Having a mental database from which you can draw when you are blind tasting requires developing a sense-memory of wines and the various contexts in which grapes are grown. This includes such things as whether the wine is from an Old World (France, Italy, Spain, German, Italy, Greece) or New World (USA, Australia, South America, Africa) country, the climate of the region (Continental, Mediterranean, or Maritime), the winemaking style, whether new or used oak is used, the origin of the oak barrels (French, American, Hungarian), the amount of time they are typically barrel-aged, as well as the weather for the particular vintage. These factors have an enormous impact on the wine and understanding them can help you figure out such things as whether a Sauvignon Blanc is from California, Sancerre, or New Zealand or whether a Syrah/Shiraz is from the Northern Rhône, Australia, California or South Africa.
Determining a vintage of a wine (within 2 years) depends on understanding the visual and olfactory clues the wine gives you such as the color, whether primary characteristics (fruit) or secondary characteristics (wine making process) are dominant. A youthful Syrah will be dark purple or even black at the core and will be violet at the rim. The fruit, spice and earth aromas will be up front. An older Syrah may have tints of garnet or brick red at the rim and it will display more tobacco and leather notes on the nose. But, how the wine was stored can also play a significant role as well as a warmer cellar will age a wine faster.
But if you really wanted to get accurate in determining the vintage, you would also need to memorize how the weather affected every vintage of a region. A good place to begin might be in understanding the radical differences between the weather patterns of 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 in the Napa Valley. Then do comparative tastings of a particular wine from each of those vintages and then determine what characteristics of the wine were due to the effect of the weather on those wines.
This is why it is important to not only taste wines from all over the world and learn the typical characteristics of those grapes, but also to taste various vintages to develop an understanding of how wines develop in time and how the weather conditions for a particular year are reflected in the wine. Buying a case of wine that you like, opening a bottle every other year (taking notes of course) and comparing them is a great to learn how wines mature.
Another way to understand vintage wines is to participate in vertical tastings in which you sample side-by-side the same wine from the same winery but from different vintages. Occasionally wineries, wine shops or wine bars will offer a Vertical Tasting of a particular wine and when they do you need to take advantage of the opportunity.
So, with that in mind I recently visited the Vin Vino Wine Bar and Shop in Palo Alto to do a vertical tasting of Cornas “Renaissance” from the Northern Rhône, France
The Cornas Region
Cornas is an Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in the Northern Rhône wine region of France south of Lyon. It is one of the smallest in the Rhone Valley, just north of St. Peray and Valence, south of St. Joseph on the western slopes of the Rhône River. This region only produces red wine and only from the Syrah grape. Unlike other northern Rhône red wines blending with white wine is not permitted and no white wines are produced in this region. The name Cornas is Celtic for “burnt earth” and the earliest known written mention of wine being made in the region go back to 885. Cornas became an AOC in 1938 but growers did not begin to bottle their own wine until 1950. While the Southern Rhône has a Mediterranean climate, the Northern Rhône has a Continental. While most of the northern Rhône appellations are influenced by the cooling le mistral winds Cornas is mostly shielded from the and consequently they are usually the first to harvest their grapes. The vineyards are fairly small and are planted on steep slopes facing east south-east 100 to 400 meters above sea level. In the northern end of Cornas the soil consists of chalk, sand, and is rocky with reddish-brown dirt.
The Cornas “Renaissance” is produced by one of the top winegrowers in Northern Rhône -Auguste Clape. The Clapes have been vignerons for many generations, but the family moved to the region from Languedoc during the 1906-07 grower strikes. They then rebuilt their grape-growing venture terrace-by-terrace, along the steep, western slopes of the Rhône River. For many years, the majority of growers in Cornas sold their fruit to négociants but in 1950 they began to make their own wine. Auguste was the first to bottle his own wine and today he has been passing on the work to the next generation - his son, Pierre-Marie, and grandson, Olivier.
Though the Clapes farm only 8 hectares (about 20 acres) of old and older vines that are grown on steep, rough, tightly stacked terraces where it is impossible to use any machinery. The vineyard is planted on granite subsoil with optimal sun exposure. They own pieces of such prime parcels as Reynard, La Côte, Les Mazards, Pied La Vigne and recently acquired the vineyard, Les Sabarottes which they bought from the now retired Noël Verset. Individual parcels are vinified separately in old, oval foudres. Long élévages (progression of wine between fermentation and bottling) of twelve to twenty-two months add depth to the natural complexity of the wines.
