘rustic’ nature of Cornas tannins. In that sense, by way of contrast with virtually all the younger wines, it highlights how little deserved is the dismissal of a number of the younger vintages. No first or second places, but three least places. There was no shame in being least, in this flight of 12 wines. Will hold a few years yet, but note the corks were shorter back then. To judge from all 12 of these wines, selection for cork quality has always been particularly important chez Clape. GK 09/18
Ruby and garnet, midway in depth. Bouquet for the 2003 is quite different from all the other vintages in the tasting. It is clean and fragrant, but with a clear aniseed and even fragrant best-malt note reminiscent more of McLaren Vale than the northern Rhone. Below these aromas lies sweet ripe fruit, no florals, no cassis aromatics, no freshly-cracked black peppercorn, just sunny plummy berry with even a hint of fresh prunes (not cooked). So this certainly smells the wine of a hotter year, in clear contra-distinction to the 1998 and 1983. Palate is intriguing, for clearly there are some Australian suggestions in the bouquet, a shiraz rather than syrah interpretation, yet the palate is pure and attractive in its style, aided by the lack of obvious new oak and added acid so many Australian producers deploy as a matter of course in their shiraz wines. But the flavours are very different from all the other wines, plummy and already browning a little now, with fine prunes and aniseed again. Note that the presented selection of 12 vintages includes no cool years, so this syrah has no wine at the opposite end of the ripening curve to balance it / throw it more into perspective. Tasters recorded one first place, but four least places. Will hold for many years, in its style. GK 09/18