2016s from Guillaume Gilles and Domaine Lionnet
The whole of Cornas comprises 145 hectares of vines—smaller than many individual mid-sized estates in a region like Bordeaux or Tuscany—and its punishingly steep slopes ensure, in Darwinian fashion, that only the most committed growers will forge wine here. We at Rosenthal Wine Merchant have always had a penchant for the gutsy, wild Syrah that issues forth from this southernmost Northern Rhône hamlet, and our long relationship with the legendary Robert Michel (who retired after the 2006 vintage) provided us a succession of ruggedly traditional wines which still dazzle to this day.
Perhaps it’s because of its diminutive size, or because it has never been as dominated by négociants nor as glorified in the press as its more northern neighbors, but Cornas gives the impression of a tight-knit community—a group of winegrowers with an abundant respect for local tradition, and for what makes their wines special. We have the pleasure of working with two of the current generation’s most formidable talents, Guillaume Gilles and Ludovic Izerable of Domaine Lionnet, and we eagerly await the arrival of their 2016s toward the end of the month. Both men work in a staunchly traditional manner, and with great sensitivity, having internalized the methods of their forebears while improving the overall quality of farming, and both produce wines that represent the appellation at its most visceral and true. The 2016 vintage, with its rainy early-season weather and ensuing hot summer, produced relatively classic Cornas—less forbiddingly concentrated than in 2015 but admirably concentrated nonetheless, and with excellent precision and clarity of fruit.
Guillaume Gilles, now in his late-30s (but looking a full ten years younger), is a force to be reckoned with, and his wines have deservedly garnered progressively more acclaim with each vintage since his debut in 2007. A local, Guillaume learned the ropes through stages with Jean-Louis Chave and Robert Michel between 2000 and 2004, and in fact he makes his wines in Michel’s old underground cellar in the heart of the village. Furthermore, his flagship Cornas is produced primarily from vineyards in Chaillot which were the source of Michel’s “Cuvée des Coteaux” back when he was active. A brilliant farmer, Guillaume eschews chemicals in the vineyards, working his three hectares completely by hand. He vinifies in concrete, uses only naturally occurring yeasts, and—critically—employs only whole clusters with no bunch-destemming, a vital contributing factor to his wines’ intoxicating aromatics and a resounding statement of his old-school values. He ages his wines in demi-muids of considerable age, racking minimally and employing never more than 60 milligrams of total sulfur, and bottling without fining or filtration. Guillaume’s Cornas is unfailingly expressive, deep, powerful, and spicy, humming with terroir and easily rivaling the greatest creations of the appellation’s old masters.
2016 Cornas “Nouvelle R”
The “R” in this wine’s name stands for Les Rieux, a vineyard situated up above the main amphitheater of Cornas at a lofty 400-450 meters altitude. Guillaume acquired acreage here in 2010, immediately planting vines on its soils of white granite which had never before borne wine. Whereas before the turn of the century there was really nothing planted above 300 meters in Cornas, today’s warmer climate allows for wines from plots like this one to reach full maturity at modest alcohol levels—in the case of the 2016, a mere 12.5%. Robert Michel, upon tasting this lovely ’16 (only the second vintage Guillaume has produced), remarked that it reminded him of the Cornas he and his village-mates made in the ‘70s and ’80, an era in which even Geynale and Chaillot rarely pushed past 13% alcohol. The purity of fruit here—its brightness and its spice-saturated red character—provides a fascinating contrast to Gilles’ more brooding and black-fruited flagship Cornas below, and, although the tannins are less ferocious, there is still a tensile structure on display that bodes well for its development in bottle.
Guillaume’s flagship Cornas comprises three separate parcels, all within the renowned vineyard of Chaillot, planted between the early-1950s and the mid-1970s: lower-lying Combe de Chaillot (vinified and bottled separately until the 2015 vintage), with its sandier soils, offers more straightforward fruit; steep Les Terrasses, high up on the slope and poor of topsoil, contributes a granitic mineral sizzle and an intense spiciness; and the also-terraced Grandes Mures, with its ideal sun-soaking southward exposition, provides sumptuously dark-fruited contrabass notes and enhances the final blend’s overall volume and structure. Guillaume vinifies and ages each parcel separately, combining them after an eighteen-month élévage in a mix of 400-liter and 600-liter oak casks of between five and fifteen years of age. This 2016 is complex yet accessible, with a soaring nose of dark red fruits and tingly spices, buoyed by the slightest hint of an appealing volatility that speaks to Guillaume’s devotedly traditional methodology. Its tannins are formidable yet not overwhelming, enrobed in fruit that is both vibrant and thick, and the wine is suffused with an overall sense of purity—an emblem of the supreme health of the fruit from which it was produced.
