The Many Faces of Granite: A Visit to the Clape Cellar in Cornas

Interview with Winemaker Olivier Clape: Climate Change and the Changing Faces of Cornas; How Alsatian Barrels Ended up in the Clape Cellar; Why Clape St Péray Will Be Even Better; 2013 and 2014 Barrel Sample and 2012 Cornas Tasting Notes

Olivier Clape
Olivier Clape.

Cornas, like all Northern Rhône Syrah, is a study in granite. Its different faces; different exposures, different densities and grades. Each vineyard yields a different iteration, which becomes readily apparent while tasting barrels divided by vineyard sites.

Doing so at Domaine Auguste Clape is the chance of a lifetime to witness this. The domaine has been universally celebrated as benchmark Cornas by everyone from Robert Parker to Kermit Lynch (an odd couple indeed).

Even though the Clape cellar is as rustic as can be — covered in a dense layer of white and grey mold that brings to mind ashed rind goat cheese — there is no barnyard, no bretty aroma which dominates Clape wines. They are bright and clean, yet savage and meaty. They are the very definition of Cornas.

The Clape bottle archive.
The Clape bottle archive.

I had the pleasure of visiting Olivier Clape last month to taste 2013 and 2014 barrel samples. For individual tasting notes of the barrel samples, divided by vineyard, click here for a comparative chart.

The winemaking at Clape is simple: hand-harvested grapes first enter raw cement tanks below, still bearing their stems — resolutely traditional Cornas. Olivier hastens to point out the crystal tartrates that have accumulated on the walls inside the empty tanks, which make the interiors feel like sandpaper.

Cement tanks, with Baumé levels marked noting daily remaining sugar levels.
Cement tanks, with Baumé levels marked noting daily remaining sugar levels.

Fermentation lasts 12 days. Note the Baumé levels marked in chalk in the photo above; they record the daily starting sugar level. I couldn’t help but ask Olivier Clape if he’d noted any effects of climate change.

Are sugar levels rising?

It’s getting easier and easier to have sugar. For my grandfather, it wasn’t easy to get a nice level of sugar and alcohol; but, now we have the weather forecast. Forty years ago, it was a totally different game; but now, you can see what’s coming, and you can wait a bit longer before picking.

Here in Mauves, what are generally the high temperatures?

On average, 33, 34° C. These last few years, 2011-2014 we didn’t have a lot. We had maybe a week of heat, and nowadays, usually when we have high temperatures that last a while like that, the nights are warm as well; it will usually be 22°, 23° C, but lately it hasn’t been like that; lately at night it will drop to 17, 18°.  It’s odd, because I remember summer being much warmer, say 3 weeks at 32-34° C. But now, often, the temperature climbs for 4 or 5 days, and then suddenly there are storms and the system is broken up, and there’s a threat of hail; then afterwards, bam, it’s cool again, and then it warms slowly, then another storm, and that’s how things go.

So you’re seeing more hail?

Yeah, in each of these storms there can be hail. Before, you could spend 2 or 3 weeks at 33, 34°, it’d be warm all the time; and then afterwards gradually drop; now the heat is much shorter, and goes out quickly.

And how do you find this extreme variability affects the taste of the wine?

It’s not easy to say with the wine, but in the vineyards, when these changes happen too fast, say it rains and then suddenly it’s hot, the vineyards stress a bit, because they have a lot of water, and the arrival of sun and heat is too sudden.

And did you have any problems with oidium and rot in recent vintages with all the rain?

No, not in 2013 because we had a bit less fruit, so as the stems weren’t so packed, we didn’t have any rotten fruit. It was more 2014 that was tough. Here, it was okay; but in the north, it was tough. For us all the work has to be done in the vineyard; so, if you see that the weather isn’t great, maybe you take off a few leaves, get some air in there. Or if the vines are stressed — too hot, too dry, maybe you take some fruit down or the vineyard will suffer. Some people won’t do it, because you’re losing fruit!

You’re losing money.

But, then, if you keep too much fruit, the grapes get stuck and you don’t obtain real maturity; it’s all just acidity and sugar, not like when the fruit keeps ripening little by little.

What are your thoughts about the identity of Cornas? Has it changed over time?

