Not too long ago I was fortunate enough to attend a dinner featuring the wines of Noël Verset. The company was great, and so were the food and the wines. But this was truly a special experience because Noël Verset's wines are no longer being made - they are quite rare, and are increasingly expensive when they can be found. To enjoy a dinner at which 10 different vintages are served...this is not something that can easily be repeated. Jaime Wolff of Chambers Street Wines hosted, and he and David Bowler organized the wines, mostly. The rest of us brought along a bottle and we cobbled together a vertical that spanned 10 vintages between 1988 - 2004.
Noël Verset made wines in Cornas that for many people define the potential greatness of the Northern Rhône and of Syrah. I cannot give you a scientific treatise on why Noël Verset's wines are so great, but I can share a bit with you of what I've learned from reading the interwebs and listening to educated people. Verset owned several choice plots of very old vines (some approaching 100 years old) in the best vineyards of Cornas, the tiny appellation in the southern-most edge of the Northern Rhône. He grew an old Syrah clone called La Petite Syrah, a clone known for aromatic complexity. He worked the vines himself until he was over 80 years old, and these are steep terraces, not easy. He began working in the vineyards of Cornas when he was 12 years old in the 1930's, so he knew a little something about growing grapes in this place. Verset did not de-stem the grapes and supposedly crushed them by foot. He was exacting in the vineyards and intelligent in the winery.
Verset made one wine and one wine only, combining the grapes from all of his parcels into one Cornas. I think it's interesting to think about that. We tend to value the idea of vinifying individual plots separately, as in Burgundy, and increasingly now in Champagne. Thierry Allemand makes vineyard specific Cornas, Auguste Clape made several wines from vines of different ages. Not Verset - everything that he selected in a given year went into his one wine.
Could it really be that simple - great terroir, old vines, great plant material, good vineyard work, intelligent wine making? Maybe, maybe not, but Verset's wines stand apart from the black sea of ultra-concentrated, false Northern Rhône wines that make up the majority of what's available today. Verset's wines smell and taste right, like the essence of Syrah from that part of the world - Meaty, savory, funky, darkly fruited, olive-y, and vibrant with minerality and acidity. I love how the best bottles show an incredible intensity and focus while retaining every aspect of definition and clarity - these are big wines, and they are graceful and articulate too.
Jamie made some delicious things to eat with these wines, and he and David did something that surprised me, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. They served the oldest wines first. In my (limited) experience, people tend to begin with the young wines and serve the oldest wines last. Young, tannic, acidic Northern Rhône Syrah might be best served after the more delicate and gentle mature wines.
With Verset, you get what the vintage gives - the wines are all quite different from one another. Some of these are wines that I've had before, others not. Some seemed to be in a prime drinking window, others were very young. I thought that the 1999 was the most perfect of the wines, objectively speaking, although it was clearly not mature enough to be at its peak. But it was a complete wine, with powerful fruit, minerals, great structure, intensity, and balance. It should be a thing of incredible joy and beauty in 10 years.
The 1988 and the 1993 were both compelling and wonderful wines, and both were ready for drinking in that the harder edges of structure had melted into the wine, and both wines showed a delicate side that accentuated the clarity of mature fruit and stony base. The 1988 in particular was a terrific wine, so classy and graceful, so expressive, perfectly seamless.
My favorite wine for drinking on this night was the 1998. To me, it showed a bit of the power and intensity of the 1999 and also the grace and harmony of the more mature wines, and it was utterly delicious in a riveting way.
The 1995 was a controversial wine, at least for me. I was perhaps the only person at the dinner who did not think it as one of the top wines of the night. For me it was too powerful in its fruit and didn't have the grace and elegance that my favorite wines showed. You understand, of course, that I think the wine was great! It just wasn't stylistically the thing that I love about Verset. The 1990 also - everyone loved it and I appreciated it very much also, it's incredibly savory and autumnal tones were lovely. But I guess what turns me on most about Verset is when the wine has nothing sticking out, when everything harmonizes and it's about the sum, not the parts.
I enjoyed the 1997 and the 2000, but I have had both of these wines before and enjoyed both vintages more on those other occasions. Who knows, perhaps they just didn't shine in this illustrious company.
I read that Verset sold his vines to Allemand, Clape, and a few others after the 2000 vintage, yet there is Verset wine in each of 2001-2006. Are the wines up to the usual Verset standard? Seems like it, yes. I didn't care for the 2003, although I recognize that it is well made wine. The vintage was hot and ripe, and so is this wine - hot, opulently fruited, exotic, completely different from all of the other wines. The 2004 was completely lovely, however, with clarity of fruit and mineral, and hinting at the same quiet intensity and harmony that makes some of the older wines so attractive to me.
Thank you Jaime and David, and the other Verset comrades. This was a remarkable experience, and I'm glad I was a part of it. And I'm not just talking about the risotto, I really enjoyed the wines too.
Here are my actual tasting notes, for the masochistic among you.