The Ultimate Guide to Cornas
For years, Cornas was just another “value” village of the Northern Rhone, with a reputation more like St. Joseph, say, than Cote Rotie or Hermitage. It was deemed “rustic” and a source for “country” wine. Things have changed!
Here is our Cornas Guide!
This is a story of a vicious cycle finally flipping a switch to become virtuous. The vicious was the usual story of decline. If people think you make “country wine” they’re not going to pay you very much for it. That makes it hard to invest in improved wine-making or to lower yields. So the wines you end up making really are “country” and the vicious circle continues.
But then somebody flipped a switch, and his name was Noel Verset. He did make country wines. But they were amazing. Soulful and honest, yes, and occasionally even a touch rustic. But, they were magic. A few people started to figure that out, starting with his importer Kermit Lynch, and Lynch’s many followers in the U.S.
In the early 2000s, Verset went into semi-retirement (he continued to make smaller amounts of wine until 2006), and the drumbeat of approval for his wines evolved into full cult-like obsession. This “country” wine is now selling for $500/bottle.
Now we are in a virtuous cycle. The wines have improved steadily through the early years of this century and we are now in the midst of a seemingly unstoppable chain of excellent vintages. Prices have risen extraordinarily — just 25 years ago a bottle of Clape Cornas cost about $20 and now it is more like $150. But, there are still plenty of world-class wines for closer to $60, and we'll help you find them.
In this deep dive we’ll take a closer look at why the region is capable of Verset-level greatness. We’ll look at the village's terroirs and top sites. And we’ll answer what is often the first question when it comes to Cornas: with Verset’s wines now impossible to buy, what Cornas should I be drinking now?
How do the wines of Cornas compare?
These wines tend to be the darkest and burliest, the gutsiest and the meatiest, of the Northern Rhones.
A good degree warmer than Cote Rotie, and with steep slopes that allow the vines to suck up sunshine while enjoying shelter from the wind, Syrah ripens more easily here than anywhere else in the Northern Rhone. Thus, its vines ripen earliest, around a week before Hermitage, across the river.
In other words, Cornas is the closest thing that the Northern Rhone has to a “southern” French wine. But, it is not quite that. There is still freshness in the wines, and a distinct minerality that you can find in the finish — a pebbliness? — that sets it apart from other Northern Rhones, but that hardly tastes southern. Perhaps in warmer vintages like 2007 or 2003, it’s possible to misidentify these wines as something from the cooler parts of the Languedoc. But in normal years —or in the recent vintages, when the wines are ripe but still quite fresh -- you're more likely to mistake a Cornas for a Hermitage or a St. Joseph.
The reason for this is simple: granite. Cornas sits on a large chunk of it. It is deifferent than Cote Rotie to the north: where there is plenty of schist; or Hermitage: where the granite merges into alpine influences from the east. Cornas is solid Massif Centrale granite. This is especially true on the region's upper slopes in the middle portion of the AOC. Lower down, you do get clay, and there are even traces of limestone here and there. But this is granite country, and that’s why these wines taste more Northern Rhone-y than anything else.
What is the Geography of Cornas?
This is yet again, a very small Northern Rhone AOC. It’s even smaller than Hermitage, with only about 110 hectares of land (the size of one good-sized Bordeaux estate). It’s a collection of vineyards on steep hills that loom just to the west of the village of Cornas itself, which sits directly on the Rhone River.
As is often the case in AOCs, the best terroir is in the middle. In the center, just west of the village, you have soils rich in granite and steep vineyards that are perfectly oriented to the southeast. This is where you find the most famous sites, Reynard and Chaillot.
From the middle, you can head north, towards St. Joseph, or south, towards St. Peray. So it’s useful to divide the region into three: (1) the supreme middle; (2) the northern sector, by St. Joseph; and (3) the southern sector, by St. Peray. But nothing here is far apart: it is about two miles from the northern most point to the southern most.
In St. Peray, they make only white wines, so you can perhaps guess what the Syrah is like from the southern half: more aromatic and less structured. The soils here are a little sandier.
Towards St. Joseph you get the opposite: wines that are more powerful and structured, but not as refined as in the middle sector. There is even a streak of limestone in this sector, which is not necessarily considered ideal for Syrah. It is from this sector (the northern half) that the wines come closest to that former “country wines” moniker.
Of course, many wines from this village consist of grapes from all three sectors, and — like Chave in Hermitage -- traditionalists might argue that a true expression of Cornas must come from a blend of vineyard sites. Clape, who is easily one of the two greatest producers today, produces only a blended wine, and Verset’s special wine was also a blend.
What are the Top Sites in Cornas?
Chaillot is the first of two great vineyard sites in the central core that are well recognized by Cornas lovers because they appear on bottles from Thierry Allemand, one of the village’s two famous producers. Noel Verset also worked Chaillot, as did several of the other producers listed below; Perhaps most notably Balthazar, whose extremely old-vines Chaillot wine is magnificent. Chaillot is for the most part a classic Cornas site that is heavy in granite and pointing east or southeast, but there is a streak of limestone in its lower sector. The best part of Chaillot produces big, tannic wines, that are a little lower in acid. The tannins are fine, so these are elegant wines, but most Chaillot must be cellared for extended periods.
