Simple Guide to Hermitage Wine Region
After looking at the Syrah grape and giving an overview of the Northern Rhone wine region, it’s time to start diving down and looking at individual Syrah AOCs. Today we begin with Hermitage.
Hermitage produces the greatest Syrah-based wines from anywhere. Cote Rotie, maybe even Cornas, might be hipper than Hermitage these days. But, in my mind, it's similar to the way that the wines of the Jura are hipper than, say, Chambertin from Burgundy. Sure, the cool kids drink more Jura, but they never turn down a taste of Chambertin. Because Chambertin is better. And likewise, Hermitage is better than Cornas. It’s probably also better than Cote Rotie.
Hermitage also happens to be the easiest Northern Rhone AOC to understand.
- It is simply a hill, with the Rhone River curving tightly around its western side. A small chapel devoted to St. Christopher sits at the top of the hill.
Surrounding this chapel, there are roughly 137 hectares of vines. For perspecitve, that’s about the size of two reasonably-sized Chateaux from Bordeaux, Combine Mouton Rothschild and Rauzan-Segla and you’re just about there.
Even the soils are relatively easy to understand in Hermitage. Like all the greatest sites of the Northern Rhone, there is granite. Here’s a simple rule of thumb: the further west you go on the hill—this is, towards the river—the more granite there is. To the east, you find more of the glacial deposits that you get in a more alpine terroir.
There is, of course, reason behind the simplicity. The Rhone River forms a giant valley that separates the two great mountain chains of France. To the west is the Massif Central, where there is granite. To the east is the Alps. Therefore, for the most part, the great terroirs of the Northern Rhone are made up of the easterly edges of the Massif Central.
You may be thinking, "but isn’t Hermitage—with its little brother Croze—actually on the east side of the river?" And that is true. Now.
- But, a long time ago the Rhone actually ran to the east of the hill of Hermitage. As rivers sometimes do, it changed course, and started to flow west of the hill. An anomaly was born.
To put it simply, you can think of the Northern Rhone as being influenced mostly by the granite of the eastern corner of the Massif Central, but with influence from the Alps on its most easterly edges in Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage.
Like all of wine-producing France, the hill of Hermitage is divided into vineyard sites that are called climats or lieu-dits, each of which is slightly different from its neighbors, and therefore produces slightly different grapes. In Hermitage, there are four factors that control what kind of wine is produced by any climat:
- Is the site located in the western, more granitic portion of the hill, or in the eastern, more Alpine section of the hill?
How high up is the site?
- Higher sites are slightly cooler (across France, you lose about 1 degree of celsius for every hundred meters).
- You also have differences in soil. Lower down, the soils are influenced by the river, and are somewhat alluvial with a mix of clay and pebbles in addition to granite. The higher you go, the thinner is the topsoil and the more solid is the granite.
Which direction does the site point?
- Of course, the slopes that face south are the warmest.
Is the vineyard site sloped or terraced?
- A section near the bottom of the hill is terraced, reducing sun exposure and drainage. Some sites are completely flat.
Taking these factors together can explain much of what lies behind Hermitage’s most famous vineyard sites, Les Bessards, Le Meal, L’Hermite and Greffeux.
Let me break these vineyards down for you in the simplest way possible.
- This is ultra-Hermitage: a solid slab of granite that extends high on the hill and mostly faces south, but with portions that also lean west. Here is the most tannic, structured Syrah, for long-lived wines. Chave believes that Bessards is an essential ingredient to Hermitage.
- Meal is just to the east of Bessards and has some alpine influence in the soils. But still it is mostly granite. The alpine influence consists of glacial deposits that retain heat in the vineyards. Meal also faces more directly south than Bessards. All this means that the key thing to know about Meal is that it is warmer than Bessards. The wine it produces is riper and fruitier.
- L’Hermite sits on top of the hill, above Bessards and Meal. It is here that you find the chapel, which sits among some of the most solidly granite soils in the entire AOC. But L’Hermite is a jumble of all the hill’s different terroir: in parts you find granite, but elsewhere you get alpine soils, more crumbly forms of granite and even loess soils. The red wines from this site are fresh, higher in acid, and structured. In the parts with more loess, Syrah is less successful and many producers choose to grow Marsanne or Rousanne.
