As much as I love wines from all over the world, and as open and welcoming as I am of the newest upstart winemakers and their wares, when you come right down to it, there are winemakers (and their wines) out there in the world that just have more soul. And there are places, too that have more soul.
And soul, when it comes to wine and winemaking, is a very good thing in my book.
If I had to make a list of places that have soul, the Northern Rhone appellation of Cornas would be high on the list, and on my list of winemakers that have soul, Thierry Allemand would fall very close to the top.
Allemand represents a kind of winegrower that is increasingly rare in the world, and increasingly treasured by those who seek to enjoy the fruits of a single man’s labor in the vineyards. Allemand is the archetype of the Old World vigneron, who knows every single vine on his tiny plot of land, because he planted every single one of them himself, carving out their terraces with his bare hands from hills of trees and brush.
Unlike many such winegrowers, though, Allemand does not come from a family of vignerons, plying the trade of his father and grandfather before him. Instead, he was just a scrappy kid that happened to be born in the town of Cornas, in the heart of France’s Rhone Valley. His father was a factory worker, and Allemand grew up scampering around the hillsides of Cornas watching (with increasing interest) as they grew ever more covered in vines.
By the time he was 18, Allemand knew that he wanted to make wine, and apprenticed with Domaine Robert Michel. At the age of 19 he was shoulder deep in tanks of Syrah making his first wine at the domaine, and he never looked back. But there are many steps between being a young apprentice and becoming one of the region’s best winemakers, and Allemand walked every single one. Slowly scraping together knowledge and money, not always at the same rate, Allemand finally reached the point in 1981 where he could buy a tiny acre of abandoned vineyard land, and begin to rehabilitate it. Over the next seven or eight years, he would buy another tiny bit of land, plant a few grapes, and eventually got to the point of making a few hundred cases of wine, which were being sold to a local negociant, until they stopped being able to pay him what he wanted for the wine, and he decided to start bottling and selling the wine himself.
For almost two decades, Allemand would spend his days working at the winery, and then rush home to spend an hour or two in his tiny vineyards or the makeshift cellar he had created, only to rise extra early to put in a couple more hours before rushing off to his day job again.
During this time, without financial help from anyone, and in many cases with no other labor than his own, Allemand literally carved several small vineyards out of the wilderness. He cleared the land himself, terraced it, building rock walls by hand and dragging boulders and tree stumps out of the way to nestle a small vineyard or two in the steep folds of the hills outside of the town of Cornas.
In addition to his intense labors in the fields, Allemand was also shrewdly securing contracts on small quantities of very old vine fruit grown by some of his neighbors.
Today, Allemand farms these several small vineyard plots he created or rehabilitated, along with these vineyard contracts. Though he now has help from his wife and sons, little has changed with how Allemand farms or makes wine in the three decades that he has been doing it.
To call Allemand’s winemaking primitive might sound like an insult to some, but in certain circles, that is a high compliment. From ambient yeast fermentations, to the lack of filtration, and in some cases the lack of any sulfur dioxide (a compound used almost universally in the wine world to prevent spoilage), Allemand’s winemaking hews to the definition of Old School.
This particular wine is his most rarified, as it is made in part from 80+ year-old Syrah vines (owned, I believe, by the Verset family) that in their advanced age yield precious little fruit. Like all his wines, it stumbled its way through fermentation at its own pace, and was racked into a combination of steel tanks and oak casks to sit for a good long while before being fined lightly with an egg white, and bottling unfiltered with a minimum of sulfur dioxide added. I’m not entirely sure in what quantities it is made, but given that his total production is in the hundreds of cases, I believe, it can’t be a whole lot.
I love the wines of Cornas for their unbridled transmission of the flavors of the steep granitic soils and their bedrock, and Thierry Allemand’s wines are some of the most honest, and soulful, expressions of this fantastic terroir.
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine has a heady nose of wonderful swirling smells. Scents of pine boughs, cassis, plum and smoked meats sneak deliciously out of the glass. In the mouth the wine conveys, above all, a tremendous sense of power, not unlike the rippling hide of a black bull hinting at the incredible musculature beneath. The smooth polished hide of the wine wraps around flavors of plum, cassis, and dark black cherry shot through with pepper, notes of pine, and a wet-stone minerality that is astonishing. Phenomenal acidity and balance mean that the wine has a poise even as its hulking dark presence on the palate expands to fill every nook and cranny of your mouth through the extremely long finish. Outstanding. Tasted out of magnum.
More than anything, this wine wants you to have some sort of charred meat around to gnaw on, preferably something fatty and salty. You know, like the charred edge of a rack of lamb — the little crispy bit at the edge of the bone where the fat has caramelized into delicious goodness. Yeah that bit.
Overall Score: around 9.5
How Much?: usually around $90 a bottle on release, if you can find the ’01 it will be about $150 now.
Look for various vintages of this wine to purchase on the Internet.
The importer is Kermit Lynch in Berkeley.