Wine Pages

Mike Steinberger's Wine Diarist


Clape On, Clape Off

Last night Abby and I had another dinner at The Modern with some friendly folks in the wine business. The occasion gave us an opportunity share some great food, talk about the wine business, and, we thought, enjoy some tasty wine. We accomplished all three - but only to a point.

In plotting out our wine plans for the evening, we discussed the option of trying a wine from a great producer in an "off" vintage. Off vintages are ones where the weather conditions are such that wines can be tough to produce well. Too much rain, hail, heat, too little sunlight, or even the widespread introduction of some plant disease can all adversely affect a vintage. Talented winemakers have to make some tough choices in these years: either declassify or even sell off their wines or work hard to get around the problems that a vintage presents. Case in point, our choice for the night: Auguste Clape Cornas 2002. Clape is a benchmark producer for this Northern Rhone appellation - producing world class wines from Syrah. Since the late '80s, he and his son, Pierre-Marie, have been working together traditionally, using all used oak.

Our bottle, from 2002, was the result of a year that saw so much rain, that many vineyards, in areas just to the south of Cornas, were flooded, and entire crops were lost. Those producers who did produce in that year, turned out wines that were far less concentrated than normal (watered-down). Some wines proved to be thin and out of balance, while others were able to turn out some reasonably elegant wines.

When we first opened the Clape, we were all rather pleased with its gentle, pretty aromatics. It was a bit tight, but within about ten to fifteen minutes, it revealed some solid fruit flavors with great minerality and a hint of herbal character. The wine sat out, developing with the air, while we enjoyed our mighty tasty first courses - most of which were too delicate to have with Syrah. Occasionally revisiting the wine, it was clearly undergoing rapid change. By the arrival of our second course, however, the wine completely shut down. The aromatics were all but gone, and within a few more minutes, it had lost its fruit and was becoming totally herbal (and not in a good way).

Luckily, our dinner companion was also a wine producer, and, handily, had a delicious bottle of his South African Cabernet/Shiraz he had brought to share. It dutifully fulfilled its mission as a solid stand-in for a wine that had gone south far too quickly. The evening was saved (and we learned our lesson... experimenting with off vintages is a gamble which can provide great disappointments - but also great rewards).