Auguste Clape, a venerated master of Syrah and a pioneering winegrower of the Northern Rhône, died July 13 at the age of 93. Clape’s exceptionally seductive and age-worthy wines brought global fame to the tiny appellation of Cornas.
Born to a winegrowing family from France’s Languedoc region, he married Henriette Rousset in 1949. She was a native of Cornas whose family owned a small vineyard. At the time, Cornas was a little-known and struggling appellation reeling from the losses of World War II, the Great Depression, and phylloxera, a root-eating insect that decimated most of Europe’s vineyards in the 19th century.
The tightly stacked, terraced vineyards of Cornas are too steep to work mechanically by horse or by tractor, so Clape and his family painstakingly restored their vineyards by hand at a time when many vineyards were facing abandonment. Original vines planted by Clape, many more than 60 years old, continue to produce grapes for his benchmark bottlings. By global standards, the family’s vineyard holdings, now expanded to 8.5 hectacres (21 acres), are minuscule. Still worked meticulously by hand, they are renowned as home to some of the world’s most coveted Syrah.
Up until the 1950s winegrowers in Cornas traditionally sold their wines by the barrel to local restaurants or to négociants, who would resell the wines under their own label. But in 1955, Clape became one of the first winegrowers in Cornas to bottle and market his own wines. His Domaine A. Clape label opened the doors for other Cornas winemakers to establish their own domaines.
Clape was instrumental in putting Cornas on the global stage. According to Laure Vaissermann, head of media for Inter-Rhône, the Rhône Valley Vineyards’ promotional committee, “It is fair to say that Auguste Clape is the one who brought awareness to the Cornas appellation throughout the UK and the USA starting from the early 70s.”
While active in the estate through his later years, Clape was joined at Domaine A. Clape by his son, Pierre-Marie in 1989. In 2002, his grandson, Olivier, joined the family operation.
As a winemaker, Clape held firm to traditional techniques regardless of shifting trends. According to Olivier, A. Clape wines are still made using 100% whole grape bunches, fermented in open concrete tanks with no temperature control and aged in large, 30-to-50-year-old barrels.
“With strength and conviction, my dad had a clear vision of the wines he wanted to produce in Cornas,” says Pierre-Marie. “He really wanted to produce ageable wines that defy time and express the terroir of Cornas.”
In later years, according to Vaissermann, “One of Auguste Clape’s big concerns was protecting the appellation’s land from growing urbanization.”
Henriette Clape died in 2017. In addition to Pierre-Marie and Olivier, who will continue to operate the estate, Auguste Clape is survived by two daughters, Marie-Laure Méger and Bernadette Thiebaud as well as numerous other grandchildren and great-grandchildren.