Noel Verset, French winegrower, died at 95

  Dead Famous

Noel Verset, born in Cornas, France, on December 4, 1919 and died September 11, 2015 in Guilherand-Granges, France.

His wife died in 1989. Mr. Verset is survived by two daughters, Sylvette and Simone.

While Noel had always bottled a small amount of wine for family consumption, it was not until the 1980s that he began to bottle a larger proportion and his name became more widely known.

By the late 1990s, acolytes were making pilgrimages to Cornas to visit him.

During Noel ’s 75-year career as a vigneron, Cornas evolved from a little-known backwater to one of the world’s most renowned regions for red wines made from the syrah grape.

By the turn of the millennium, his wines, made in tiny quantities, were being celebrated as among the purest expressions of what Cornas had to offer.

His wines might very easily have never been discovered. Beginning in the late 19th century, with the arrival of phylloxera, a ravenous aphid that devastated grapevines all over Europe, Cornas faced decades of catastrophe that almost wiped out its vineyards.

A solution to phylloxera was found, but many Cornas vineyards, on precipitous slopes first planted 1,000 or more years earlier, were never restored.

Then two world wars, which sandwiched the Great Depression, robbed the region of much of its agricultural work force.

The labor drain continued after World War II, when many of the young men of Cornas, following a path taken all over industrializing Europe, left agriculture to work in factories.

More vineyards were abandoned, deemed too difficult to work for the pittance that could be earned.

But Noel (pronounced vehr-SAY) and a few others, like Auguste Clape and Mr. Balthazar’s father, René Balthazar, persisted in their traditional arduous labor, trudging up the hillside to the vineyards as their ancestors had done. The rewards were not great.

In the 1940s and ’50s, few vignerons bottled their own wines.

Most of the Cornas wines were sold by the barrel directly to local bars and restaurants, or to merchants who bought finished wines and bottled them with their own labels, often under the Cotes du Rhone appellation.

Many grape growers took additional jobs to make ends meet. Noel himself worked for many years with the railroad in the nearby city of Valence.

Noel Verset died at age 95 on September 11, 2015.