The Vintners of this Northern Rhône Appellation Fear the Kind of Development that Could Threaten its Vineyards

The last thing you notice is the quiet.

The first thing you notice is the hillside of vines diving below you. You’re surprised. This is Chablis, not Côte-Rôtie. The hills are supposed to be rolling, gentle, serene, like the aptly named Serein River that runs through the village. But this is steeper than you expected, more compelling. You drove to the top because you were drinking a bottle made from the grapes in this vineyard, and you thought, I’m here, right? Let’s go see this thing.

It’s a Saturday night in July, 8:30, the sun threatening to drop away for the evening. There are no clouds, no textbook Burgundian moodiness to the sky. It’s still, warm, uninhibited. You can see a long ways in every direction.

And then it hits you: Where is everybody?

There is no sound. The village below seems asleep. The vines look perfect, uniform, here in Les Clos, one of Chablis’ seven Grand Crus. It’s been a hot and challenging summer. The Chardonnay vines that dominate the landscape appear to have been tended meticulously within the past several hours, yet you haven’t seen a single person in a Chablis vineyard all day.

At last, a single car makes its way out of the village on the main road. You watch it disappear, and then the scene shifts timelessly backward. The year could be 1800; it would look essentially no different. They don’t do suburbs here; they do Chardonnay.

The night before, a waitress in one of Chablis’ restaurants remarked, in heavily accented English, “Why would we want to grow? We know who we are.” Then she offered two wine choices: Chablis, or Chablis Premier Cru.

Drive 387 kilometers to the south, and you will find another village of nearly the same size – smaller, in fact. Chablis has 2,500 inhabitants. Cornas, in the Northern Rhône Valley, has 2,200. And yet the decision about what to do – or not to do – with the land? Not nearly as clear.

Syrah’s Spiritual Home

Cornas is the purest of the Northern Rhône red wine appellations, because there is never any confusion about what wine you might be drinking. Or, as winemaker Alberic Mazoyer explains, there are always three options for growers: “Here, I can grow Syrah, or right over here, Syrah, but then, higher up, I can always plant Syrah.”

So just as Chablis is home to one variety, so is Cornas, and the vines rise above a drowsy village. Chablis, however, is nearly a hotbed for nightlife compared to Cornas. At least Chablis has a main stretch of town with dining options, from high-end to pizza. Cornas has one restaurant in town. Perhaps you would look at this village and decide that it simply needs a spark of economic life, some commerce.

Or – better yet! – maybe some wealthy Parisians will want to come down and build seasonal homes here.

But as Mazoyer drove us up the increasingly steep hillside, it occurred to me that building a house on the face of these vineyards would be folly. The vines seem to defy gravity, but that’s a trick more easily turned one plant at a time. A sprawling estate? No chance.

Mazoyer does not attempt to position himself as the conscience of the region, but I find him arrestingly thoughtful and sincere. This is a winemaker who spent years up the road in nearby Hermitage, working for Chapoutier. He was responsible for millions of bottles, dozens of different wines every year. He moved to Cornas to work with the aging Alain Voge, and now Mazoyer both owns and makes the wine for the Voge label. The production is a whisper compared to Chapoutier, and Mazoyer clearly enjoys that.

He loves the purity of Cornas.

“We are 44 wineries in Cornas, something like that,” he says. “Hermitage has perhaps six? But we are the same size as Hermitage.” In other words, Cornas is less corporate, and the individual producers can focus on a smaller line of wines. The acreage of Cornas and Hermitage are essentially equal. It is no surprise that the wines of Cornas are, for me, more interesting than the internationally styled wines of Hermitage (which routinely sell for several hundred dollars a bottle, while Cornas wines are far more affordable).

Mazoyer’s are among the finest we tasted, but there are so many stimulating options. Rarely do these wines lose their inimitable hallmarks of Northern Rhône Syrah. They are peppery, laced with meat and lavender. The land of Cornas is a kind of amphitheater with some waves of vineyard land behind the first hill, nearest the village below. Hermitage, in contrast, is a single hill, rising above its town like a Stentorian voice soaring above a choir.

IMG_0924It’s no surprise to me that Hermitage – again, excellent wines but more polished, more stylized – sits above a town that is bursting with development. Tain L’Hermitage, combined with its sister town of Tournon-sur-Rhône across the river, totals 16,000 residents. There are restaurants, retail stores, a chocolate factory, tasting rooms, parks. Tournon in particular is gorgeous.

Cornas is a mere 14 kilometers south, but by comparison, it’s like going from Disneyland to the heart of the Everglades.

Just when I’m feeling comfortable that those Parisian seasonal estates would never stand a chance in Cornas, Mazoyer gives me a look, and it makes me think, Oh shit.

Scars of 2007

Only eight years ago, the mayor of Cornas decided that it was indeed time to bring some commercial and residential swerve to the area. The mayor, Gilbert Garnier, pushed plans to allow the kind of work that would have carved up some 100-year-old vines from Clape, a legendary Cornas producer. Large commercial buildings would have crawled up the lower slope near the village. Here’s what Vinography’s Alder Yarrow wrote at the time:

This is shocking and idiotic.

I am unfamiliar with the legal lay of the land, so to speak, but I guess somehow the government has some rights to make decisions on land use in certain areas that have historically been family farms, and Monsieur Garnier has decided to let a developer put up a building on what is now the Les Mazards vineyard. Perhaps this is the French equivalent of what happens in the U.S. when the government decides that there needs to be a freeway right where your house is. The only difference is that in this case it’s a private development, not some public works project that will ‘benefit’ everyone.

