Thierry Allemand (whose last names means German in French) works on a vineyard surface of about 5 hectares in Cornas, northern Rhone. Cornas means "scorched earth" in the language of the Celts , which implies that the area has always been particulary hot, like Côte Rotie which means "roasted slope" in French. When you're down in Cornas looking up at the hills right behind the village (picture on left), it's obvious that you're very quickly on serious slopes, actually most of the surface of the Appellation is on slopes. Thierry Allemand lives with his family in the village of Cornas, in a charming old house wearing the patina of time. That's where he had his facility for years too, until he moved it to a larger building on the plateau above cornas.
Thierry Allemand's plots, which are part owned and part rented (fermage), are scattered in numerous small terraced surfaces, each with their specific terroir. The interresting thing to note is that when this vigneron selected and chose some of these (very) steep and terraced slopes more than 30 years ago to replant vines in the place of the trees and bushes which had since long taken over, he was alone with no competitor. Working in such conditions was considered too difficult or too costly because everything had to be done by foot & hand or with very small all-terrain caterpillars (which weren't easily available at that time anyway). Thierry Allemand did all this work mostly by himself, bringing back the age-old terraces to life one by one, and his choice proved to be a much better one (if painstaking) than choosing the easy option of making wine from a flat block down the slope. Cornas was then a neglected Appellation mostly under the radar even for knowledgeable wine amateurs and some vignerons preferred to bottle their Cornas under the generic Côte du Rhone label.
When you put things in context, Cornas is a small Appellation in terms of size : located in a single village (Cornas), it has roughly 112 planted hectares today, down from an estimated surface of 500 hectares in the 19th century. Everything was sold in bulk to the négoce until well into the 50s', the first estate bottlings started in the mid 1950s' thanks to inspired vignerons like Clape, Juge, Voge and Michel.
During all these years when he was working with Robert Michel, he learnt all the differences and properties of these terroirs, and he could also in consequence foresee the potential value of the terraces that he would later clear from their maze of trees and bushes. The terroirs bear names like Chaillot, Saveaux, Geynale, Teziers, Reynards, the view from all of these plots being astounding under almost any weather, I understand why Thierry Allemand loves this life in spite of its challenging hardship. From up there you dominate the Rhone valley, small side valleys and the village of cornas, and working on terraces with sometimes just a single row of vines must yield ascetic and hermitic pleasures. His smallest vineyard blocks makes 800 sq meters or 0,08 hectare. We have a look at his 0,8-hectare Pigeonnier vineyard. Elsewhere (here we move again on the treacherous and scaringly-steep trails through the vineyards) we see the vallée de Chaillot, a plot with a north-east exposition and clayish soils. These grapes go into his SO2-free cuvée.
He and one of his sons work all these vineyards with tools, either manually tilling between the rows or using a small, special walking plow coupled with a motor-powered winch to pull the plow up the slopes. When the slopes are too arduous for this job, for example when the slope is not straight and veers one one side or the other, they just let the grass grow and cut it with a wire mower. These vineyards where grass is just cut from time to time and where there's no plowing done appear oddly to have a lighter green color from afar. That's because of the competition with the grass, as I understood, the foliage doesn't get dark green like in his other (plowed) plots.
His Geynales vineyards, which are probably with the Reynards the best terroirs of Cornas, were purchased by Swiss investors who wanted him to make wine from them. They let him work his own way and as I understand appreciate the type of wines he makes.
It took Thierry Allemand lots of effort and energy to clear these terraces and replant them. At some point he had to become a builder in addition to a grower and a vigneron : to secure the narrow terraces which had suffered from years of neglect and from the comeback of the guarrigue, he had to rebuild some of the walls that keep the earth from tumbling down the slope. He had tons of stones hauled there as close as possible and he put the walls back in place, sometimes bettering the initial wall to optimize the use of the motor-powered winch and plow.
For some of the vineyard management, he relies on a service company named "A la Tâche". To tie the shoots, he never use a company, that's a job he makes with his sons. The spraying is an even more strategic thing and he does that alone. He makes also some special preparations for the sprayings but he isn't strictly in what could be considered a biodynamic management. working with a cable-powered walk plow needs also a few people : two to operate the plow (one at the plow, the other on the engine side), plus 7 or 8 to till the ground. Then, there's the ébourgeonnage (debudding) and the épillonnage (a more specific debudding) which are also time-consuming tasks : 500 hours per hectare in average.
Driving further, we reach the plateau which is beginning to be planted with vineyards even though it's less qualitative in terms of soil (too rich). Still, 3/4 of the vineyards in Cornas are on slopes, the rest being either on this plateau or on the flatland down the slope near the village.
At one point, we saw how a radically-different vineyard management translates in the appearance of the vines, as you can see on the picture on right : These are originally same-age vines part of an originally-whole plot. The half on the foreground id Thierry Allemand's while the part in the back is worked by another vigneron who somehow plowed heavily between the rows, which resulted in severed roots and hampered the vines development. Allemand preferred to work softly on the ground, and the vines show a happier foliage as a result.
When he had to replant whole vineyards, like 0,4 hectare at once, he purchased massal selections of course, but planting the grafted vines right away in these scorched-earth plots often led to many losses. He says that typically the nursery dlivers the plants with a relatively short root which wasn't deep enough to feed the plant into survival. He is now resorting to doing what he has learnt at Robert Michel : plant the root first (which has usually a much longer root than the grafted one in the nurseries), and graft it with the desired selection a year later when it is firmly rooted and secure. There's no loss this way and the vines make it in spite of the hard conditions of the slopes. Robert Michel (who is now 62 and retired) is an experienced grafter and he has the official permission (agrément) to do this job.
