There’s enough interest in the northern Rhône today—and still few enough producers—that nothing remains secret for long. Yet it is impressive to me how much the appellations of Cornas and Côte-Rôtie are guided by fashion; a house like Domaine Bernard Levet, which is as established as they come, manages to remain just shy of the buzz. This screwy market is, in part, a result of the persistent power of the Rhône’s négociants, who may have lost their cool factor but still have the money to buy up ever-more-expensive vineyard land.
And fame can be tricky. If you’re fond of important wines like the Cornas of Thierry Allemand or Auguste Clape, you’ll be competing with steep global demand. The wines have become totems for the region’s underdog nature, even if the prices betray that status. Still, there remain new names worth seeking, including wine from a small group of négociants like Equis, run by Crozes-Hermitage’s Maxime Graillot and Thomas Schmittel.
In addition to these, look for wines from Vincent Paris, Matthieu Barret of Domaine du Coulet, Chrystelle Michel, Mark Haisma and Equis from Cornas and Stéphane Otheguy and Jean-Michel Stephan from Côte-Rôtie.
Balthazar took over from his father in 2002 and—with the addition of century-old vines in Chaillot from his uncle Noël Verset, one of the best-known names in Cornas—has become an icon of the appellation’s best opportunities. The wines are vinified with whole clusters and aged mostly in large casks, and they find that just-right balance between fine tannin, complex fragrance (from rose petals to black tea) and moderate weight. The Cuvée Casimir Balthazar, an homage to his grandfather, shows surprising density for a young-vine wine, while the Chaillot is all understated elegance. (There’s also an unsulfured cuvée, which is vibrant but perhaps best drunk in situ.)
Guillame Gilles had the fortune to inherit Robert Michel’s legacy, but has hardly kept it as a museum piece. He’s one of the northern Rhône’s most dynamic talents, farming organically and combining historic parcels like Chaillot with his new ones. The only trick is keeping up with the constantly shifting roster of wines. His straight Cornas blends several terroirs; it’s opulent, full of fruit, plus the scents of bay leaves and olive brine. The Combe de Chaillot, almost overwhelming in its spice, will be blended into the regular Cornas as of 2015, while new parcels (including the high-altitude Les Rieux) are set to be bottled on their own.
La Grande Colline
Hirotake Ooka, who studied chemistry in Tokyo and winemaking in Bordeaux, is a complicated figure because, as a natural wine darling, he’s candid about the uneven nature of his wines. Although based in Saint-Péray, he apprenticed with Thierry Allemand. His Cornas, from his own precipitous young plantings, is winningly complex and a bit ashy in its tannins—the rare Cornas you’d probably want to drink early. (Ooka firmly eschews sulfur dioxide.) Production is miniscule, of course, so you’re more likely to encounter his Le Canon table wines, largely from the Ardèche region, wonderful but often also a bit unstable. Perhaps his greatest contribution is bringing his outsider’s perspective to a notoriously insular appellation.
Domaine Lionnet is a marriage, literally, of outside influence (Ludovic Izerable, originally from Grenoble) and quintessential tradition (his wife, Corinne Lionnet, whose family has farmed in Cornas since the 16th century). There are several parcels of old vines, including from Combes and Chaillot, all going into a single wine, the whole-cluster Terre Brûlée, which shows off a dark side, full of spice and tar notes.
Domaine Alain Voge
Domaine Alain Voge catches more than its share of skepticism. This is perhaps because Alain Voge, now in his 70s, was once the brash new kid in Cornas with Côte-Rôtie-style ambitions, and also because Voge’s current manager, Albéric Mazoyer, came from Chapoutier, which in Cornas is cause for deep suspicion. The wines can still be overly stylish, but the farming is impeccable; the Vieilles Vignes Cornas, which uses only about 20 percent new oak, has a hard tannic edge countered by a nuanced sage and salted plum character.
Xavier Gerard’s family, based in Condrieu, has long had vines in both that white-wine appellation and Côte-Rôtie, next door. But only in 2013, when Gerard took over, did the domaine become fully realized. He’s still discovering his style, but his Côte-Rôtie generally has a fair amount (25 percent or more) of whole grape clusters and relatively little oak; there’s also typically some viognier, which lends the wine quintessential Côte-Rôtie aromatics.
Clos du Pigeonnier
Benoît Roseau really began as a micro-négociant, although today he farms land at his parents’ house in Pélussin, part of the Collines Rhodaniennes area high on the plateau midway between Côte-Rôtie and Cornas. He’s planted things like roussanne and chardonnay, to balance a small amount of white Saint-Péray and Condrieu, red Saint-Joseph and a darkly mineral Côte-Rôtie, grown on north-facing terraces in Tupin-et-Semons and made in miniscule quantities.
Pierre Bénétière’s teensy cellar is barely findable on a side street in bustling Condrieu. (“It’s not quite New York, but almost,” he quips when I mention the scant parking.) His Côte-Rôties have cult status today, perhaps because of their distinctive inky and peppery qualities. Cordeloux is duskier and sweeter, while the rare Dolium (from a tiny Côte Brune parcel) is brighter and spicier. Both are pitch-perfect expressions of syrah.
Domaine Bernard Levet
That Agnes Levet’s wines are still largely under the radar, despite the family having some of the appellation’s best parcels (Mollard in Côte Blonde, Landonne in Côte Brune and so on), is evidence that fashion really does reign in Côte-Rôtie. There’s always the hope that, as the fourth generation, she’ll make some contemporary upgrades—in particular, to organic farming—but the wines, wholly from mass-selection syrah vines, are as distinctive, savory and long-lasting as you’ll find in Côte-Rôtie.