Exploring in the Northern Rhone : Domaine Clape & Jean Louis Chave

Riding high from our hike up Cote Rotie, we jumped in the car and headed south along the Rhone River. A stunning Pre Fix lunch at Restaurant Scheffer in the tiny town of Serriere further powered us up to explore the two other great Northern Rhone appellations, Cornas and Hermitage.

So far, we hadn’t had any trouble with directions, but as we entered the town of Cornas, my print-out seemed a little too simple. Over an hour drive following the river, and now all I had was an address number to look for. Halfway through town we had already passed the number and we double backed at a crawls pace, finally seeing the tiny “Clape” sign above a mail slot. We had arrived to Domaine Clape, one of a handful of great producers making Syrah from the tiny Cornas hillside.

Jessica and I represented Clape through the Kermit Lynch Portfolio when we worked for Henry Wine Group and we had met young Olivier Clape a few times in Los Angeles and at the Paso Robles Hospice du Rhone event. Olivier actually interned in Paso Robles for a vintage, and his English is perfect. He even wears shorts like an American! But Oliver’s winery is the furthest thing from an American winery I’ve ever encountered.

Olivier greeted us at the door and ushered us in off the narrow sidewalk along the main road. After meeting Olivier’s father, we descended into the cellar, one of the coolest places I’ve ever seen. Not an extremely large basement that occupies the width of two store fronts, ancient oval foudres line every wall. Most striking is that everything is covered in a thick black mold, pretty much the antithesis of clean California winemaking! Jessica and I took it all in as Olivier grabbed glasses to try some of the lots out of the beautiful old tanks.

We jumped in to trying Olivier’s eight different parcels, covering only 5.5 hectares on the hill above. As we tried through the fun and funky, chewy 2011’s, I was definitely struck by a case of “old wood tank envy”. They’re extremely difficult to find in California, and one only has the chance to buy them new and ship them from Europe at enormous costs.

The hit parade began with the 55 year old vine lot, planted just wider than 1 meter by 1 meter because Olivier’s grandfather, wanted to use a horse to plow up the hills! This was a 2010 tank, and the wine showed rich red fruit and smoother, refined tannins than the 2011s. Than Olivier pulled out the Reynard Vineyard lot 60-80 year old vine lot that showed so much spice I would kill to bring a barrel sample to Rasika, my favorite Indian restaurant in DC! We finished the tasting with a naked 1987 bottle which shot out of the glass with bright red fruit and fresh, chalky tannins, these babies are built to age!

After the 1987 grand finale, we walked across the street to Olivier’s crush pad and jumped in his truck. After trying so many Syrah lots, we naturally had to see the vineyards. Climbing up the narrow road, we pulled to the side to let another famous Cornas winemaker, Thierry Allemand, get by us in his truck. At the top of the peak there’s a grove of trees and an ancient tiny house or chapel, pretty well vandalized. The local kids probably hang out here and drink beer at night, Kids will be kids, even in Cornas!

The viticultural difference versus Cote Rotie is obvious as here: the stakes are vertical rather than diagonal. Olivier surveyed the steep hillside packed full of vines and explained that even in his life, this hill wasn’t so full of vineyards. Back in his grandfather’s time a liter of Cornas was worth less than a Kilo of wheat, and many abandoned their vineyards or plowed them under in favor of a more profitable crop. Only 30-40 years ago did the international wine community find Cornas and drive the price up to a point that it’s economically sustainable to farm these tiny hillside vineyard lots. It’s clear that Oliver is very conscious of just how close his family was to halting production all together. Even today, with worldwide acclaim, Oliver remains extremely humble, and I think the small mold covered cellar sums up his modesty. I asked Olivier if many Californians have suit-cased cuttings back to plant in the New World and he shrugged “No, only a couple Australians”. It seems as though Californian winemakers are still only excited by the more Prestigious Cote Rotie and Hermitage in marketing the pedigree of their vines. To me, though, I love the under-dog spirit of Cornas, and I’m thrilled Jessica and I had the opportunity to see Olivier on his home turf and try through all of the different vineyards, let alone, tour them!

After the requisite photo session from the vista point, we headed back down the hill and bid farewell to Oliver and his dad. We drove North a couple towns upriver to meet our Slovenian friend, Iggy. After several international vintages, including the 2009 harvest at our neighbor, Jonata, Iggy is now the full-time cellar hand at Jean Louis Chave, perhaps the most prestigious Ermitage winery and the producer of my favorite Ermitage Blanc. Iggy had already had a long day bottling when he met us at a tiny village bar, but he excitedly scooped us up to show us the vineyards. We departed for some stunning St. Joseph hills that rivaled Cornas and Cote Rotie in exposures and steepness, as well as the meticulous farming work on the tiny, tightly-spaced vines. I immediately understood Iggy’s excitement: By transplanting his obsessive quality control from Ermitage to select parcels within the much bigger, diverse, and less prestigious St. Joseph appellation, Jean Louis might revolutionize the perception of the larger appellation, and deliver world-class Syrah without the price tag of Ermitage.

After a few different 4×4 climbs and hikes, we made it all the way up to Ermitage itself. With the sun already low in the sky, the terraced hills looked pretty darn incredible. Iggy pointed out JL Chave’s particular blocks and then, of course, we had to go take pictures in front of the Chapel of l’Ermite. We enjoyed a bottle of St Joseph over dinner and returned to Iggy’s apartment on top of the winery to finish the night with some homemade Slovenian Amaro.

As Jessica and I drove back up to our hotel in Condrieu, we agreed that we needed to learn a whole lot more about the micro-regions of Saint Joseph to find delicious Syrah bargains in the Northern Rhone. In the meantime, we can still afford Cornas for special occasions, and maybe one day Chave Ermitage for a really really special occasion!