A view from the top. Cornas vineyards descending into the valley.
The day dawned overcast and a bite to the morning air suggested that winter is not quite done with the northern Rhône just yet. We weren't surprised to hear from one of the vignerons we visited that there is snow due - and at low levels - tonight, which made us all the more glad to finish the day barrelling south to our hotel just south of Avignon.
We have spent the day slowly migrating in the southerly direction. First call finds us in the hills above Ampuis knocking on the door of the Domaine Patrick & Christophe Bonnefond. It is the latter brother who answers the door and for a moment it seems as though we're about to experience a Gallic moment of unwillingness to communicate. We coax and endeavour to say intelligent things about Christophe's fabulous range of '06s and it must have worked as he became, if not exactly garrulous, then certainly chattier than before. This is my first visit here and the wines are stunning.
From this lofty location, we braved the giddy single-track road back down to Ampuis. Behind the wheel, I try not to be too taken in by the extraordinary views, as one mis-timed twitch of the wheel would have us descend into Ampuis much more rapidly and more vertically than anticipated. However many times one sees the vineyards that rear above the town, one cannot help to be in awe of the people that originally terraced and planted the slopes and those that work them today.
Second meeting is in Cornas, a long way to the south. I, for one, am looking forward to a time when these wines are better known. Many a wine collector, knowing of their age-old reputation for producing earthy, agricultural syrahs, avoids them. And yet this is now one of the great sources for profound wines made from that grape.
We start at Alain Voge. They are evidently not expecting us. Madame eventually hoves to. Her husband is away for dialysis; can we come back at 5pm? Having assured Mrs V that we won't be asking any technical questions, we get to taste the range…and what a range! The slopes of this over-looked appellation hold vineyards that express a range of complex facets through the medium of the syrah grape. The whites here, from the once-derided St Péray appellation, are also superb.
I was drinking a bottle of 1998 Cornas from the Domaine Durand in Châteaubourg a few weeks ago and it blew me away. Today's tasting with the same producer, separated from that at Voge by a good lunch in St Péray, confirmed that this is a very high quality source…but can we sell them? Will anyone buy them if we offer them? Having tasted the wines of Voge and Durand from barrel, I am determined to bung them on an offer, even if I have to hand sell them. We leave Durand with our heads swimming, not from the wines, but dizzy from Eric Durand's verbal, non-stop barrage. I would be amazed if there's a single local donkey capable of walking.
On we go. Last stop is in Mercurol and a Bowes Wine favourite: the Desmeures family at the Domaine des Remizières. Monsieur is away, but his daughter Emilie, for whom they name red and white cuvées of Hermitage, is happy to show us through the range. Reds follow whites and underline the highly satisfactory qualities of this vintage. We find liquids of startling purity, great freshness; wines that are, ultimately, quite delicious, complex, thought provoking.
At the end of a day like this, one cannot help but be quietly satisfied. We have been tasting with masters. And we have learned a great deal.
Another view of the Hill of Hermitage. In the foreground the ubiquitous almond vineyards are flowering