One of the great perks of our job here at ABC is the chance to travel to the various wine areas of the world, which is crucial to a better understanding of the terroir (soil, climate, topography), the grapes, the winemaking process – in fact all those things that contribute to the magic of that glorious liquid found in a wine bottle. It is also often a chance for us to meet and talk with the owners and winemakers. One thing you learn very quickly is that these people are a thoroughly dedicated and even obsessive group of men and women, and that there are almost as many theories about making wine as there are winemakers.
But sometimes, even within such a devoted group of professionals, there are some individuals that stand out.
One such person, to me, was winemaker and consulting oenologist Jean-Luc Colombo, who we met last year (I was traveling with my colleague Atanas Nechkov) at his home in Cornas, in the northern Rhone Valley.
Believe me, when you do a number of these winery visits you see a lot of fermentation tanks, barrel rooms, and bottling lines. But the first thing Monsieur Colombo did – what was obviously most important to him – was to get us right out in the vineyards.
Cornas has traditionally been the forgotten area amongst the more famous appellations of the northern Rhone – Cote Rotie, Condrieu, St. Joseph, and Hermitage – but not so any longer with the revolutionary figure of Jean-Luc Colombo around! The prime vineyards of Cornas are on the side of the mountain, often at an angle of 60 to 70 degrees, with spectacular views of the Rhone River far below. We took Jean-Luc’s car as far along these precarious slopes as we could. The rest had to be done on foot.
Listening to Jean-Luc Colombo talk, it was soon apparent what made Cornas so special to him – here was a man deeply involved in the entire ecology of the area. Winemaking, to him, is not simply about the grapes – winemaking involves the subtle workings of the entire environment. With immense joy he revealed to us not only the grape vines, but also the woods, the flowers, the herbs, the animals, even the insects of the area. This, to him, is what makes the Syrah-based wines of Cornas unique. Other appellations in the northern Rhone simply grow grapes. But in Cornas the grape vines are only a part of the local ecology – it is not only the grapes but everything else that so subtly affects them that makes the wines of Cornas unique.
I remember him standing slightly above us on the slopes and saying “I hate, hate, hate irrigation! Irrigation,” he said, “is good for potatoes, not for wine. How can you say that a wine represents a certain vintage when it’s artificially irrigated?”
Later we had the pleasure of joining the Colombo family for dinner at their home near the top of the mountain. Jean-Luc prepared rack of lamb on the huge old stone fireplace in the dining room, which he served with local fresh vegetables, and man! did his wines – both those from the Rhone and from his vineyards in Provence – taste good! As well as Jean-Luc and Madame Colombo creating a relaxed and entertaining atmosphere, we also had the pleasure of meeting their daughter Laure (who plans to follow in her father’s footsteps as a winemaker – she had been studying at Ch. Haut Brion) and her friends who were visiting for the weekend. I must say that they made us feel like members of the family. We finished the evening with Cuban cigars and Lapsang Sou-chong (which happens to be my favorite tea and whose smoky flavor works very well with a good cigar).
Before we knew it midnight was gone and we had a hotel to get back to, not to mention a 6 a.m. train to Paris to catch. For myself, looking back on this memorable day with a master winemaker, I must admit that I will never again drink Jean-Luc Colombo’s wines without thinking about the smell of the herbs, the sound of the birds, and the breeze in the trees that are all part and parcel of the wines that he makes.
–Bill Stobbs, Wine Supervisor, West Coast