One evening years ago, at a dinner party at a bistro in the French wine region of Cornas, in the country's northern Rhône Valley, just northwest of Valence, I made a serious faux pas. One of the guests was Auguste Clape, whose wines, mostly bearing the Cornas appellation contrôlée, were reliably superb, and on being introduced to him, I said — thinking of the far more famous and highly praised wines of Hermitage and Côte Rôtie, farther north — "It's remarkable what you're able to do with syrah in a lesser wine area like this." He looked at me as if I'd said that I was surprised to find good cooking in a country like France. "What do you mean 'like this'?" he demanded. "Er, ah, um," I cleverly replied, before slipping away to refill my glass with some of his lesser-area finest.
As I quickly realized, the wines of Cornas, from Clape and other top winemakers — they are exclusively red, and made only from syrah grapes — can be exquisite, with a kind of power and authority seldom matched by their perhaps more elegant northern neighbors. In my defense, however, it must be said that Cornas was a lesser area for much of its history. Though it has ancient vinicological roots — its wines are first mentioned as early as the ninth century — it was devastated by Phylloxera (the vine pest that destroyed many European vineyards in the latter ninetheenth century) and buffeted by the economic downturn of the 1930s, and plantings shrunk. The region was awarded appellation contrôlée status in 1938, but local producers mostly sold off their grapes (or wine) for use in regional blends until the second half of the last century. Then, after they started bottling it as Cornas and the wine began to gain a reputation on its own, many vine-growers took the easy route, planting grapes in the flatlands, where they were easier to farm and had higher yields, rather than on the more difficult slopes that offered better quality.
Auguste Clape was a stubborn exception; so was Noël Verset, born in Cornas in 1919 and a worker in his family's vineyards from the age of 12 until about ten years ago. Along with a third producer, René Balthazar, Verset and Clape cultivated the best hillside sites and endeavored to make big, long-lived wines in a style that was more timeless than trency. Even so, it took decades for Cornas to earn the kind of reputation it has today. Verset himself didn't begin bottling his wines in commercial quantities until the 1980s — and it wasn't until after the influential California wine merchant and importer Kermit Lynch discovered his wines that his reputation, and that of the region in general, began to grow in the United States. (Lynch also discovered Clape for Americans, and continues to bring in his wines.) Click here for an appreciation of Verset by Lynch's national sales director, Bruce Neyers.
Verset retired after the 2000 vintage, selling off his vineyards to Clape, a younger top-quality producer named Thierry Allemand, and several others — and continuing to make wine for himself and his family for another half-dozen years. In recent years, he had been inactive, and he died on September 11 in a hospital in Guilherand-Granges, not far from Cornas.