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    Auguste Clape, 93; his hillside Rhone vineyards rose to fame

    In a photo provided by Gail Skoff, Auguste Clape in about 1982. Clape, a pillar of the northern Rhône Valley wine region whose sturdy yet remarkably soulful wines awakened interest in the little-known Cornas appellation, died on July 13, 2018, in Valence, France. He was 93. (Gail Skoff via The New York Times) -- NO SALES; FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY WITH NYT STORY OBIT CLAPE BY Eric Asimov FOR JULY 23, 2018. ALL OTHER USE PROHIBITED. --
    Gail Skoff via The New York Times
    Auguste Clape.

    NEW YORK — Auguste Clape, a pillar of the northern Rhône Valley wine region whose sturdy yet remarkably soulful wines awakened interest in the little-known Cornas appellation, died July 13 in Valence, France. He was 93.

    His death was confirmed by Kermit Lynch, his longtime American importer.

    Mr. Clape (pronounced klahp) was one of a pantheon of midcentury winegrowers in the northern Rhône whose wines, though made initially for the local market, were eventually celebrated internationally as among the most profound expressions of the syrah grape.

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    It was Mr. Clape’s wines, with their chewy textures and savory, smoky flavors, that compelled people to take tiny Cornas seriously.

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    Like Noël Verset in Cornas, Marius Gentaz in Côte-Rotie, and Raymond Trollat in St.-Joseph, Mr. Clape embodied the centuries-old tradition of the vigneron, the farmer who tended the vines and made the wine. For Mr. Clape and others, the joy was not only in the wine but also in upholding a heritage and maintaining the culture that had nurtured their ancestors.

    For more than 1,000 years, humans tended vines on the precipitous granite hillside that rises above the village of Cornas, on the west bank of the Rhône, facing southeast toward the city of Valence. But after the arrival in the late 19th century of phylloxera, a ravenous aphid that devastated European vineyards, followed by the disasters of two world wars, the vineyard area of Cornas had by the early 1980s dwindled to about 130 acres, the size of a small Bordeaux estate.

    Even as many in his generation abandoned the region’s steep, terraced vineyards and the grueling labor they required for the fertile, easier-to-farm flatlands, or for jobs in the cities, Mr. Clape and his small cohort continued to trudge up the hills day after day, for little reward. Outside the region, Cornas was barely known. Those who knew it often dismissed the wines as brutally rustic.

    “As recently as 1982, I felt obliged to offer an ‘introductory price’ in order to tempt my clients to try Cornas,” Lynch wrote in “Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer’s Tour of France” (1988).

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    The payoff has come only in the last 25 years or so, as the rest of the world woke up to the wines. Customers no longer need enticements to buy Mr. Clape’s Cornas: It sells for more than $100 a bottle in New York, while a Cornas from a producer like Thierry Allemand, carrying on traditions upheld by Mr. Clape, can cost two or three times that price.

    Nowadays the vineyard area of Cornas is back over 300 acres, though still tiny as wine regions go. Good bottles from producers like Franck Balthazar, Guillaume Gilles, Alain Voge, and Grande Colline are highly coveted.

    Auguste Clape was born in Valence on July 13, 1925, to a family that had once worked many acres of vines but by then had only a small holding. He met a woman from Cornas, Henriette Rousset, whose family owned about 12 acres of vines, and began working in the vineyard. They were married in 1949, which was also the year of his first harvest.

    Back then, vignerons made the wines and sold them in barrels to local restaurants and taverns, or to merchants who bottled the wine under their own labels. But a few estates began to bottle and sell their own wines in the early 1950s. Mr. Clape began in 1955.

    By all accounts, he was a gentle, quiet man for whom patience and humility were virtues.

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    Well into his 50s, according to “Wines of the Northern Rhône” (2005), by John Livingstone-Learmonth, Mr. Clape enrolled in school in Burgundy to study theories of viticulture. Even so, his guiding principles seemed to be tradition and common sense.

    “Auguste was a man of few words,” Lynch recalled in an e-mail. “I loved tasting with him because we seemed to go so deeply into the wines, the nuances, the subtle differences that make one wine more likable than another.”

    In 1989, Mr. Clape was joined at his estate by his son, Pierre-Marie; Pierre-Marie’s son Olivier later entered the business as well. They will continue to oversee it.

    Mr. Clape’s wife died in 2017.

    In addition to Pierre-Marie and Olivier, he leaves two daughters, Marie-Laure Méger and Bernadette Thiebaud; a brother, Henri; a sister, Marie-Isabelle; four other grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.

    Among the survivors, it would be only fair to list the Cornas wine region as well.