Domaine Auguste Clape - Cornas
This was another fascinating tasting tutored by Pierre Ghysens of the expanding Belgian wine importers, TGVins. Pierre has, in my experience, an unrivalled depth of knowledge of the wines of this area built up over 20 years in this and the precursor firm, les Vins du Rhône, which was created and developed by him. Already in September last year Pierre hosted a tasting of Cornas from several different estates and vintages in which Voge, Jaboulet and Clape showed well (notes in the archive); this time he concentrated on Clape, the generally acknowledged leader of the appellation.
The Clape esatate is quite small (less than 7 hectares) and comprises several small plots in different sites. The practice has been to blend the wine from all the plots (mostly old vines) into a single Cornas but recently those of one plot have been separated into the cuvée Cornas Renaissance (of which more below). There is also an excellent cuvée of Côtes du Rhône from vines, most of which of which would be entitled to the appellation Cornas. As well as Syrah, le Classement of RVF reports a minuscule amount of Marsanne, of which I have never seen a bottle on the market. Total annual production is about 25,000 bottles.
Pierre pointed out, with the support of the liquid evidence, that the wines from Domaine Auguste Clape have improved markedly in the last 20 years during which it is possible to identify three distinct phases. Before 1988, the wines were made by Auguste in the traditional Cornas style, i.e. gutsy, tannic and somewhat rustic with marked “animal” and steely notes; they were fine wines in that mode and probably then, as now, the best the appellation, which has as a whole also improved. From 1988, the influence of Pierre Clape, Auguste’s son, began to be felt and the wines became more velvety and less rustic. From 1997, the estate separated out from the top wine the grapes from a certain site where they considered the wine too rustic and these now from 1998 form the Cornas Renaissance cuvée (none was commercialized in the 1997 vintage although these grapes did not go into the top wine); the result was a further refinement of the top wine, which allied to the Cornas gutsiness, now allows it to rival the top wines from Côte Rôtie and Hermitage. Indeed Pierre considers that the Clape Cornas is candidate for the title of the best Northern Rhône wine in both 2002 and 2003. (Note that, contrary to usual practice, the Renaissance “parcellaire” selection is therefore the estate’s second wine.)
And now the evidence follows; for the moment we will have to take Pierre on trust about the further qualitative step up of the vintages from 1998, although I can confirm that the 02 which I tasted last year was then showing excellently from that mediocre vintage.
The nose initially showed body with ivy and some steely notes but filled out as the evening progressed. The palate was vigorous, full, slightly candied and sweet-seeming with dark fruit, a slightly tarry finish and ripe tannins. A super starter described by all as “gourmand”. 15+/20.
This was on a different plan. The aromas on the nose were complex with rose, cherry and cassis notes. On the palate, the wine showed depth and elegance (yes, in a Cornas!) with good freshness and excellent fragrant length. In addition to the aromas on the nose, kirsch emerged on swirl and a slight leather note added an extra dimension of complexity. I liked this much better than my memory and note of a bottle served in last year’s tasting. A lovely wine drinking well now; no need for hurry to drink up and perhaps more potential. 17.5+/20.
Overshadowed by 97. The nose was complex with similar aromas, if more subdued, but the palate was simpler and somewhat monolithic showing nice fruit but less flesh and a slightly dusty and steely note on the finish. A more traditional Cornas. 15/20.
More attractive than 94. Round sour cherry with some animal notes on the nose. An attractively soft roundness on the palate with attractively complex fruit, leather notes , good grip and length. An excellent effort for a difficult vintage. 16/20.
Rich complex aromas on the nose with notes of cherry brandy, cassis and faint leather veering to candied fruit on swirl. Round full velvety palate with well resolved tannic structure framing the complex aromas with excellent length. There was just a hint of a rough rustic note in the after-taste which, when compared to the fragrance of the 97’s finish, gives a clue of what extra might have been achieved if the Renaissance grapes had not then been in the blend. Nevertheless a great wine at its peak; 18+/20.
Slightly overshadowed by 90. Aromas seemed a little closed by comparison with some hints of orange peel and raspberry as well as cherry. The palate was very fresh and young-seeming with attractive fruit and less long than 90 with hints of steeliness on the finish. With swirl and exposure in the glass greater complexity with cassis and kirsch notes was developing and the wine seemed to have development potential in hand. 17/20 with potential.
Intense barnyard aromas at first but fruit coming out and pushing these into the background on swirl. The palate was quite monolithic and rustic compared to the previous wines with less “gras” and velvet but still good freshness of fruit and structure. An animal and slightly steely finish. An example of Auguste regime. A good robust traditional Cornas. 15/20.
Pierre served this last to show the style evolution as Pierre Clape became more active in the domaine. The aromas were much more complex and refined with the initially aggressive barnyard notes of the 85 with cassis and kirsch coming through. There was more depth and “gras” on the palate but a certain dryness with leather hints on the finish. A fine effort in a year where ripeness was a problem and outclassing the 85 where weather conditions were better. 16+/20.
A niggling question remains whether the increasing refinement of the wine has not made it lose Cornas typicity. It is worth emphasizing that there is nothing “international” or “spoofulated” about these wines. Furthermore there are no traces of oak aromas just pure wine made with extreme rigour. (I think that only “one wine” and older barrels of a large size are used.)
I look forward to drinking the vintages from 1996 to 2003, all of which I have in my cellar. I will start soon with the 97 and wait two or three years before tackling the 96 and 98. I expect some grandiose bottles.