Reynard is the greatest vineyard site in the entire region, and the wine from Allemand that bears its name is the AOC’s greatest wine in many vintages. (The wine from Allemand with no vineyard name at all on it, the extremely rare sans souffre Cuvée, is also 100% from Reynard, and I found it very difficult to distinguish the two wines when we tasted old bottles of the same vintage at the domaine, at least after a few minutes of aeration.)
Reynard is like Chaillot: a classic, granite-heavy site in the central core. In fact, Chaillot and Reynard are each diverse enough that you can find significant similarities and also differences, depending on exactly where you’re looking. For example, Reynard generally has more clay, but Robert Michel’s historic site in Chaillot happens to have just as much. But speaking in generalities, yes, Reynard has more clay, as well as a touch of gneiss and limestone. Its wines tend to feel just a bit more “complete” than Chaillot. But both sites make superb, long-lived, structured wines.
Geynale is an important name in Cornas because it is the site of Robert Michel’s historic vineyard that dates to 1910 (and that was inherited by Michel’s nephew Vincent Paris). It is technically part of Reynard, but is widely known by its own name. It is Reynard with a particularly high concentration of granite. It produces a sensational wine, and it is hard to know if that’s the old vines or the granite. Either way, you should always get a few bottles when the wine is released by Paris (it remains a bargain).
This is one hill south of Reynard. Here, you are just starting to get away from the perfect center of the AOC, with the soils taking on a bit more sand. Yet, Verset had holdings here and the site was dear to his heart. Today, it is owned mostly by Courbis (up high, where there is a mix of granite and sand) and Clape (lower down, where there is more clay). Only Courbis produces a single-vineyard Sabarotte, and it is worth checking out, especially if you prefer a more modern, polished style.
Who are the top Producers in Cornas?
Here are some names to know:
- Thierry Allemand and Auguste Clape
Allemand and Clape are the two greatest producers of Cornas. How lucky for Kermit Lynch that he gets to import both of them! I guess that’s what you get for figuring out that the Northern Rhone is a very special place a good decade before anyone else in the U.S.
Let’s compare and contrast.
Clape is institutional. It’s a family that has made wines here since the early 1900s. Until Auguste passed away at the age of 93 in 2018, you could show up at this domaine and take a photo of three generations of wine-makers who continued to work side by side (as I did, but sadly I can’t find the photo anywhere; thanks to Dan Madero of Kermit Lynch for letting me use the photo above). They have only eight hectares, but much of it is located in the finest spots in the central sector of the AOC. Their wines are classical and beautiful. And, while they are not easy to find, they are not nearly as hard to find as you might think. You should definitely check our stock from time to time as we definitely get our hands on some bottles!
Thierry Allemand, meanwhile, is a one-man team making wines of exceptional purity. His name may not go back 100 years in the village, but he did learn to make wine from local legend Robert Michel (who saved Thierry's life once when he fell into a cask of wine…for real!).
While Clape makes a wine that is blended from different sites, Allemand makes only single-vineyard Cornas: Reynard and Chaillot. They are two of the world’s greatest wines. (They are not strictly single-vineyard wines, has sometimes Allemand will put his oldest vine Chaillot in the Reynard, and both wines might borrow a bit from other sites; it varies vintage to vintage.)
Interestingly, Allemand uses very little sulphur and even makes a small amount of zero-sulphur Reynard. However, the wines are exceptionally clean and do not appear to suffer from its absence at all.
- Noel Verset
He retired in 2006 and died almost 10 years later, but it is still impossible to avoid his name when talking about his region. He made wines in the village for 75 years! He made them in a traditional, old-fashioned style that was thoroughly out-of-fashion in the 1990s, but that was coming back into vogue just as he was starting to wind down in the 2000s. He made Cornas from a blend of vineyard sites, worked with whole clusters and aged wines only in large casks. His wines had volatility and bacterial notes that his admirers called “soulfulness”. With air, the wines seemed to clean up magically and become pure and wonderful expressions of terroir-specific Northern Rhone Syrah. There is a reason this guy became a legend.
Verset produced wine recently enough that you can still find his wines. Just go on wine-searcher and see what’s available, but be prepared to drop at least $550 and probably only two out of three listings you see are of properly stored bottles that will show the way they should. I have one old bottle in my cellar and sometimes when I look at it I wonder if I will ever drink it, having already consumed numerous bottles back when the price was far more reasonable. But of course I probably will.
Maybe the most important thing to know about Verset today is what happened to his holdings. Follow their path and you get extraordinary wine. For instance, the Reynard he sold to Allemand now produces the AOC’s greatest wine. His largest parcel, in Sabarotte, was sold to Clape and Courbis, both excellent sources. He sold his magnificent parcel of Chaillot — planted in 1912 — to his nephew Frank Balthazar, who now makes from it my favorite Cornas that can be purchased in any real quantity.
