In the world of wine, there are many good winegrowers. However, there are only a very select few who are truly great, and Auguste Clape will go down in history as one of the greats. A proud and uncompromising pioneer of fine winemaking in the Northern Rhône, his Syrahs from the cru of Cornas have earned their place among the most celebrated wines of France. The Clapes have been vignerons for many generations, but the infamous grower strikes of 1906 and 1907 forced Auguste's grandfather out of the Languedoc and into the Northern Rhône to start anew from practically nothing. The Clapes rebuilt their fortunes, terrace by terrace, along the steep, western slopes of the Rhône River. For many years, the majority of growers in Cornas sold their fruit to négociants. Auguste was the first to bottle his own wine, which eventually paved the way for such contemporary superstars as Thierry Allemand. Without pretense or fanfare, Auguste, the former mayor of Cornas, was a stately picture of grace and magnanimity—a no-nonsense wise man who never rested on his laurels and sought to better himself and his wines each year until his passing in 2018 at the age of 93. Today, his son, Pierre-Marie, and grandson, Olivier, carry on his legacy with honor and integrity.
Though the Clapes farm only eight hectares, the challenge presented by the rough, tightly stacked terrace vineyards of Cornas is largely enough to handle by anybody’s standards. The dicey precipices make using any machinery in the vineyards impossible. All work must be done by hand. There are no official rules to their viticultural methodology—they work the old-fashioned way, by instinct, feeling, and common sense. The vineyards sit on granite subsoil, behind the village, with optimal sun exposure. They farm a number of prime parcels, including Reynards, La Côte, Geynale, Tézier, Petite Côte, Les Mazards, Patou, Pied La Vigne, Chaillot, and Sabarotte, the latter purchased from Cornas legend Noël Verset. Their only secrets: starting with old vines, and optimizing the ripeness of the fruit as best they can. They accomplish this by holding out before they harvest—a risky game of ‘chicken’ where the trick is to keep the fruit on the vine as long as possible while still harvesting before the rains. Individual parcels are vinified separately via whole-cluster fermentation. Long élevages of twelve to twenty-two months in old, oval foudres add depth to the natural complexity of the wines. These Cornas are capable of tremendous longevity in the cellar, although Kermit also encourages trying them while they are young and fresh, to better appreciate the evolution to come. For a taste of the old-style Syrah from the fabulous, sculptured slopes of the Northern Rhône, Clape’s Cornas is the only place to start.
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