Syrah and the Rhone is where I began my love of French wine. I focused on Cotes du Rhône, initially, but eventually, when I made more money, I was able to trade up into the beauty and wonder that is Northern Rhône Syrah. With all of its dark brooding flavors, peppery flair and meaty, savory aromas that evolve over time, Northern Rhône Syrah is a darling of collectors and epicures all around the globe. This week’s feature is the story of a self-made winemaker who is translating the prized fruit from some of the Rhône appellation’s finest AOCs into critically acclaimed bottles that are worthy of your cellar.
In one of the smallest appellations in the Northern Rhône, Cornas is the home of Domaine Johann Michael. Having discovered his passion for wine while tasting old bottles with his grandfather, Johann Michel set to making Syrah his life’s work and completed his first vintage in 1997. Working alongside his wife Emmanuelle, the two farm a little more than 5.5 hectares (13.5 acres) across 3 AOCs in the northern Rhône: Cornas, Saint Joseph and Saint Peray.
Cornas is only 110 hectares and is the only grape allowed in the AOC is Syrah. Directly situated on the Rhône River, the region is a set of steep hills whose soils greatly differ throughout the region. The most prized parcels of ‘Reynard’ and ‘Chaillot’ are found in the middle with soils that are rich in granite. From here, to go south boasts sandier soils that give the wines aromatics and to the north, near Saint Joseph, the soils are more limestone endowed that impart structure to the wines. Traditional producers argue that a true expression of Cornas can only be achieved through the blending of the vineyards from these three areas of the region.
Johann Michel owns and farms 4 hectares in Cornas AOC using the ‘culture raisonée’ (sustainable method). He cultivates grapes in the lieux dits* of ‘Les Côtes’, ‘Bayonnet’, the famed ‘Chaillot’ and the parcel called ‘Saveaux’. Adhering to the traditional mindset, Michel blends these vineyards from the different regions of Cornas to create wines that celebrate the soil complexity and the subtle beauty of Syrah from this celebrated appellation.
*Lieux Dits (Lieu-dit, singular): translates to ‘said-location’, refers to a general geographical term for a small area bearing a traditional name. The name usually refers to a characteristic of the place, its former use or a past event.
2017 Johann Michel Cornas
94 Points Wine Enthusiast
Sun-baked brush, sage and smoked meat perfume, crisp cassis in this ripe but freshly postured Syrah. Black-fruit flavors are glossy and penetrating but backed by a zippy spine of acidity and tense, fine-grained tannins. The wine drinks well already but should improve through 2030 and hold further still.
93+ Points Jeb Dunnuck
The 2017 Cornas comes from more sandy soils and was brought up in 3-5 year old demi-muids. It’s an elegant, complex Cornas with lots of ripe red and black fruits and plenty of loamy earth, truffle and spice incense aromas. These carry to a medium to full-bodied , balanced, incredibly classy, elegant Cornas that has terrific tannins, loads of upfront charm and a great finish.
This bottle has a suggested retail price of $67.99, and most Northern Rhône Syrahs start at $50. This is a great chance to try something new or stock your cellar with something you can look forward to evolving. If you want to discover how seductive and subliminal Syrah can be, this is your chance to drop the veil and open your senses to a whole new wine horizon!