Noel Verset Cornas 1997
You might not think it from Winedoctor’s focus on Bordeaux and the Loire, but I do maintain an interest – although almost certainly not one that translates into ‘expertise’, whatever that is – in other wine regions. For example I still have a ‘soft spot’ for the occasional bottle of Rioja, as well as Chianti Classico, two of Europe’s most significant and best known red wine-producing dominions (you don’t have to be a wine geek to know of Rioja or Chianti, do you?). Within France, the same goes for Hermitage, Alsace, Champagne and, looking at specific appellations rather than regions, you can still find bottles of Jurançon tucked in amongst the Jasnières, and Bandol amongst the Bourgueil, in my cellar. That’s quite a few ‘soft spots’ outside Bordeaux and the Loire then!
Cornas is another such appellation; it is one I have not visited for many, many years now, having last driven through in – believe it or not – August 1997, when the fruit for this week’s wine was still hanging on the vine. At the time I still had a rather romantic view of viticulture and wine, thinking that every region and every appellation would perhaps resemble the vine-encrusted slopes of the hill which dominates the town of Tain l’Hermitage, or the majestic sweep of vines which struggle to maintain their foothold on the precipitous and slatey slopes that run alongside the Mosel. Cornas somehow did not live up to my rose-tinted expectations, being at the surface a semi-suburban desert, and even the narrow alleys and streets on either side of the main road through the town did not invite much exploration. Back then I wasn’t so sure in my mind of the distinction between the town on one hand, and appellation and vineyard on the other, of course. As a Loire analogy, Vouvray is hardly the most inspiring of towns, but that does not lessen the significance of the surrounding vineyards, or the sylvan charm that can be found in more distant spots such as Vernou-sur-Brenne. There is often much more to an individual appellation than the town, which is frequently little more than a hub for winemaking activities for a few but certainly not all of the appellation’s domaines (and sometimes it is not even that). This is as true for Cornas as it is for any other town.
Despite having my pastoral dreams of efflorescent vineyards destroyed, the wines of Cornas have remained a peculiar favourite of mine. I don’t drink them that often, and do tend to limit myself to a few domaines – Thierry Allemand, August Clape, the now-retired Noel Verset – rather than undertaking extensive exploration (so little time, so much wine, is my excuse!). It is an appellation that has come in for some stick in the past, described by Jancis Robinson in her column in The Financial Times in 2000 as “obdurate“, a fact of which I was reminded late last week by an anonymous contributor responding to Jancis in the comments on my blog post on what makes a good wine website. I should point out, in the interests of balance, that since that rather critical article Jancis has had many positive things to say about the appellation, especially with regard to some of the newer names in Cornas such as Vincent Paris and Domaine Courbis.
Noel Verset is undoubtedly one of the long-standing greats of the appellation, having started making wine with his father at the age of 12 (not an unusual age at which to leave school at the time, apparently) in 1931. Seventy-or-so vintages later his retirement seemed imminent in the late 1990s and I thought, when I bought it, that the 2000 vintage (which still sits in my cellar alongside the 1997) may well be his last. But, as he sold his domaine off plot by plot, to those he considered worthy I think, neighbours such as the aforementioned Allemand, there wasn’t so much a ‘final vintage’, more of a ‘fading away’. Ever-decreasing quantities of wine were made, with commercial releases in 2001, 2002 and 2003. In 2004, according to John Livingstone-Learmonth in The Wines of the Northern Rhône (University of California Press, 2005), the domaine plaque outside the Verset property was taken down; nevertheless small quantities of wine were still made, purportedly for the family’s consumption, while other wine was sold off to Tardieu-Laurent, the Rhône négociant house, now run solely by Michel Tardieu, which has long specialised in the élevage of select aliquots of wine from some of the region’s best names. So the Verset name lived on, up until 2006 at least, which is the last vintage I have ever seen appear on the market (from a US merchant who worked hard to gather up bottles from these latter vintages which were produced in tiny quantities).
But let us look now not to 2006, but back to 1997, a vintage which is really starting to sing in my opinion; this wine has a firm and maturing hue in the glass, and aromatically it is classic Cornas (or should that be classic Verset?), with a strong gamey element at first, tinged with rubber, but this fades to leave more appealing complex aromas. There are notes of roasted raspberry mixed with bloody meat, less gamey with exposure to the air, with elements of fur, animal skin and eventually some green olive too. With more time – the value of assessing a bottle over a day or two, rather than a 90-second sip – it showed more evocative aromas, the most striking being continued subtly smoky game, juniper berries and a little touch of leather, although in a sweet and aromatic style rather than anything dried or desiccated. It is very cool and reserved at the start on the palate, showing fairly firm acidity and only a slight midpalate texture, but there is plenty of lightly bitter grip, and chalky acid-tinged black fruits just on the edge of ripeness. It carries plenty of cutting acid which pervades through into the finish. With more time little notes of sous bois come to the fore, but again it is sweet rather than too autumnal. I think this is drinking well right now; the prominent acidity I found on the first day won’t sit well with everybody, but it works very well for my palate, with its slightly sour, acid-bound finish. Having said that, the next day this was like a different wine, showing an amazingly broad and rich character that would surely please all, with a wonderful substance and savoury texture on the palate. It is very long too. This should hold for quite a while, and there is still some room for evolution I think; if opening now, you shouldn’t be afraid of decanting for 3-4 hours at the very least. 18/20 (26/9/11)