June 2008 issue

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PAGES (30-34) June 2008

TERROIR Hermitage, Northern Rhône, France David Vogels, CWP

Step across the train tracks at the station in Tain-l’Hermitage, and you’re immediately standing in one of the most fabled terroirs in the world.

Looking north up the steep slope, you pick out La Chapelle, the tiny chapel of St. Christopher acknowledging the region’s early religious history, near the crest of the hill. Scanning to the east across terraced rows of vineyards, you see the winery billboards that have adorned thousands of photographs.

Hermitage is a place that was destined to make great wine—but mostly because of geological happenstance. Millennia ago, the Rhône River demarcated the border between France’s Massif Central mountain range and the outskirts of the Alps. Over time, the river shifted slightly to the west, past what is now the town of Tain, carving out Hermitage on the way. The French N7 road now cuts through Tain, which has adopted the name of its famous vineyards, while the A7 superhighway occupies the ancient Rhône River valley.

As you view the hill from the railroad station, on the left (western) side, which now contains the small vineyard of Les Vercandières and the larger one of Les Bessards, the soil is still primarily granite from the Massif Central. L’Hermite, surrounding the chapel, and Le Méal, at the center of the hill, are in a transitional zone with some clay soil; below them are the smaller vineyards of Les Greffieux and Les Plantiers. Farther east, alluvial soil left by glacial deposits of the Alps begins to predominate, and the contours of the land start to flatten. The vineyards of Beaume, Maison Blanche, Le Péléat, Roucoules, Les Murets, La Pierrelle, Les Dio-gnières, L’Homme, La Croix, and Torras et Les Garennes are filled with galets like those found in Châteauneuf-du-Pape to the south. Here, the land blends into the less distinguished Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) of Crozes-Hermitage, which surrounds the Hermitage AOC.

The winemaking tradition of this area dates back at least to the Roman era. According to John Livingstone-Learmonth’s excellent book, The Wines of the Northern Rhône (University of California Press, 2005), there are unsubstantiated legends connecting vine plantings with the ancient Greeks and, later, with St. Patrick. At any rate, the modern history of Hermitage began around the 17th century, when local growers began shipping wine through Bordeaux (where it was even blended into some clarets). The hereditary houses that still dominate Hermitage—Chapoutier, Delas, and Jaboulet—were founded in the late 19th century; the Chave winemaking family, headquartered just to the south in Mauves, dates back to the 15th century.

Delas and Jaboulet have moved their winery operations out of Tain in recent decades—Jaboulet now has a stunning tasting room and storage facility called Vineum, carved out of a granite hillside in Châteauneuf-sur-Isère a few miles away—but Chapoutier maintains its facility just a couple of blocks from the Tain railroad station. Antoine de Boysson, Chapoutier’s export manager for the Americas, showed me around the town, the vineyards, the winery, and the adjacent tasting room during last fall’s harvest.

De Boysson attributed the unique Hermitage terroir not only to the various soil types, but to the hill’s southern exposure and elevation. Although this is a cooler area than the Côte-Rôtie to the north, the hill protects the Syrah grapes from the prevailing north winds and gives them plenty of sunshine. The top of Hermitage is decidedly warmer than the bottom, and with global temperatures rising in recent years, the prolific Syrah grape has flourished. In fact, while AOC rules allow yields of about 3 tons per acre, there is a 15% allowance for warmer vintages that is now widely used almost every year.

Chapoutier and other top growers try to restrict their yields to around 2.25 tons per acre through vineyard management, de Boysson said. Gobelet trellising prevails, and the work in the better vineyards, on the west side of the hill, is done either by hand or, often, by horse. Chapoutier’s estate vineyards have been completely biodynamic since 1989 and were certified in 1991. “It takes four to five times more time in the vineyards than conventional farming,” de Boysson reported.

Michel Chapoutier, the current head of the family, took another unusual step by adding Braille to his labels in 1996. The inventor of a shorthand form of Braille, Maurice Monier de La Sizeranne, is the owner of La Sizeranne, a block at the bottom of Hermitage that has long supplied grapes to Chapoutier. All told, the company makes three major lines from the Rhône: single-vineyard estate wines, the best known being L’Ermite, Le Méal, and Le Pavillon (from a block in the Bessards vineyard); the Prestige line of AOC brands, which rely on purchased grapes; and the inexpensive Tradition line, also AOC brands, which see no oak. Chapoutier also vinifies negociant wines from his home region of Ardèche and from Roussillon, and he has entered into joint ventures involving the Australian version of Syrah with his importer, Terlato Wines International, and with Jasper Hill winery of Australia. A new partnership with John Schwartz, co-owner of California’s Amuse Bouche, and Danielle Price, wine director at Wynn Las Vegas, has produced Le Cheval Fou (French for “Crazy Horse”).

The chapel on the hill was built in 1100 as part of an actual hermitage, but gradually fell victim to various medieval wars. Rebuilt by the government in 1864, it is now surrounded by the Chapoutier L’Hermite vineyards—ironically, because Jaboulet bought the chapel itself in 1929. Jaboulet’s flagship wine, appropriately called La Chapelle, is a blend of grapes mainly from Le Méal, Les Bessards, and Les Greffieux. Its second label, La Petite Chapelle, first bottled in 2001, is made from the same blocks and receives the same oak treatment (18 months in 20% new barriques), but is designed for earlier drinking.

As de Boysson explained, the Hermitage terroir is reflected in the grape varietals grown in various sections. The granite soil of the western vineyards produces intense, black Syrahs with stony minerality. The transitional zone of L’Ermite and Le Méal yields more elegant Syrahs, still ageworthy, but with a fatness derived from the clay soil. The eastern blocks are more variable, but tend to produce fruitier wines that are primarily used for blending.

Patches of loess soil in the central vineyards and in the eastern blocks of Roucoules, Les Murets, and Maison Blanche lend themselves well to Hermitage’s two white grapes, Roussanne and Marsanne. AOC regulations allow cofermentation of as much as 15% white grapes with the Syrah, although few producers use more than 5%, and Chapoutier uses none. The Roussanne vines have historically had issues including low production and oidium, and the grapes are known for their thin texture and oxidative tendencies; therefore, Roussanne is used only judiciously for blending. It is the Marsanne, with its oily mouthfeel and rich, bitter-almond twinge, that makes great Hermitage Blancs; indeed, Chapoutier uses only Marsanne in its white wines.

E. Guigal has become a major player in Hermitage in recent years by acquiring vineyards formerly owned by Grippat and de Vallouit. Guigal now produces blended Hermitage Rouge and Blanc labels and, since 2001, its top-of-the-line Ermitage Ex-Voto in both colors. As Philippe Guigal told me in last month’s Interview, “I am deeply convinced that Rhône wines are wines to drink. The biggest surprise often comes from the white wines.”

While Hermitage Rouge has long been a mainstay of American wine lists, Hermitage Blancs deserve more consideration. With their viscous texture and freshness, they are excellent food wines, by the glass or the bottle, and they are relatively affordable even at today’s exchange rates. The secondary aromas of well-aged Blancs can be astounding.

One more curiosity of Hermitage is its Vin de Paille (not to be confused with Vin de Pays)—meaning “straw wine”—a designation that is allowed only in Hermitage and in the Jura. It’s a sweet wine made like Italian Vin Santo, by drying the grapes, traditionally on straw mats but now in a variety of other ways. Produced only from Marsanne, it is bottled by a few of the top Hermitage houses, including Chapoutier and Chave. It would make a great conversation piece on the dessert list, as an alternative to Cognac or Grand Marnier.