Legendary (H)ermitage

Legendary (H)ermitage

Wednesday 27th July 2022
by Mark Dearing

I recently had the privilege of attending a stunning evening intended to showcase the qualities of the Rhone Valley’s most historic and prestigious hillside. Celebrated the world over for producing legendary wines for centuries, this was to be only the third time in the past thirty years that the AOC’s leading producers had come together to co-present their wares.

Co-hosted by Maison Les Alexandrins, Chapoutier, Jean-LouisChave, Delas, Ferraton, Guigal, Jaboulet, Domaine des Martinelles, Gabriel Meffre, Marc Sorrel, Cave de Tain and Les Vins de Vienne, this was an opportunity to take a slightly broader look at this historic appellation, even if it was just a snapshot, by tasting a host of new releases and a few older bottles over dinner.

But first some context around Hermitage itself. Recognised as an appellation since 1937, Hermitage extends over three communes: Tain L’Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage and Larnage. Measuring 134 hectares in size and regarded more or less as a “Grand Cru” in its own right, it yields more than 4,677 hectolitres of wine per year according to the AOC. The wines are produced from three grape varieties: Syrah, Roussanne and Marsanne, all of which are celebrated for their ageing capacity. In youth, the reds display a rich and deep, almost exotic perfume, laden with spices, moving toward more savoury, truffled and charred tones over time. The whites are born with a certain density, florality and limpid, honeyed, tropical and stone fruit flavours. Over time, they take on an even creamier texture, developing nuttier, spicy notes.

The vines are planted on a complex array of soils, expositions and elevations, enabling bigger producers to take the best elements of, say, the lower lying, fertile clay-gravel-loam soils in Les Diognieres or Les Plantiers and blend them with granitic plots such as Les Bessards, Les Grandes Vignes or Varogne for example. Furthermore, varying proportions of limestone and sand are found in some of the most lauded Hermitage plots, several of which are routinely deemed worthy of bottling as standalone wines. Two of the most famous single plot wines are L’Ermite and Le Meal, but both retain great merit as blending components too. Indeed, the increase in single vineyard bottlings helps us to understand the innate quality and diversity within Hermitage’s boundaries. Traditionally though, Hermitage is a blended wine, and arguably its most masterful exponent is Jean-Louis Chave, whose wines many argue have come to represent Hermitage at its apogee.

The majority of the wines we tasted were from 2019 and 2020; two warm years with subtly different profiles. A more prolonged drought in 2019 and more extreme heat spikes has produced concentrated, bold reds with impressive density, and, on this showing, more complexity and power next to the more open, silky and fragrant 2020s. For this taster, the whites were a more challenging affair on the whole; the 2019s displaying, in my view, excessive alcohol and oak, the warmth of which was accentuated by generally soft acidities. The 2020 whites proved more successful, offering up typically fleshy, baritone fruits but this time with a finer, more detailed and interwoven acidity. Highlights included the subtle, enveloping, nutty 2020 Blanc from JL Chave, Ferraton’s Les Miaux Blanc 2019 and Jaboulet La Chapelle Blanc 2020.

On the red wine front, Chave’s Hermitage Rouge 2019 was for me the best young wine of the evening, by some distance. Enormously complex, deep but lifted, it exhibits the most wonderfully pixelated dark, mineral-laced berried fruit with a tight tannic framework and fine acidity which cuts through the vintage’s natural richness. Jaboulet’s La Chapelle Rouge 2020 was highly alluring on this showing – evidence that this legendary estate has turned a corner, its eyes firmly set on restoring its previous renown for top quality Hermitage wines.

On that front, we were treated to a spread of mature Jaboulet wines over dinner, all served en magnum. I was pleasantly surprised to find the La Chapelle Blanc 2010 in especially fine fettle; an impressively textured, clear-cut perfumed white still all on the fruit with a long seamless finish. Raised in a combination of oak and concrete, their commitment to only bottling this wine when the perfect conditions allow seems well-founded – the other vintages released thus far are 2012, 2014 and 2020.

A magnum of 1982 La Chapelle Rouge was a rather exciting prospect. Rich and chocolatey with notes of black truffles and coffee with spicy dark fruits on the finish, the tannins were fully resolved, melting in to a savoury, attractive finish. This bottle was at a point of full maturity; a privilege and delicious to drink now but unlikely to improve further. Conversely, a magnum of 1969 was to my mind far more impressive, even if that view was not adopted by all. A soft, fading but aristocratic bouquet of pressed flowers, spice, camphor and citrus led in to a finer, charcoal-graphite laced palate, wired with a cool line of acidity and gentle fruits. To my mind, finer and fresher than the ’82. A youthful, high toned Chave 1988 was in the perfect drinking spot – offering up a magical combination of vitality with a fine tertiary complexity, while magnums of Chapoutier’s Le Pavillon 2007 were in typically brooding form, beginning to open up but more impressive for their richness and density of fruit than for any sparkling precision. They can be left to mature for longer in the cellar.

On this showing, we can say with confidence that Hermitage, at its best, is rightfully up there with France’s greatest wines. The wines can impress, both red and white, for their sheer depth, concentration and ageability. But truthfully, there still appears to sit a fault-line which exists independently of any terroir differences. Taken as a whole, across the ten or so producers on the night, the wines appear to divide in to either the reliably bold (and, yes, at times, beautiful) or, to a sadly much lesser extent, the fragrant and bewitching, which feel more in-tune with contemporary collectors. One does have to wonder if generally large-scale corporate ownership and co-operative dominance across the hill has suppressed the potential for genuinely diverse expression, and if a tendency to produce dense, impressive if not necessarily magical wines, has been compounded by a series of rich, powerful vintages that require time to divulge their subtleties. The fresher 2021 vintage should go some way to providing a bit more insight on that front.

Anecdotally, perhaps the perceived rise in cachet in both Cornas and St Joseph - historically appellations that were considered altogether largely rustic - has something to do with a more vivid and oak-shy style celebrated by the younger generation, in areas where land value is less, and opportunity is more. It will be fascinating to see over the coming decade whether or not Hermitage producers are happy to bank what they have, and of that there is much to be proud, or if they will be forced to adapt further in the pursuit of vitality. Will we see a few new kids on the block, wrestling back a few hectares here and there and interpretating the hill in new, exciting ways?

The wines could be quite something.

Mark Dearing