Philippe Jambon also uses this type of powered-cable with plow to work between his steep and narrow rows. He shows one of the winch/cable machines, remembering that he sold one of these to Fred Cossard (in Burgundy). Thierry says that a company restarted the production of these winch machines, at a price tag of 10 000 €.
Thierry Allemand has also a 60-centimeter-wide caterpillar for special jobs, but he says that he doesn't use it much.
Finding the right blades for the plows is also a challenge, the shape and angle of the blade making a big difference. These tools and parts are not manufactured by mainstream agriculture-machines company because the market is still marginal, so the growers who need them because of the difficult terrain have to do some research, sometimes learning the metal-working and welding techniques. Thierry Allemand found by chance a blacksmith in Spain who realized the exact design that he wanted. The Spanish blacksmith is actually a sculptor, a skillful artist whom he came to know through his cork producer in Spain. He was chatting with him about his need of special blades, and the Spaniard called a friend of his who in fact couldn't make these blades, but the guy had an uncle/artist who ended up to be the right person.
__ Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillots 2007. All these wines are reds, Syrah of course. Beautiful nose with jellied fruits notes. Blackberries, raspberries. I feel wet stones, there's a mineral thing here. B. feels jellied black cherries with complexity and floral notes too, a charming and tannic mouth. Nice legs in the glass. Freshness feel, good acidity. Thierry Allemand ays that the fermentation lasted 20-25 days.
__ Thierry Allemand old vines, same vinification and élevage (2 years) as the former. 1,5 gr of SO2 added at the blend (of the casks), that's all. He vinifies whole clusters, uses always indigenous (wild) yeasts and doesn't "adjust" the wines with enological products. No filtration, no fining. The casks are several-years old, and he uses a foudre too.
Darker color than the former glass. On this wine, the nose seems to me more ample (and structured, says B.), but also more discreet, oddly to me. Solar mouth, beautiful. Perfect balance, a wine with lots of complexity B. finds the wine very mineral with a bit of jellied blackcurrant, and she appreciates the length, the juicy feel with the tight and elegant tannins.
__ Thierry Allemand Cornas 2003. Spices, eucalyptus and the likes, menthol notes. The fermentation in stainles-steel vats lasted 18 months, he says. The wine retained some gaz and it went out in the bottles. Its 15,5° in alcohol passes very well. Jellied fruits aromas. That's a beautiful wine for sure. He says though that this wine will show its best in 10 or 15 years from now, adding that the wine that tastes very well today is the 1989. 8000 bottles made from 4,3 hectare that year. Depending of the conditions of the vintage, Thierry Allemand makes fewer cuvées at times or sells the grapes he isn't satisfied with to the distillery.
__ Thierry Allemand Cornas 1998. Dusty bottle, from Thierry's cellar again. Animal notes on the nose, B. feels meat and pepper. Harsher tannins, the maturity was less advanced than it would be in the following years. He says that this tannic feel is closer from what used to be a northern-Rhone syrah. 1998 was the turning point, he feels, the last year with an uneven maturity, before the warmer vintages that followed. 1999 was like jelly, 2000 was very round and relaxed, easy drinking, 2001 was ripe. 2002 yielded a fruity wine but not ripe because of lack of sun. Now, to try to adapt to these changing weather conditions and avoid high alcohol, they're experimenting on certain vineyards a different pruning, leaving three écots instead of two, leaving thus 6 shoots which will yield more clusters to avoid the overmaturity. The yields will go up lightly, maybe to 35 ho/ha, but he will thus avoir being overripe. Otherwise today his yields are between 25 and 30 hectoliter/hectare, which was fine under cooler vintages. For information, the maximum yield allowed in Cornas is 40 ho/ha.
__ Thierry Allemand Cornas 2002. In fact, a bottle without any label or chalk indication. Guess the vintage, he says. B. says it should be Reynards because it's mineral. Very nice nose, very refined, adds B. Could be Chaillot. That's the one she prefers, she says. It's 2002, he ends up saying. Small vintage he says, lots of rain. He made a single cuvée that year, with a majority of Reynards grapes. While the vignerons around chaptilized heavily that year, this wine didn't get any sugar and neither any SO2 (this particular bottle comes from a Reynards cask that they bottled for themselves). Philippe Jambon notes that the nose looks very ripe but the mouth shows no alcohol, the exact level being 12,5°here. Thierry Allemand jokes that he often says 2002 was his wife emannuelle's vintage, because she was the one who did the pigeage with her feet in the fermentation vat. On a vintage lacking ripeness he says, it's undesirable to get extraction and the pigeage must be very soft, thus the reason he preferred to have women do the job. This wine has tannins, but they're not tight. There's not much length in this wine but it's still a very nice wine.
Thierry Allemand wines are exported to different countries, the United Kingdom (Richards Walford) the United States (Kermit Lynch), Japan (Mrs Goda - Racines), Australia (Andrew Guard), Korea among others.
Nice article on Cornas (in French) with pictures, one of them with the different terroirs locations.
Informative article on Thierry Allemand and Cornas (in French).