Here in Cornas it’s easy to make a huge wine with a lot of oak, to make those Parker wines that used to impress; I think not many youth went in that direction, but there are still people that want to create something that they don’t really have — to put some make-up on the wine, and maybe not make the wines the way the wines want to be?

When you think back on the Cornas you’ve tasted from the 80s, 90s, maybe even 70s, do you feel like there’s a similar identity, or do you feel like things are changing?

No, it’s changing. Even here, my grandfather made more austere, more “tight”, linear wines than my father. When my grandfather had to pick, they were thinking, “Well, I could wait longer, but it’s a huge risk”. Now, we can take the risk, we can wait a bit longer. In the past, for example Marcel Juge’s wines, he only makes a tiny bit of wine, so he can pick whenever he wants, but his wines are still a little bit acid, and square. Cornas was like that before, and nowadays wines can show more new oak and more extraction; so, this has changed. But I’m happy that the new generation isn’t going too far to the extreme, and, it’s good to have a lot of different wines, for this small appellation — it makes it interesting.

Do you always use the same foudres for the same parcels?

No, not really, we don’t really have any favorites. It’s more about the volumes. They’re all 30-50 years old and don’t have many differences.

Alsatian foudres preferred by the Clape family.
Alsatian foudres preferred by the Clape family.

Maybe they’re even older. My father told me when they arrived, they looked the same! The wood came from Alsace. That’s not really the tradition, here; but, my grandfather couldn’t find a cooper; so a friend in the South told him a guy was near Bandol (where they use foudres like this), and he made these high-quality foudres in Alsace; at the time in Alsace, everyone started going for stainless steel tanks, so he ended up changing a few pieces of wood and then selling them for a lot less. Plus, they were used wood. My grandfather really liked them for the wine and for the space as well. You don’t have to move the barrel up there; you can open it and clean it from here.

Are there any appellation rules for the élevage?

Yes there’s a minimum of 16 months élevage, I think. I don’t know why they did that, though, I think that’s stupid. I think it should be more! For our élevages, our younger vines bottling Renaissance and our Cornas, it lasts usually 22 months, Renaissance, we usually bottle in July; and Cornas, it’s a bit more, usually 22 or 24; it depends. You know, it’s funny — every year at the beginning of December, there’s the Marché des Vins, a wine market that has been going on for 55 years. It’s the old people, really, that traditionally come to this market to sell their wines …

Was this the majority of their sales, for a while?

Exactly, and, so they bottled their wines just before the Marché because they needed cash, and nowadays people are still doing it! So the wines this year, the 2013s—with only a year of élevage, people were already bottling the wines and selling them! And you could tell that the wines were good, but, not finished …

It’s a very conservative wine region, not a lot of experimentation … it’s very traditional. Are there any other appellation rules?

Yeah: harvest by hand, the height of the canopy, the leaves, like all the dead vines need to add up to less than 10% of the vines. There’s a few rules, but it’s not like you can make the wines any way you want, or do whatever you want in the vineyards.

Where do the vines come from that go into the Vin des Amis?

It’s after the village, from vines in between the village and the Rhone, so there’s like 2, 3 kms, not much, and it’s flat lands, so, less drainage … thicker soils, it’s like the old bed of the Rhone river, so it’s sediment from the Rhone river, round stones a bit like Crozes Hermitage but less rocky … alluvial pebbles.

I’d noted an herbaceous greenness in 2013 Vin des Amis — did you notice that?

I think 2013 is very concentrated, even for the Vin des Amis, and in this vintage we had not a lot of fruit, and a lot of stems… So the stems are coming through, yeah? Yeah, it’s the proportion of juice and stems. As I taste bottles over time, it’s getting more integrated.

Total hectares for the domaine?

Total 8.5ha; 5.5ha Cornas, 1ha Côtes du Rhône, 1ha Vin de Table (=Vin des Amis), and it’s new: 1ha Saint Péray, our white wine.

How long have you had Saint Péray?

We had 1/4 hectare for a long time, 2000 m2, so we made 1000 bott every year, and almost all went to the USA. And then we planted 7000 m2 3 or 4 years ago, so now we have almost 1ha and 2014 was the first vintage to have a bit more volume.

What are your drinking habits in terms of Saint Péray? Some folks only want to drink it after it’s old, do you drink it young, old, or … do you not drink it at all?