Renaissance comes from Auguste Clape’s younger vines that are 30-50 years old which are considered the Clape’s “regular” Cornas bottling. The wine they label simply Cornas is really their “old vines reserve.”
The 2005 Cornas “Renaissance”
This wine is clear, dark purple at the core to violet at the rim. Although it is 8 years old it is still youthful in appearance with no obvious visual signs of age. It is a medium+ complex wine, on the nose it displays medium intense aromas of dusty blackberries, black tar, and black pepper. It is somewhat vinous with additional aromas of black ink and tar. After vigorous swirling and aeration it reveals additional aromas of black cherries, plum skins and black licorice. The tannins are quite high and astringent for a wine of this age, it is medium bodied with medium alcohol and acidity with long finish. This was one of my favorites in the line-up. This wine retails at $68 per bottle.
The 2006 Cornas “Renaissance”
This wine is similar in appearance to the previous wine and it stains the glass when swirled. On the nose it delivers dried black fruit aromas (prunes, dates, figs), black cherries and subtle notes of dried herbs. On the palate it is “sweeter” but not in a sugary way with fresher fruit. After aeration and much swirling it has additional aromas of dark cherries, cooked caramel, and roasted nuts. It is medium bodied, with astringent medium+ tannins that become silky on the mid-palate and it has a medium+ length finish with notes of black pepper and plums on the return. Although this wine is a year younger than the previous wine, it is actually softer and more refined. This wine retails at $60 per bottle.
The 2007 Cornas “Renaissance”
This wine displays aromas of fresh dark cherries, plums and a hint of pepper. On the palate it has medium to medium- tannins, medium acidity and a medium length finish. It is immediately approachable but it is not as complex as the previous wines and feels rather thin on the mid palate leaving it the lightest of all the wines in this vertical flight. This wine retails at $65 per bottle.
The 2008 Cornas “Renaissance”
This wine stands out from its predecessors and successors as having more black pepper and spice upon entry that lingers through the mid palate and finish. Once you work past the pepper it delivers additional aromas of dark plums, black licorice, dried roses and herbs. It has firm tannins that grip the teeth and gums, medium+ acidity and a medium length peppery finish. It is well balanced with good structure and was my favorite in the lineup. This wine retails at $65 per bottle.
The 2010 Cornas “Renaissance”
The newest vintage in the vertical tasting, this wine displays low-intensity aromas of sweet plums, raisins, mild notes of black pepper, dried herbs, black tar and just a smidgeon of burnt rubber that dissipates after aeration. On the palate it has medium gritty tannins, it is medium bodied but has higher acidity than the previous wines. This wine retails at $69 per bottle.
The 2004 Cornas Clape
The final wine is from a different vineyard that is much older. Although it is from an older vintage than the previous wines it too is youthful in appearance, clear, dark purple at the core to violet at the rim. On the nose it displays savory aromas of beef jerky, teriyaki sauce, dusty plums, dried herbs, and old leather with just a hint of black pepper. On the palate has refined silky tannins, it is medium bodied with medium acidity and a long finish. This is the BEST of Cornas! This wine retails at $95 per bottle.
All of these wines are unmistakably an old world Syrah as new world Syrahs, such as from the California or Australia, tend to have more ripe fresh fruit flavors, more body with higher alcohol and tend not to have the earthy-tar notes. While I find these wines to be intriguing and the educational experience of tasting them was valuable, at these prices I can think of many California Syrahs in the $35-$45 range that I’d rather drink.
Vin Vino Wine (VVW) gives substantial pours so unless you are spitting (I was the only one in the room doing so) drinking these many wines would get you tanked. So you either need to limit your pours or resist finishing the wine.
Tasting isn’t cheap, for a short flight (3 wines) it costs $28 and for a long flight (5 wines) it will set you back $45. I also tasted the additional 2004 Cornas Clape for $13 so the total cost of tasting these wines was $58. But flight costs vary depending on what they are pouring and they only serve top-notch wines.
Vin Vino Wine
437 California Avenue
Palo Alto, CA 94306