The Côtes du Rhône, from a selection of young-vine Cornas and older Syrah just outside the appellation, strikes a deeper register. Sturdy and mineral-driven, it tastes like the grapes were prompted, gently but insistently, to eke out the pure essence of Syrah in granite.
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 will go down in history as one of the greats. A proud and uncompromising pioneer of fine winemaking in the Northern Rhône, his Syrahs from the cru of Cornas have earned their place among the most celebrated wines of France. The Clapes have been vignerons for many generations, but the infamous grower strikes of 1906 and 1907 forced Auguste's grandfather out of the Languedoc and into the Northern Rhône to start anew from practically nothing. The Clapes rebuilt their fortunes, terrace by terrace, along the steep, western slopes of the Rhône River. Without pretense or fanfare, Auguste, the former mayor of Cornas, was a stately picture of grace and magnanimity—a no-nonsense wise man who never rested on his laurels and sought to better himself and his wines each year until his passing in 2018 at the age of 93. Today, his son, Pierre-Marie, and grandson, Olivier, carry on his legacy with honor and integrity.
On the wines of the northern Rhône, Kermit wrote in Adventures on the Wine Route, “The best combine a reminder of the sunny Mediterranean with the more self-conscious, intellectual appeal of the great Burgundies farther north, which is not a bad combination.” Like the wines of Provence, Burgundy, and Beaujolais, Kermit was introduced to this region by Richard Olney, an American ex-pat and friend of Alice Waters.
Though technically part of the same region as the southern Rhône and connected by the Rhône River, much differentiates the north from the south. The climate is continental and in general cooler than that Mediterranean climate of the south. The appellations are significantly smaller: Cornas has less than 300 acres planted to vine and Hermitage around 345. The area planted is minute when compared to Gigondas (3,000+ acres) and Châteauneuf-du-Pape (nearly 8,000 acres). Many of the great wines come from steep hillside vines—terraced during Roman times. It was clear to the Romans that great wine could be made here and DNA evidence now shows that Syrah is in fact indigenous to the Rhône.
The terroir is predominantly granite and lastly, blends of the wines are mostly single grape varieties. Only four grape varieties are permitted in AOC blends: Syrah, Viogner, Marsanne, and Roussanne (as compared to the 19 permitted varieties allowed in Châteauneuf). The red wines are nearly all Syrah and Condrieu and Château Grillet must be 100% Viogner. The whites of Hermitage, Saint Joseph, Saint Péray, and Crozes-Hermitages may only be blends of Marsanne and Roussanne.
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