Our first stop in Cornas didn’t exactly start out as planned. The GPS in our rental led us on a wild goose chase that led to a dead end and also led to us being about a half an hour late for our appointment with Franck Balthazar.
Balthazar makes wine in a place that for all intents and purposes looks like a French version of a tract house from the outside. We approached timidly, wondering if this truly could be the right place. We rang the doorbell a few times and were about to turn away when a sleepy teenager opened the door blinded by the sunlight. She squinted at us and wordlessly led us around to the backside of the house where a tractor and a bunch of winery-looking tubing made us finally sure we were in the right place. She led us down a staircase below a large garage and that’s where we found Franck Balthazar.
We also found that Franck had been using Google Translate to answer my email to him and that he really only spoke a little English. I had assured my wife that all the winemakers we were meeting with spoke fluent English so she wouldn’t have to call up the French she had last spoken 20 years ago during her college study abroad program. Well, surprise honey, not only do I need you to translate for me but I need you to translate a bunch of wine terms you’ve probably never heard in English. But Franck did his best and Emily did her best and we ended up being able to communicate pretty well.
Franck is a humble and self-effacing guy who makes wine in an understated winery. But he makes world-class wines. They are traditionally-styled, basket-pressed, no new oak and aged in 600 liter demi-muid barrels. The wines are all 100% whole cluster. Balthazar makes a cuvee that is fruit made up of 80% younger vines (8 to 9 year old vineyards). It’s a floral Syrah with a full mid-palate and searing acidity. He also makes a Chaillot vineyard designate Cornas which was wonderfully perfumed and reminiscent of a combination of black and red fruit aromas. These are incredible iterations of Syrah and in this young stage are all freshness and acidity. I look forward to seeing how they develop in a few years. We tasted the 2015 out of barrel for both vintages and the wine had that not-ready taste to it that sometimes happens (fittingly, because they aren’t ready) when you taste wines out of barrel.
Franck Balthazar’s two Syrah bottlings.
Franck’s barrel cave and basket press.
Franck’s holdings in Cornas are small and he farms them with care and even uses a horse instead of a tractor to help with the ploughing. Given the tight rows in Cornas’ plantings a tractor is unfeasible anyway. Chaillot is of course Balthazar’s gem. All the wines he makes are from the old Cornas clone sometimes called “la Petite Syrah” because of its smaller berries.
Franck was a gentle, humble soul with a disarming smile, it was a pleasure to spend time with him. Our apologies for waking up his sleepy but accommodating daughter.
Cornas vines are on single posts, granitic soils, and tightly spaced rows.
We tasted with Franck in the cellar, (as we later found out would be the case in almost all the wineries that we visited in France).