Thierry Allemand is perhaps the most talented winemaker in France. He makes a singular style that marries the rugged power of Cornas with unbelievable finesse and purity. Fitzcarraldo like, he moved earth stone by stone to fashion his 5 hectare domaine after and whilst serving an apprenticeship of sorts with Robert Michel.
When Thierry started in the late 1980s the slopes he wanted to cultivate were considered so hard to replant and cultivate, he was blazing a trail few wanted to emulate. The sheer difficulty and sweat it took to do this, armed only with a small caterpillar for moving rocks up to build the terraces necceary to stop erosion, is impossible to appreciate until you see it with your own eyes. This was never about the financial rewards. Cornas was then a wine that didn’t sell for much money. Even now, the economics are tricky. If a hectare goes for around 350,000 euro, about 15 euros of every bottle made from purchased land would go back onto repaying back the debt. That’s why when Thierry says it costs around 30 euros to produce each bottle of wine (which he sells for circa 35 euro ex cellar) you realise it’s not easy money to be made.
Thierry starts work at five in the morning, so we had an early appointment at eight. We met him in his house in the village of Cornas where he put us in the back of his old Toyota truck and drove us up the slopes on dirt roads with precipitous drops. Thierry seems serious and has a slightly monkish aspect, softened with a very natural but rare smile.
He has vines in two prime terroirs of Cornas. The wild, jungle-like high altitude spot of Reynard provides his most ageworthy cuvee. His vines are mostly split between parcels, just above those of Vincent Paris’ Geynale. He’s attempting to buy the land seperating then, but it’s proving difficult.
Looking down Reynard slope.
Thierry with a collapsed terrace on Reynard.
His holdings on Chaillot are more diversely spread. They also vary quite a lot in terms of vine-age. Chaillot is much more open then Reynard, and looks a bit easier to farm. All his holdings there are very small and includes some 90 year old vines that produce a wine of incredibly majesty.
Looking up Chaillots slope. The vines at the top by the building went into Robert Michel Coteau cuvee.
From here we went up to his winery on the plateau. As we drove we saw some enormous blocks of vines going up to 30 hectares. Conventionally farmed, and trained totally differently from the bush vines that Thierry has, they can produce a prices 6-8 euros en vrac and go to the big negociants. Although this being March and a hot day, there was still snow on some on the slopes. As you see various plots of Cornas the difference between conventional farming and organic farming is everywhere.
We met Pierre Lionnet in Chaillot who pointed us towards a plot destined for the Caves Tain co-op. Zero health around the vines as you can see from the bleached soil.
His winery is not large, and contained the new 2015 vintage and the 2014 which was soon to be assembled and bottled. He uses a blend of barrels including many from his Burgundy friend Phillipe Pacalet. It was with with the support of Philippe Pacalet and Jacques Neauport (follower of Jules Chauvet) that he started breaking with the traditional approach he learned at Robert Michel. Since then, winemaking started its move towards a more natural approach. One or two cap punchings first, no pumping over, slow fermentation then juices flowing by gravity. Ageing in oak barrels – but never in new oak- not a single racking over a period of 18 to 24 months and light doses of sulphur around 1g per hl when wines are blended.
We went through the various barrels:
These are true to my scribbled notes but following Thierry’s French was not easy. Even more confusing was understanding how grapes from Chaillot vineyards can end up in Reynard and vice-versa.
2015 Pigeonnier young vines (plot below Reynard)
Pigeonnier is the name of the old hunting house of the de Barjac family that now belongs to Thierry Allemand and is a subset of the Mazards climate. Violet, supple, excellent tautness and freshness. Grippiness on finish.
2015 Tezier (East part of Reynard)
Wider structure, really grippy and mouth puckering. Great potential but just incredibly high toned now.
2015 Granite plot of Reynard (not sure where)
Seems quite complete, herby notes. Good minerality
2015 Pigeonnier old vines (Reynard)
Dry, lots of tannins. Despite vinification being identical, a world away from the young vine barrel. Finishes very young.
2015 Reynard (Tezier)
The epicentre of the appellation and mostly granite. This showed excellent balanced, quite complete and with very fine tannins.
2014 Chaillot VV (from a parcel callers les Bois)
Incredible balance and extract. A sublime wine and I thought the best thing in the cellar.
Thierry is an inspiring presence who you can’t help being slightly in awe of for his vision and incredible graft. He does not suffer fools and seems uneasy with his recent fame and celebrity. When asked by an American collector to sign a magnum of Reynard, he scowled and drew a big cross.