Looking ahead to our Rhône En Primeur 2018 campaign in November, we wanted to highlight the wines of a producer that we have been working with for many years and a leading light of the northern Rhône: Alain Voge.
The northern Rhône is home to Syrah, where the dark, brooding personality of this grape variety thrives. Yet the great appellations of this region often go overlooked, and none more so than Cornas. At just 110 hectares, Cornas is one of the smallest AOCs in the Rhône Valley. Its name is derived from the Celtic word for ‘scorched earth’, a fitting title for this group of vineyards that form an amphitheatre, trapping heat and concentrating sunlight. Tucked away from the draught of the Rhône corridor, under-ripeness is no issue here and the granite filled slopes are dangerously steep.
Historically known as ‘black wine’, Cornas is not everyone’s cup of tea but when it’s done well it is one of the most compelling wines you will taste: an explosion of juicy black fruits, pepper, wild herbs, smoke, cypress, leather and deep violets. One man who has successfully harnessed the wild and unforgiving landscape to produce wines of epic proportions is Alain Voge, an exceptionally talented vigneron who together with a small clutch of other big names is raising the profile of this appellation.
Alain took on the family domaine in 1965 after the sudden death of his father. At the time the land was laid out to not only vines but also apricot, pear and cherry trees as well as the rearing of pigs and goats. With the help of his mother, Alain devoted the domaine to viticulture, a brave decision in an age when the wines of Cornas were a vin de table, churned out by large négociants and rarely seen outside the bistros of Valence and Vienne.
Tending to vines on the rugged, precarious hillsides is quite the task: machines cannot pass here and almost everything must be done by hand. Alain’s traditional approach in the vineyard is therefore commendable as well as practical. In a landscape where the soils are relatively similar the best results are blends. Today, Alain has 70 plots split over 7 hectares. The oldest vines- the prized La Fontaine plot- are over 80 years old. He bottles three different Cornas wines based on the age of the vines used in the blend: the classic Cornas Les Chailles, Les Veilles Vignes and, in exceptional vintages, Les Veilles Fontaines. More recently the domaine has started producing a St Joseph and a Côtes du Rhône. Alain also has nearly 6 hectares in St Péray: the fine clay and limestone soils are suited to the white varietal of Marsanne and he produces a still and sparkling St Péray. The French are particularly fond of this fresh style of Marsanne and these cuvées are rarely seen outside of France.
Partial destemming, fermentation in steel and, maturation in aged wooden barrels and foudres (10-20% new) has become the Alain Voge hallmark. His style is seen as authentic, the wines imbued with a smoky and rich black fruit character. They stand alongside those of Clape and Verset, the two other great trailblazers of Cornas and are prized by critics. In his book Wines of the Rhône Valley, Robert Parker remarks that some of the greatest bottles of Cornas he has ever tasted were from Voge. So delicious are they too in the approaching game season with grouse and venison, while a young bottle works delightfully with a bar of chocolate. Or, take the advice of Alain himself, and enjoy them with a strong cheese such as Roquefort.
No good winemaker ever truly retires from their métier, but in his old age Alain enlisted the help of Albéric Mazoyer of Chapoutier. In 2018, Albéric passed the baton on to the talented Lionel Fraisse who now oversees production with the guidance of both Alain and Albéric. In 2016, the domaine received its biodynamic and organic certification and continues to carve a path for this most humble yet exciting of appellations. We look forward to returning later this month to taste the 2018s out of the barrel. Watch this space.