Cornas, Northern Rhône

The smallest red wine appellation in the Northern Rhône was a wine served to Emperor Charlemagne and served at the French court of the 18th century, though more recently has found itself in the shadows of northern cousin Hermitage and southern competitor Chateauneuf-du-Pape. Today we’ll go deeper into what makes the region of Cornas tick, why it has been quite the unknown entity for the last few centuries and what makes it such a unique part of the Northern Rhône.

Like pretty much every other wine appellation in the Northern Rhône, Cornas sits on the steep slopes of the Rhône River. This region is on the west bank alongside the majority of the other wine-producing spots such as St Joseph, Condrieu, Chateau Grillet and Côte Rôtie, with only Hermitage and Croze-Hermitage on the eastern banks. Cornas is one the most southern sections or the Northern Rhône, with only the tiny and relatively unknown Saint-Peray with its interesting sparkling wines to the south. After this is the official border of the Southern Rhône. This southerly location means the region is one of the warmest in the whole of the Northern Rhône, furthest from the cold Mistral wind that blows down from northern Europe, but still northern enough to not benefit much from cool breezes off the Mediterranean. As a result, the wines of Cornas have a reputation as being some of the most concentrated, spicy, rich and tannic of the region, if not the country. This is exaggerated even further by the fact that Cornas is the only appellation in the Rhone whose wines are 100% Syrah. No addition of white grapes is allowed like in all northern neighbours to lift the fruit and soften the tannins. Of course, many high-quality producers in estates in Hermitage and Côte Rôtie do make 100% Syrah wines, but in Cornas, winemakers have no option!


So why is this appellation a no-white-grape zone? Well, it’s due to its warm days, steep slopes and unique soils. As I’ve mentioned in previous Friday Focus pieces, the French have a saying “Shiraz likes a view”, and the slopes of Cornas can definitely provide that! In several places difficult, in others downright deadly, the steep south-facing hillsides of Cornas are made of hard granite with a nutrient-poor clay topsoil. Not much can grow in these hot, dry sites except the occasional weed, and of course the hardy Syrah vine! The mineral-dense granite subsoil gives a freshness and minerality to the wines that lifts and prevents them from becoming fat and flabby, while the high altitude slopes allow overnight temperatures to drop, retaining all-important acidity in the grapes. The intensity of sunlight on these slopes as well as the lack of any cooling breezes from north or south means white grapes either wither from the heat or create too much sugar which makes the wines overly alcoholic, so were abandoned from the appellation long ago.


So why is Cornas so hard to come by then? Well that would have to do with its size; the vineyards of Cornas take up a tiny 130 hectares, which sounds pretty large, but consider that Côte Rôtie to the north, responsible for some of the most expensive and rare wines in all of France such as Guigal’s “La-La” wines, is more than double the size at 276 hectares! The aforementioned steep hillsides, which must be made into terraces in order to grow grapes, usually by blasting through the granite, are also not exactly conducive to easy viticulture. When the regions of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie began to gain critical acclaim internationally in the 1960s, Cornas was pretty much overlooked due to its small production and distance from Vienne, the main town right up in the north of the region. Traditionally Cornas also took many years to relax into itself and for the intense chalky tannins to polymerise (MW speak for soften), meaning they looked astringent and unenjoyable on release when compared to the elegant and pretty wines of Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. Many growers found it difficult to sell their wines despite the work they put into this hard, hot terrain, and moved north to greener pastures. Only a handful of producers stuck around and stayed true to the region, and some of them, such as August Clape, Thierry Allemand and Eric et Joel Durand are truly excelling today. Younger producers such as Vincent Paris and Mark Haisma are using shorter skin maceration periods, earlier harvesting and new French oak to make a more luscious and approachable style of Cornas.


Price-wise, Cornas tends to sit about half-way between its two northern neighbours, Hermitage on the eastern bank and St Joseph on the western bank. Whilst it never achieves the same levels of finesse and class as Hermitage, the wines of Cornas can be relied upon more than the wines of St Joseph due to their more precise location and therefore clearer indications of terrior. Style-wise, Cornas is the most brooding and tannic of the region, but one that rewards cellaring as much as many more expensive wines made further north. The classic aromas and flavours of a Cornas Syrah are blackberry jam, black pepper, violet, charcoal, chalk dust and smoke. The wines of Cornas are also excellent food wines with their tannin to match heavy proteins, savoury bay leaf, black earth and pepper flavours are perfect for rich sauces and their fresh, brisk acid to make the mouth water.


Mark Faber
Buyer and Seller of the Bottles