It’s really funny, we really weren’t drinking it often, because it was very ripe, and the parcel is so small that it was too complicated to call the pickers a week or two before everything else was ready… all the same, people were drinking it saying “Wow! This is good Saint Péray!!” So, it was very ripe, and because we didn’t use too much sulphur, the wine would evolve very quickly; when it’s young, I think it’s nice the first 6 months to a year? Because it’s fresh? But then it gets a bit more heavy, like: honey, acacia. Now that we have a bit more, this year we picked when we wanted to: so there’s more freshness in the wine. Still no new oak, just old oak, just to have a bit of oxidation in the wine … otherwise we’re doing concrete and stainless steel tanks, so we don’t want to end up with something too heavy. I think this Saint Péray will be a bit different, and more interesting. But typically, I like Bernard Gripa’s Saint Péray. Both young and old? Yes! I was surprised, I tried like a 10, 12 year old Saint Péray, and it was still fresh with nice fruit! That’s when I thought, “Wow, okay, we can do something good in Saint Péray!” Ours is 70/30 Marsanne and Roussanne. Roussanne is very sensitive, very fragile, so the flowering is always a bit complicated.

When do you like to drink your Cornas?

Well, maybe young, sometimes? The first two, three years? But then you have to wait 10, 12 years minimum … like 2002, 2004, those vintages that weren’t too big, but are still very classic and nice, those can take 15, 18 years.

Do you have favorite food pairings?

When it’s old, something a bit more like wild game: deer, wild boar; with a Cornas wine sauce! Or duck. Confit or magret? Eh, both. Maybe more magret. Lamb as well, with rosemary, and thyme.

And how about your St Pérays? I mean, I know you don’t drink them often, but…

I think with the whites of the Rhone region, it’s not apéritif wine; it’s more like white meat, maybe chicken. Maybe even Thaï sometimes, spicy foods? Or foods with cream? Chicken with cream and mushrooms?

Regarding this conservative side, I was in Lyon before coming here, and the food is wonderful, but there’s little experimentation … there’s authenticity, but one may feel a bit trapped?

Sure, it’s good and bad; it’s good to keep the tradition alive. I went to California in 2006 for the harvest, and I thought: “Wow, it’s completely the opposite here”; everything was modern, I felt no connection to the vineyards, and I really understand now how we have to protect all we have — I mean, France, Europe, culture, traditions … we have to save it. I’ve also been to South Africa, and they’re just crazy! They experiment with everything, putting barrels in water, in the tank like this, then filling it up with water… skin contact whites for 6 months, like Chenin…Actually, it was good!

They’re looking for an identity…

Yeah, they’re looking for it! And for us, we have it: we have to take care of it!

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In addition to the barrel samples, we tasted the following wines:

2012 Domaine Clape Cornas Renaissance (opened 3 days ago) Nose is dense with bic pen and pronounced flowers. Green pepper, olive tapenade, leather, green tea! Yum! Still tense. Cocoa aroma arrives later.

2012 Domaine Clape Cornas (opened 3 days ago) Celery, vinyl nose.  Broad cocoa entry and very gushing, fruity palate. Fleshy. Fruit is really taking shape here. Dark inkiness, blueberries, red raspberry jam.

1995 Domaine Clape Cornas A warm vintage which rendered tiny grapes that in turn made concentrated wines with harsh tannins, compact bunches where the vines got stuck at points; this lead to a high acidity. Nose of leather, garrigues, sweaty fur, red currant? Cassis! Capers add a savory layer; palate is a fresh, big, delicious jam. Warm vintage; hard tannins initially. This has only just recently begun to be approachable. Glass residuals show olive tapenade. Stunning. Between 20 and 30 years out with a Clape Cornas, the vintage fades from focus and the wine enters a completely different realm.  The color is amazing:

1995 Clape Cornas' stunning ruby color.
1995 Clape Cornas’ stunning ruby color.

“Even at 30 or 40 years old, the wines are never brown. Maybe a bit orange, but never brown. It even surprises me!” Olivier noted.

Thankfully Olivier is keenly aware of the precious tradition he defends; if the world were to lose the very benchmark of Cornas, Cornas would be a far poorer, rudderless place.

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