Thierry Allemand, the reclusive genius of Cornas, produces some of the greatest Syrah in the entire Rhône Valley. Some say the greatest!
Today, there is no more unique figure in the Northern Rhône than Cornas’ Thiérry Allemand. Though only in his 50s, he has been mythologized in much the same way as past greats like Noël Verset, Marius Gentaz and August Clape. He created his domaine from scratch, inheriting nothing from his ancestors. And because he also didn’t have a family fortune behind him, much of his domaine was assembled by laboriously restoring abandoned parcels in great terroirs.
Finally, while deeply rooted in the past, Thiérry’s approach to winemaking is uniquely his. He began in the early 1980s by learning at the knees of two Cornas legends, Joseph Michel and Noël Verset, but has gone on to apply a quarter century of personal experience. He has arrived, finally, at a philosophy that, while squarely in the traditional camp, produces wine whose purity and expression of grape variety and place are unrivalled by anyone in Cornas.
A Great Domaine is Born
Thiérry’s tale is very nearly a Horatio Alger story, where a young man with little education and a humble background achieves great things through sound judgment and an abundance of hard work. His father was a factory worker in Valence but lived in Cornas, where Thiérry became enchanted with the idea of making wine. He had no formal training and little money, but he had the good sense in 1981 to go to work in the cellar of the legendary Joseph Michel. And then the next year he bought a vineyard on La Côte that adjoined vines owned by Auguste Clape. Much of the land needed replanting, but it was a noble terroir.
Two years later he bought his first parcel of land in Chaillot, one of the great terroirs of Cornas, with soil of clay of limestone, and very steep, south-facing slopes. And three years after that, he bought land in Tézier. But in each case, he was essentially buying woods that required clearing and planting with vines. Finally, in the late 1980s, Thiérry succeeded in buying great vineyards that didn’t require backbreaking work to bring into production. While working during the day for Joseph Michel, and then Michel’s son Robert, Thiérry was working nights helping Noël Verset. Noël was by then in his 70s with no heir, and he believed in Thiérry’s promise.
And so Noël sold him some of his priceless vines in Reynard dating back to the beginning of the 20th century. Noël’s brother Louis, also with no one to succeed him, sold Thiérry some of his old Reynard vines as well. With its intensely mineral, granitic soil, Reynard is one of the great terroirs of the Northern Rhône.
There were more terroirs to add, including about two acres each in Pigeonniers and Chaillot—the latter adjacent to Geynale and acquired in 2007 by a Swiss friend who wanted to add them to Thiérry’s palette. When all was said and done, Thiérry today works with an estimated 5 hectares of vines, including some of Cornas’ greatest.
Because of the complexity of Thiérry’s story—and the fact that he is taciturn when it comes to talking about it—most of what has been written about Thiérry is incomplete. One of the best profiles can be found at wineterroirs.com. But even here, Bert Celce describes Thiérry’s work as a domaine bottler beginning in 1991: “He began to sell the wine to the négoce in 1987, until 1991 when the négociants refused to pay him the 32 Francs/liter (about 5 €) rate he asked for his Chaillots and Reynards wines. From then on, he did the bottling and commercialized his wine himself.”
In fact, Thiérry did produce a blended Cornas under his own label in 1989 and 1990. It was not until the négoce stopped buying in 1991, that he began to make his two iconic named cuvées, Cornas Reynard and Cornas Chaillot.
Cornas Reynard brings together the fruit from the domaine’s oldest and best vines, based on Noël and Louis Verset’s ancient vines in Reynard, but including Geynale, Pigeonners and even old vines in Chaillot. Cornas Chaillot is based on his vines in Chaillot, but it also includes fruit from the domaine’s younger vines, including Reynard.
The Arc of Cornas History
Today, Thiérry stands—along with Auguste Clape’s son Pierre-Marie—as the greatest link to Cornas’ glorious past. He has stepped into a vacuum created by the retirement of both Versets as well as both Michels. Yet, Thiérry is a disciple of no one’s. He is a fiercely independent-minded man who was fortunate to work with, and learn from, the greats from the past. Rather than aping their ideas, he learned from them, and added a few of his own. Today, he stands as the bridge between Cornas’ past and what we hope its future will be.
Thiérry’s highly individual approach results in stunningly expressive Cornas of soaring aromatic complexity and perfect balance. His wines display the classic Cornas dark berries, woodsmoke, dried herb and black olive flavors, leavened by flint and pit fruits, with amazing freshness and definition. No other grower’s Cornas combines concentration, firm structure and elegance as Thiérry’s does.
He is classic in not de-stemming his fruit and in avoiding new oak. Where he departs from others is in his use of minimal sulphur and in not racking his wines. He believes that excessive sulphur is the reason for the tarry aromas and hard tannins found in other producer's Cornas, and so uses as little as possible.
He also is of the opinion that using less sulphur allows him to leave the wine alone once it has been gravity fed to barrel for aging. Many Syrah producers aerate their wine with frequent racking to avoid reduction. In his cellar the wine ages for 18 months to two years on its lees, without racking, developing great aromatic complexity and velvety texture.
The astonishing quality and purity of Allemand’s wines has earned him a passionate following, particularly among top sommeliers and other winemakers. And with a tiny average production of 500 cases each of Cornas Chaillot and Cornas Reynard, there is never enough Allemand wine to satisfy demand. He has become the closest thing to a cult star the Northern Rhône has seen.
Andrew Guard, importer
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