Mature Cornas and Hermitage with Berncasteler Doctor and Krug as sharpeners

My chum James had been looking after his young son for the past few days without the aid of his enchanting wife Katie. He managed so admirably a bit of diverting entertainment was certainly deserved. To provide this Peter, Daniel and I trekked out to Clapham for a little blind-tasting session and some rather nice lamb steaks. After our two sharpeners we turned our attention to red wine and were challenged to spot the origins, producers and vintages of a set of Northern Rhone wines. They provided a fascinating, instructive and distinctly gratifying tasting exercise despite some disappointments.

As far as assessing wine goes blind tasting is somewhat akin to the swimsuit section of a beauty pageant – you scrutinise with nothing hidden and the fancy frocks of preconceptions cast aside. I rather enjoy the process as it requires focus and analytical thinking about what you taste. It is a demanding discipline and no matter how much you’ve done it before the risk of making a total arse of yourself is always palpably present. Since anyone may guess wildly inaccurately it can generate a few good-humoured chortles with tasting companions who are well aware it could be them next. As such, it is a quite jovial way to sample wines. I think we acquitted ourselves well enough to prevent too much embarrassment.

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Riesling Spatlese Berncasteler Doctor 1998, Dr Thanisch Erben Thanisch

I love the nose which is ultra pure in terms of citrus fruit and slate minerality. It is reasonably ripe and shows some maturity but really pulses with vivacity. The focus and purity on the nose coupled with the refined, complex minerality signal to me that this is from a top producer and a first-rate vineyard. The palate is linear with great acidity, lovely lime fruit and refined minerality. There is some weight here and it is reasonably sweet, although its age has clearly reduced the impression of sweetness. It has a mouthwatering sapidity and for all its manifest class it is a joyously appealing drink. A wine well-worth enduring the Teutonic severity of the estate owner in order to procure, we drink German Rieslings in the hope of encountering examples so engorged with outstanding quality.

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Vintage Champagne 1996, Krug

The scale and complexity of this nose is astonishing. It has a definite Pinot derived cold cocoa character but the fresh redcurrant fruit that explodes from it is very intense and charged with life. There is definite density here with layer upon layer of powerful but intricately detailed aromas that leave me feeling quite intoxicated. I want to get down to drinking this. Bloody hell, the epic acidity level here slashes through the palate with the unabashed enthusiasm, and as far as my sensitive stomach goes a lot more pain, than a particularly acned teenager getting to work squeezing a fresh and frightfully livid crop of pimples. But that is just fine with me, it is remarkably balanced and provides definite energy to the impressively muscle-bound set of flavours that are potent with dimension. It tastes of so much and the flavours go on and on. It might not be a light, refreshing example of fizz but the sophisticated authority with which this delivers feisty vibrancy has me utterly persuaded of its brilliance. This is the stuff.

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Cornas 1996, Clape[ref]When I was at Oxford I wrote a column for a wine magazine profiling different wine-makers. I titled my article about this producer ‘A dose of the Clape’. My opinion of the magazine’s editor plummeted when he retitled it ‘Clape, Clape, David Strange applauds a great wine-maker’. Fancy replacing an amusingly suggestive title with one so utterly turgid and lacklustre.[/ref]

This nose is beautifully polished and bewitchingly refined. There is nothing rustic or rough here, it is all alluring sophistication. The fruit is charged with complexity and, whilst it has distinct earthy aromas, there is nary a hint of anything even remotely unclean in an unsavoury style. It smells gorgeous. It has a very silky, smooth texture with no tough tannins, clumsy oak or excessive acidity. It is all about harmony and, lets be honest here, its disposition charged with ardour. The wine is a paramour of the most seductive, sensual character that clearly has it well within its capacity to tantalize all but woefully lugubrious dullards. Inordinately charming Cornas.

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Cornas 1996, Verset

Noel ‘Papa’ Verset has left us to mourn his departure from the world of fine wine and his wines have definite hen’s teeth status, so it was distinctly vexatious that the first bottle of this we popped was corked. Lucky for us James just happened to have another.

I feel the strong earthiness and slight leafy and leathery tinges to the dark fruit speak strongly of its origins. There is a suggestion of a rustic edge to the nose as well. I like it, though, its charm is rugged and honest even if it is not trying to drag you into bed. The palate has a rugged somewhat tough tannic structure, but the fruit and earthiness are quite engaging. I feel very slightly discomposed about the acidity level, it has a vague hint of spikiness, but this is a good wine. It is quality Cornas, just of a style that one will encounter with diminishing frequency in the future.

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Hermitage La Chapelle 1983, Paul Jaboulet-Aine

A bottle of Hermitage should be an event in itself, but I find the volatile acidity aroma and flat, dull character of what fruit this displays to be disquieting. There is a bit of life still battling on, but this bottle has clearly seen better days. Sadly the palate is also motoring down the flat and dried-out road, there is not the rich depth of manly complexity we hope for in good Hermitage. I’ve been terribly fortunate to have tried this wine on many occasions and always loved it – I would have been chuffed as punch if what is probably the last bottle of it I’ll get to try had lived up to those captivating experiences.

James then popped a bottle of Cornas ‘Domaine de Rochepertuis’ 2001 from Jean Lionnet to warm us as we battled our way back across London. Sadly it had a weird cheesy, dirty aroma and tasted rather grim. I thought it had been the victim of some form of bacterial spoilage as I know and love this wine and I’ve never had one tasting so unpalatable. We finished of the Riesling to prepare for heading home.

  • Guy Dennis

    Great to see you got Peter posing. Hurrah!
    Wonderful characterisation of a Verset Cornas – though I’ve not had a 1996.
    Baffled to read about the La Chapelle… Was it worse than the non-Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage 1983 that we had the other day? And if so, how can this be???

  • Hi Guy,

    Sadly the Lash was not in as good condition as your Crozes. I only picked it up recently with no knowledge at all about its storage history – that is presumably why it was rather cheap.

  • The Clape was indeed marvelous. I can’t help thinking that our stereotypes of the characteristics of different northern Rhone appellations are flawed and misleading. Again and again when drinking Clape (which is sadly not all that often) I am struck by its elegance, restraint, complexity and beauty. And it’s Cornas. Wonderful wine. I really don’t think there is anything better from the Rhone.
    But as to the Krug. Sorry, can’t go along with this. Massively powerful, yes. Sadly much more power than charm. Overbearingly powerful, but just not all that nice. It seems to me this is to Champagne what Latour is to Claret – built to impress rather than to delight.
    I thought you were a little over harsh on the Lionnet. I don’t think it was a bad drink. It had fruit (pleasantly bitter fruit) and structure. It was an OK drink. Just nothing like a Cornas from Lionnet. A very odd bottle. I think we would have been more positive if it had turned out to be from an Italian producer we had never heard of. But it was from Lionnet.

  • ed tully

    The trick with Krug is to put it into the “wine” rather than the “fizz” category, otherwise it can seem like hard work.

  • Sounds like yet another example of drinking in style, David. Next time you come to Clapham let me know. Maybe I need a better wine radar in order to identify the pockets of quality that seem to be stored in my neighbourhood…

  • Richard katz

    You boys are drinking better than me here in joburg. At least I have a stash of Mullineux syrah to keep me from very odd things in my brother in law’s cellar. And a couple of goodies for when I head to castle Prothero next week, chave, allemand, Noel, and trevallon. So worth waiting for.