Like Allemand, Franck Balthazar is a one-man team who works just a few hectares of special vines in the village. This is an essential domain because of the Chaillot he purchased from Uncle Verset, but even without those vines he stands out as one of the AOC’s few good sources for traditional, low-intervention wines. He is the only producer that I am aware of, other than Allemand, who produces a zero-sulphur wine. An excellent value Cotes du Rhone rounds out his offerings.
- Lionnet, Juge and Dumien-Serette
This trio of producers come closest to the wines of old. Call them mere country wines, if you like wines with polish. Compare them to the soulful wines of Verset, if you’re feeling generous. They can be funky. They can clean up with air. They rarely reach of the profundity of Verset, but they can be very good. Marcel Juge is the one that the market perceived as being closest to Verset, and just before his retirement the prices of his wines soared, Verset-like.
I think Lionnet’s wines are just as good. It’s another tiny domaine of just over 2 hectares, but the terroir is good, including holdings in Chaillot, and the vines are very old. Wine-making is Uber-traditionalist: no additives, indigenous yeasts, cement vat fermentation, no new oak, large casks, no destemming.
Dumien-Serette takes a similar approach, but doesn't have quite the same quality terroir, with vines that are more focused on the southern sector of the village. The wines are therefore more forward, more lifted, more aromatic, and less structured than traditional down-the-middle Cornas. If you want a taste of a solid, old-fashioned wine, this is relatively inexpensive and accessible.
- Guillaume Gilles
I mention Robert Michel a couple times above as one of the legendary, old-time producers. You could say that he forms a kind of Cornas holy trinity with Noel Verset and Auguste Clape. Thierry Allemand learned the region from Michel. So did Guillaume Gilles. In fact, Guillaume even uses Michel’s historic cellar to make wine, and leases Michel’s primo vines in Chaillot! He makes wines in the same traditional style as a Juge or a Lionnet, but manages to achieve the elegance and purity of Verset. In other words, I think Gilles is pretty special. I thought I was the only one who knew that, until I noticed how sharply cut our allocations had become in the last couple of years. Oh well.
- Vincent Paris
Here is another disciple of Robert Michel--in fact, his nephew! He inherited Michel’s ancient vines in Geynale, and everything he makes up and down the range is excellent. Early offerings were inconsistent, made with very little sulphur, and have not uniformly held up well. But, since around 2012 this has been a top producer. The wines are limited and allocated, as they are excellent, fairly priced, and made with ultra-low yields from only about eight hectares.
- Matthieu Barret
Barret is an example of a domaine that has reversed course; they've gone from an essentially modernist approach to one that is far more natural and traditional. The farming, in particular, is quite natural (and biodynamic). He encourages species-diversity among his vines and works them exclusively by hand (or paw, as he does employ mules and horses). His terroir is not quite top-rate, located mostly in either the northern sector or in the flatland vines of Mazards (which is below Chaillot and Reynard) though he does have a bit of Reynard. The wines are clean, pure and accessible. Prices are good and they generally do not require extensive cellaring, partly thanks to the natural fruitiness of Mazards.
- Alain Voge
Voge is a classic name in the village and this remains a solid source for Cornas. He takes a Burgundian approach and though there was a time when some of his wines seemed a touch oaky, he has dialed that back. His Vieilles Vignes cuvée, made from vines that go back to 1925, is excellent, reliable and fairly priced.
Here is the only producer on this list who is an out-right modernist: fully de-stemming the grapes and aging wines partly in new oak. The argument in favor of this approach is that since the wine-making is so thoroughly clean, the expression of terroir is more pure. At first the oak gets in the way, but with a few years of aging, the wine’s fineness and purity become evident. The Sabarotte, produced from Verset’s former holdings there, is especially fine.
How to I go about Buying, Drinking and Cellaring Cornas?
Anybody who wants to keep a well-rounded cellar of classic wine should get, at minimum, a few bottles of Clape Cornas every year. If you have the money and patience, you should also try to get in line for a small allocation of Allemand. The good news is that you can buy pretty much anything else from the village in reasonably good quantity. So, if you want to have a Cornas focus in your cellar — a good idea! — there are plenty of good options.
You would ideally get a few bottles of Clape, try to land a small Allemand allocation, and then put together a mixed case of Paris Geynale, Balthazar Chaillot, Guillaume Gilles Cornas and Courbis Saberottes. These would be for the cellar, and ideally you would wait at least five years to start trying bottles. In the mean time, you could enjoy another case of wine you can drink earlier: maybe three Barret Brise-Cailloux, three Lionnet, three Paris 60 or 30, and three Voge VV.
Of course, these are great wines to drink with traditional French foods. When young, you really do need some rich, fatty meats to help with the tannins. As they age, they become more flexible. I’ve even enjoyed a mature bottle with sushi. Really, any time that you might think of Bordeaux or Burgundy, a Cornas will probably do just fine. Plus, it will save you money, as it’s still the case — even after all the Verset craziness — that you get far better value here than in either of those other regions.