Cornas: Elemental force

Olivier at Domaine Clape, one of the best estates in Cornas


Syrah is a versatile grape. At one end of the scale, it can make light, fresh, quaffable tonics, bright purple, scented with violets and tasting of blackberries. Cornas, however, lies at the other extreme. These are mightily powerful, black wines of thunderous intensity. It’s a storm surge in a bottle.

This tiny appellation lies at the hot southern limit of the Northern Rhône Valley and consists of a scorched, south-facing granite hillside. The rumpled terrain looks like it’s been picked up, pummelled and thrown back down. Its vertiginous, corrugated terraces are worked by dozens of smallholders. No-one owns much land here; it’s too punishing to work. Tractors quickly become useless on these steep slopes. Horses can help, up to a point. But eventually the only way to plough is by attaching winches to the summit and dragging them up, leaving jagged fissures in their wake.

The vines thrive on the physical effort of the winegrowers. You can taste it in the wines; a tang of dried blood when young, becoming more like roasted meat jus as the wine ages. As they develop, more flavours are drawn out of the wine; dried herbs, hung game and wildfire smoke. Unsurprisingly for wines of this thickset tannic intensity, they can last for decades.

These elemental wines can be overpowering to drink by themselves when young. The best way to tackle them is with a plate of charred rare beef. It’s the wine meat was invented for. Though there are some newer producers opting for a more approachable, fruitier direction, the more traditional contingent still opt for a very dry, savoury style. Either way, Cornas is a force of nature.


Vincent Paris Cornas ‘Granit 30’ 2012 (Bordeaux Index, £19.96)

Aromas of fresh blackberries, liquorice and butchers’ shops over thick black fruit flavours. Powerful savoury texture, all balanced with lively acidity and brimming with energy.

Colombo & Fille Cornas 2011 (Marks & Spencer, £23.00)

Blackberry, blueberry, charcoal and smoke. Full-bodied for sure, but this is nonetheless a lighter, fresher, more perfumed style of Cornas that is a great introduction to the style.

Domaine Eric & Joël Durand Cornas ‘Empreintes’ 2012 (Berry Bros & Rudd, £32.95) 

If you’re looking to push the boat out for a celebration, this is an extraordinary full-throttle Cornas. Very full-bodied, thick with lithe tannin, but still retains freshness and balance. Powerful, very long, and impressively uncompromising, this can’t fail to impress lovers of big wines.


First published in Living France magazine.