2016 “Les Peyrouses” Vin de France
Hailing from the flats just to the east of the Cornas appellation proper, “Les Peyrouses” is a remarkable and unique wine: pure Syrah planted in the 1870s, during phylloxera’s initial outbreak, and constituting the very first grafted vines in the area. The soil is a mix of sand and clay, with loads of large limestone galets, and the wine Guillaume coaxes from these astonishingly old vines is so powerful in its fruit that he gives it twelve months élévage instead of eighteen. (Also, tellingly, he always presents it after his Cornas during visits to his cellar—a testament to its sheer power.) Although it is indeed a touch less refined and complex than his two Cornas, “Les Peyrouses” is dazzling in its wildness—always unabashedly sauvage and full-throttle. The 2016, in the vein of its vintage-mate above, is less aggressively tannic than it sometimes can be, but there’s still no masking the sheer intensity of sappy black fruit these 140-year-old vines cannot help but yield. Its overall subtle differences with Cornas shouldn’t be overstated, as even an experienced Rhône lover would be hard-pressed not to identify it as anything but in a blind-tasting environment.
The Lionnet family has been ensconced as winegrowers in Cornas since 1575, and the four-hectare domaine comprises an impressive array of very old vines in some of the area’s greatest sites. In 2003, Corinne Lionnet and her husband Ludovic Izerable—originally from Grenoble—assumed control of the family holdings, and we have witnessed with great delight a steady and remarkable improvement over the ensuing vintages. They obtained organic certification with the 2012 vintage, and, like Gilles, have recently acquired new holdings in Cornas’ higher-altitude reaches, pointing a way forward both for the domaine and the appellation itself. Ludovic and Corinne are great friends with Guillaume, and the constant dialogue among them about their craft benefits everyone involved. Although Lionnet’s practices are quite close to that of Gilles, however—natural fermentations, no de-stemming, used 600-liter barrels for ageing—the wines are more chiseled, leaner and slightly sterner in their youth, yet equally classic in their personality, and utterly revelatory with proper bottle age. Ludovic has thrown a series of bulls-eyes since the 2013 vintage, and the soon-to-arrive 2016s represent the apex of his career thus far. The future here is indeed thrilling, and we encourage you to get on board before the wines become significantly more difficult to access.
2016 Cornas “Pur Granit”
2016 marks the debut vintage of Ludovic and Corinne’s “Pur Granit”—from a southeast-facing one-hectare parcel of selection massale Syrah, planted between 2008 and 2011, in the vineyard of Saint-Pierre at around 380 meters altitude. The combination of high altitude and pure granite soil (hence the name) yields a taut, racy Cornas of remarkable focus and mineral purity. This 2016, while marginally less strapping and profound than the “Terre Brulée” below, offers penetrating spicy aromatics and intense stoniness on the palate, with a sense of real concentration that is remarkable given the vines’ youth. Somewhat in the vein of Gilles’ “Nouvelle R,” this energetic and vivacious wine offers a slightly more easygoing counterpart to the flagship wine below.
2016 Cornas “Terre Brulée”
Ludovic and Corinne farm very old plantings (40 to 100 years old) in several notable Cornas vineyards, which are all blended into their single flagship cuvée “Terre Brulée”: Mazards, with 50-year-old vines in granite-inflected soils of clay-limestone, is dark and powerful; Chaillot contributes classic granitic heft and dusty spice; clay-limestone Pied de la Vigne, which flanks Chaillot’s eastern edge, provides structural rigor; and Combe, the southernmost lieu-dit in the appellation, comprises sandy granite soils which give rounder, more voluptuous fruit and overtly floral aromas. Aged entirely in well-used 600-liter demi-muids, the 2016 “Terre Brulée” is achingly classic—a Cornas of immense concentration, deep, meaty aromatics, an almost shockingly effusive spiciness, and a bristling tension that beckons for a bit of patience but is thrilling in its vibrancy. The bar continues to be set ever higher with each new vintage chez Lionnet.