- Not held in quite the same regard as the other three sites, Greffeux is still very high in quality. It is, essentially, below Meal, although a portion of it sticks up the hill in between Meal and Brassards, to the point where it even briefly touches L'Hermite. That portion is quite solidly granitic, but the rest of the site is a mix of granite, clay and limestone. The wines produced are refined and aromatic, and the tannins less powerful.
Very little single climat Hermitage is produced, and most believe that Hermitage requires a blend of grapes from different parts of the hill. This is certainly true of the two most famous examples, Chave’s Hermitage and Jaboulet’s La Chapelle. The tradition is a bit like how Bartolo Mascarello will insist that true Barolo requires a blend of grapes from different Barolo sites, except that Hermitage is only about 5% of the size of Barolo, so we are talking about blending across a much more narrowly constrained scope of terroir.
The three most important producers of Hermitage are Chave, Jaboulet and Chapoutier. I’ll describe each in turn and then also quickly mention some smaller producers that are good to know.
- Chave is the greatest producer in Hermitage. His family has been making wine there since the 1400s. The current proprietor is Jean-Louis, and the Domaine’s full name is Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, but this is in honor of his grandfather, who bore the same name.
- Chave is a true believer in blending, and his red wine is produced from numerous vineyards, though the backbone comes from Bessards. He is not a full-blown traditionalist, preferring to de-stem most of his fruit, fermenting mostly in smaller casks and steel, rather than the traditional open wood casks, and aging his wines in small, Burgundy-sized barrels of 228L (though only a small portion of those barrels are new).
- Chave's Hermitage combine purity with grandeur. They speak clearly and with intensity. Grand vintages age effortlessly; weaker vintages always surprise — even 1996s and 2002s, bad vintages both, are shockingly good wines, though for drinking at a younger age to be sure.
- Paul Jaboulet Ainé is not nearly as old as the Chave family, but they have been producing Northern Rhone wines for a respectable period of nearly 200 years. They have a large negociant business (making wine from various AOCs with purchased grapes), but also own a whopping 22 hectares of their own land in Hermitage. Their largest plot is in Le Meal, where they have about 30% of their Hermitage vines.
- Their signature wine is one of the world’s most iconic wines: “La Chapelle” Hermitage. La Chapelle is simply a trade name that refers to St. Christopher. The wine is a blend of Le Meal, Bessards, Greffeux and another top vineyard site Rocoules.
- La Chapelle from vintages like 1961, 1978 and 1990 are considered some of the greatest red wines ever made. It should be noted that in the 1990s, the winery went into decline and many of the wines under-performed. Perhaps it was because of family disputes, the death of the then patriarch Gerard Jaboulet, and over-production. But, in 2006 ,the Frey family (who own La Lagune in Bordeaux and are a leading shareholder in Billecart-Salmon) purchased Jaboulet and have been restoring its quality, introducing more precise wine-making and significantly reducing the yields. Jaboulet is now in the midst of a series of remarkable vintages — 2015 through 2018 — that may turn out to be as legendary as the historic greats.
- Although wine-making is similar, Jaboulet’s La Chapelle definitely has a slightly more modern feel to it than Chave’s Hermitage. Perhaps this is simply because of the higher portion of fruit from the warmer, lusher Meal site? The tannins are very sophisticated, though the oak shows in the wines slightly more (although like at Chave, they have a five year barrel rotation that results in only 20% new oak per vintage). These are great wines that need perhaps a little more time in the cellar before they’ll take you to Hermitage’s heart and soul.
- Chapoutier is another old firm, this one a little older than Jaboulet, with roots in an important old Bordeaux house, Calvet, that played a significant role in the Northern Rhone’s commercial development. They are a giant company, producing around seven million bottles a year. A tiny fraction of those bottles are Hermitage, and they can be very good.
- Chapoutier is like a polar opposite of Chave. They do not generally blend their Hermitage holdings, instead focusing their production of red Hermitage on four single vineyard-designated wines. They farm biodynamically and aim for extremely low yields with super-concentrated grapes. They are 100% destemmed and aged 40-50% in new oak. The wines are very powerful, and you could say that they are modern. Of these three “biggies”, I find Chapoutier's to be the least approachable in their youth, and they need to be aged a long time.
Other Important Names
- Ferraton - Another important negociant with ties to Chapoutier and who follows a very similar approach — biodynamic farming, single vineyard wines — but with more of a lean towards tradition.
