Malcolm Jolley meets a legend of the Northern Rhône.
Vigneron and jet-set wine consultant Jean-Luc Colombo was in Toronto recently and he held court at a lunch put on by his new agency, Profile Wines. This correspondent was lucky enough to attend it. The wines were lovely (more on that below), but the man was the star attraction. With more than thirty years of wine making in the Northern Rhône enclave of Cornas under his belt, and hundreds of clients across Europe, Monsieur Colombo has more than his share of war stories to tell, and does not weigh his opinions lightly.
What Monsieur Colombo wanted his audience of restaurateurs, sommeliers and journalists to understand above all else was his concern over global warming and his disgust with irrigation. The two are, of course, related, especially in the Mediterranean Basin. Colombo explained that he and the other winemakers of Cornas specifically, and the Rhône Valley generally, were watching rising temperatures with apprehension. The main solution? He’s planting vines at higher and higher elevations. “It’s not uncommon now to plant at 500 or 600 meters,” he explained, adding that this would not have been contemplated 30 odd years ago when he began his career.
“Wine is not whisky,” Monsieur Colombo exhorted about midway through our bistro meal at Cluny in the Distillery District. He stressed he did his best to avoid hot, high alcoholic wines, insisting that any bottle with his name on it was meant to be drunk with food. “These are not wines for people who have replaced beer with wine,” he added to develop his point. His mother was a chef, and he is proud of his friendships and patronage from great chefs like Ducasse, Robuchon and Boulud, whom he simple refers to as Daniel. His mission in Toronto, he explained, was to have his wines on the lists of top restaurants, as they are in Paris, London and New York.
And the wines? We led off with Terroirs du Vent La Violette Viogner IGP Oc 2015. A very, very aromatic wine from Viogner vines in the Languedoc. Lots of stone fruit, but an amazing floral bouquet. It was alive and full of force and a remarkable wine at well under $20. It was followed up by Saint Péray La Belle de Mai 2015, made almost entirely, Colombo explained by his daughter Laure, who is increasing her participation as a winemaker in the family business. Saint Péray, Colombo also explained is “white Cornas”, and he is part of a resurgence of the region, at least in terms of making white still wine. La Belle de Mai is made mainly of Rousanne (80%) with “a touch” of Marsanne to round it out. If the aromatics of the first wine were a bit of a jot, in the Belle de Mai they compelling but gentle. Colombo said the main fruit note in the wine is quince, since I’m suggestible I agreed, but I think there are some soft lemony citrus notes too. There is discernable oak (I know that’s not really a flavour, but you know what I mean) too, which works: it’s integrated and the structure it lends is welcome. It’s a lovely wine that commands its price of about $50.
Onto reds; we repeated the pattern of beginning with a value priced wine, followed by an established label. First, Les Collines de Laure Syrah IGP Méditerranée 2014. The vines from which the wine from his daughter Laure’s hills is made are young ones, not ready to be classified as Cornas. That may be, but there were evidently skilled hands in the cellar when it was mage: a silky black fruit wine rendolent of violets, blackberries and a touch of white pepper. Quite amazing at around $20. Our grand finale was the Cornas Terres Brûlées 2011, which sits in the $75-$80 range and is made from 100% Syrah vines averaging in age of 40 years. Can a wine be big and subtle? If it can, this is one. It showed pure black fruit flavours, livened up with spicy pepper notes, held together by pronounced but soft tannins, and everything lingered on for good long finish. It was good.