You got the sense that if the mayor could have hustled up a huge commercial development in the middle of the night, he would have; he must have known what the response would be. Thousands of letters came in, protesting the plan, and by Christmas of that year, the development was scrapped. Journalist Rémy Charest reported that the pressure was too severe, and the mayor was told to shelve it.

Great news, right? Mazoyer looks at me and shrugs. “We are always one bad mayor away from the same drama, the same bad decisions.”

But then, I pointed to the Cornas vines dropping off sharply below us. Maybe the old mayor wanted a big development toward the base of the hill. Surely the vines higher up were in no danger?

“That’s where people make the mistake,” Mazoyer explained. “But the best place for the vines is also the best place for a Parisian’s vacation house. They have the money. They will build it, right into the hillside if you let them. And what does every Parisian want? A nice garden. A view of the vineyards. A quiet place to walk the dog in the morning.”

Then he turned and gestured as if to say, It’s all right here.

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After the near miss of 2007, Cornas wine producers have attempted to band together more officially. Their hope is that without the consent of the industry writ large, no future mayor could even attempt what Garnier wanted to do. Mazoyer isn’t so sure.

“Government loves money,” he says. “We should never feel certain that they will make the best decision for the people. Right now, things are very good, but things could change.” Before we can head back down the hill to taste his wines, Mazoyer adds, “Cornas – the village – is Cornas, the wine. Without the wine industry, there is no Cornas.”

Warning signs in Mosel, elsewhere

Cornas is not nearly the only wine appellation that has grappled with questions over new development. Drive an hour north along the Rhône River, and you’ll come to Cote-Rotie. The wines are spectacular, driven by the earthy core of Northern Rhône Syrah, but frequently accented by a dash of aromatic Viognier. Like the other appellations nearby, Côte-Rôtie vineyards rise on the hills above the town.

And yet Côte-Rôtie feels nothing like Cornas.

Côte-Rôtie vines rise above the small village of Ampuis, just 2,600 people. But while Cornas feels and sounds like Chablis, Ampuis sounds like mid-town Manhattan. That’s perhaps not entirely fair, but the truck traffic is remarkable. These are not large roads. The infrastructure is a throwback to times that did not witness the tractor-trailer. Our drive north to an appointment in Cote-Rotie was delayed by dense truck traffic, weaving along the river through the villages.

You could argue that this is the predictable consequence of being much closer to Lyon, France’s second-largest city. The local winemakers would prefer to see fewer trucks, if only to allow customers to reach their tasting rooms.

Consider this story told by Brigitte Roch, co-owner of Domaine Clusel-Roch. Brigitte is nearing retirement age; her son Guillaume is in the process of assuming a leading role. When we asked Brigitte about the truck traffic, her eyes grew wide. She told us that recently, a truck could not complete the drive to the winery. The truck had picked up a shipment bound for California, but needed the customs papers. The driver had given up. So Brigitte rode her bicycle north to the highway, where she met the truck driver on the side of the road, where she could hand off the papers.

This is not what producers in Cornas want to experience.

Then you can look to Germany, where Europe’s largest bridge project is sparking protests in the Mosel. This enormous project would span the Mosel River between Urzig and Zeltingen-Rachtig, and it could threaten prime vineyard space. Recently an engineer raised concerns about dangers to human life during construction.

All of this reminds us that human beings are innovative — daringly so. Want to drive across that river? We can find a way. Want to build your house on a steep hill of vines? We can do that.

A new generation, on guard

Cornas has seen a wave of new, young producers begin to offer their own wines in recent years. The list includes Guillaume Gilles, Stephane Robert, and Vincent Paris, who told me, “We must protect Cornas.”

For Paris, that means two things. First, he agrees that the events of 2007 serve as a warning, but Paris is more sanguine about future construction. He says the new agreement “makes it almost impossible for construction directly on the vineyards of Cornas.”

And so for Paris, “commercialization” does not mean new buildings, but new efforts to bastardize the success of Cornas wines. Unlike Hermitage Hill, which is planted just about completely, Cornas has some unplanted space. Paris worries that investors will rush in, plant vines, and rush the wines to market at an accelerated pace. “That could completely change the identity of our wines,” Paris laments. And he knows that if the money can’t push its way onto the existing vineyard space in the form of new housing or development, it could push its way into the region by taking advantage of lax planting laws.

In my travels across France, and in my conversations in Chablis and Ampuis and Tain L’Hermitage and Cornas, I’m moved by what man has accomplished. The first step is figuring out what we can do. The next, more delicate step is deciding what we should do. Napa and the Finger Lakes have debated building casinos near wine country. Economic development is difficult to resist.

But progress should not be so narrowly defined. It’s easy to think of progress as new construction, new buildings, new roads, new businesses. Sometimes, progress is the acquisition of wisdom, the understanding of when to keep the shovel out of the soil.

About The Author

Evan Dawson
Staff Writer

Evan Dawson is the author of Summer in a Glass: The Coming of Age of Winemaking in the Finger Lakes. It won the 2012 Roederer International Wine Book of the Year. Outside of Palate Press, his wine writing has been published in Wine Spectator, Tasting Panel Magazine, and the New York Cork Report, for which he serves as Managing Editor. He hosts The Connection on WXXI radio, the NPR affiliate in western New York, where he focuses on community affairs. He is a middling but enthusiastic cook.

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