- Bernard Faurie - A small grower working in a very traditional style. His wines are hard to find in the U.S.. I buy them whenever I can.
- Marc Sorrel - Another small grower who leans traditionalist. His wines are also hard to find, but more abundant than Faurie’s. His white Rocules is not to be missed!
The white wines of Hermitage are, in my opinion, the greatest white wines made south of Burgundy and east of Bordeaux. Echoing what Kermit Lynch once wrote, I think they are actually more unique and special than the red wines, especially considering how many regions produce magnificent, age-worthy red wines, and how few can say the same for their whites. But for now I am only writing about Syrah. I’m going to put all the white wines of the Northern Rhone together in a single blog post later in this series. So, look out for that!
I think of Crozes as Hermitage’s little brother. It’s basically the vineyard lands that surround the hill of Hermitage, east of the Rhone River. It’s sort of like Hermitage, because, you know, it’s close by. But it isn’t really Hermitage, because it’s not on that hill! Instead it’s just Crozes, the name derived from one of the surrounding villages.
I also like to think of it as the single best source of straightforward varietal wines made from Syrah.
- You want to know what Syrah tastes like?
- Get a bottle of Crozes.
- You want a decent weeknight bottle and your recipe calls for Syrah?
- A Crozes will do just fine. Crozes is really useful.
But you can also think about it a third way: as a serious AOC of its own. It is a large area with a complex and diverse mix of terroirs.
- It follows the same pattern you find in Hermitage, with plenty of granitic soils that are ideal for Syrah in the western sites, and more alpine-influenced soils in the east.
- Close to the river, you find gravel and other alluvial influences. There are flatlands and hills.
You can make great wine in these parts. Alain Graillot has proven this, as have a handful of other small producers, not to mention a few of the region’s negociants. Jaboulet, the Hermitage house, has a single vineyard Crozes called Domaine de Thalabert that can be considered one of the great wines of the region. Historically, the wine from Thalabert — for many years made under the humble Cotes-du-Rhone AOC because Crozes was not a recognized AOC until the 1950s — was more expensive than St. Joseph or Cornas. I have had twenty or even thirty year-old Thalaberts that rival Hermitage.
So my bottom line advice:
- Keep drinking Crozes Hermitage when you just want quality Syrah for under, say, $30.
- But don’t avoid the region when you want something special, as there are a handful of examples that can rival the Northern Rhone’s best.
Now, it would be remiss of me not to mention that we do often have some Hermitage in stock here at Flatiron.
But, to do a good job of buying and collecting Hermitage, you really have to partner up with a wine merchant. So, here's my advice:
- Pick your favorite wine merchant (hopefully us, but there several others to choose from that do a good job with Northern Rhones), and let them know you’re interested in Hermitage.
- Sign up for their newsletters (you can sign up for ours here). Then, look our for their offers.
- Decide how much Hermitage you want to drink every year — whether it’s three bottles or 18 (that’s probably enough, given how many other great wines there are to drink out there) — and make sure you are buying that number of bottles every year.
- In great vintages, go a little over, and in weaker vintages you can go under. Definitely don’t skip any vintages entirely — you don’t want to miss out on hidden gems like 1996 Chave!
Ideally, you will want to make Hermitage from Jaboulet and Chave the backbone of your Hermitage collection, though it wouldn’t hurt to sprinkle in the odd finds from other producers. And definitely consider getting some Crozes from Graillot and Thalabert!
As for drinking, you generally want to wait about 10 years before you drink Hermitage, though occasionally you will come across vintages — 2011 comes to mind — that seem pretty good at a younger age.
Keep them in a temperature controlled cellar or professional storage, of course. While you’re waiting for your cellar to mature, you’ll need to stock up on back vintages. Look for library releases and private cellar opportunities (we send out plenty to subscribers of our Fine and Rare list).
Further Reading (and Listening)
I’ll once again mention John Livingstone-Learmonth’s great work, the Wines of the Northern Rhone, as a must have if you really want to get to know the region. The section on Hermitage is incredibly detailed and I relied on it extensively for this post.
The other thing worth mentioning that I came across in the course of my research was Levi Dalton’s interview with Jean-Louis Chave for his podcast I’ll Drink to That. There’s lots of good stuff there and it gives you a really good feel for the AOC.
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