I must have been 22, perhaps 23, when I went on my first wine tasting. Amongst the wines presented there was this Saint-Joseph. Will never forget the smell and taste of raw meat and smoked sausages. Not to mention it felt like I’d bit my tongue. My entrance to Rhône…
Yup, you guessed it; Rhône wasn’t the reason for my wine passion to explode. That epithet belongs to Bordeaux. But when I today have a love and hate affair with the Gironde region, that blood tasting Saint-Joseph somehow couldn’t really be pushed away, out of my mind. The wines simply fascinated and has continued to for almost twenty years by now. Many Northern Rhône Valley wines has the ‘je ne sais quoi’ feeling written all over them and I seem unable to get enough of it.
I still remember the first premium Rhône I picked up; a bottle of Jaboulet’s 1990 Hermitage La Chapelle in the mid-1990s. The price was roughly 30 euros. Quite a lot for a student but I just had to taste the wine I’d read so much about. The La Chapelle was spectacular. Way too young but I probably had my first major Rhône wine experience. Even an amateur like myself realized this was the good stuff. Shortly after I had a 1983 Monier de la Sizeranne; my first taste of an evolved Hermitage. Fascinating stuff and quite different from the older Bordeaux wines I’d had. Then it took a while before I was poured a wine of the 1990 La Chapelle class. Guess it was worth the wait; the 1994 Le Pavillon Ermitage from Chapoutier. Took me by storm. Perhaps I was blinded by the fact that some of the vines were dating back more than 100 years? Anyway, who cares? It was fantastic.
Real life awaited. The safe walls of the university were no longer and I gave the wine business a shot. Copenhagen and Kjaer-Sommerfeldt for two years completely formed my wine passion and if I’m to blame anyone for turning me in to a francophile it’s the Danes. Thanks guys! The fact we were the agency for Chapoutier resulted in many a great tastings and of course the producer became my reference point for fine Hermitage. Then I had Chave a couple of times. Perspectives were added. Preferences updated. However, leaving the wine trade was a boost to my wine passion. Profit thinking did its best to tear it apart. The wish to check out the Hermitage hill remained though.
A Syrah lover’s pilgrimage
How funny life can be sometimes. From a sudden and not planned at all I was standing at the hill one freezing day in March 2013. Having spent the other day in Avignon where temperatures indicated spring, I totally blew it in Tain l’Hermitage, dressing the way only a naive Scandinavian is able to. 5 C and a spring jacket didn’t stop me from walking up the Hermitage though. The hill, divided in three parts, has the Bessards to the west. In the central part the cultivations are divided in to Méal, the upper part, and Greffieux, the lower part. To the east one will find Murets and Dionniers.
If you start at the lower parts, the Greffieux, it quickly becomes obvious this isn’t where the greatest wines emanate from. The erosion on the hill has provided the part with more fertile soil. Still, many Syrah producers around the world would kill for the terroir at Greffieux. Taste Chapoutier’s Les Greffieux and you will understand. The higher part differs significantly with meager soil; more limestone and silica, all covered by a pebbly surface. Méal is facing south meaning it’s the most sun-drenched part of the hill. This is where you kneel and worship the vines.
In the west the soil is more granitic. Lots of alluvial stones on the surface. Schist and gneiss below. This is the Bessards part and here Syrah reigns. Many are surprised to find out that almost a third of the Hermitage actually is white grapes, Roussanne and Marsanne, and that the producers may blend 15% of the grapes into their red Hermitage. But the white grapes doesn’t fancy the Bessards soil structure, they are to be located mainly in the east part of Hermitage, at Murets and Dionniers. More clay in the soil.
Standing in the lower parts of Hermitage you can more or less see the whole thing. It’s both quite small and impressive at the same time. 136 hectares of cultivated land results in roughly 700 000 bottles a year. Not all is great. Greed always finds its way in when there’s a name to feed on. But if compared to a site like Clos de Vougeot in Bourgogne, a true minefield, a Hermitage purchase will seldomly reward you with a dunce cap.
I’m on my own but while walking the narrow roads finding its way between the vines, I’m bumping in to the vineyard workers that collects and fires off dead branches. We nod and exhange bon jours. It’s a tough job, to work the steep parts of the hill and I’m not envious, having tried it myself. These guys are the unsung heroes of the wine world. Sadly many of them ends up with bad knees.
Although it’s cold, there’s something special about visiting just before it all kickstarts again. The vines and soil becomes so evident. Naked. But even the most enthusiastic Syrah lover knows when to end the pilgrimage and head back for the Découvertes tasting; when you simply can’t hold the camera anymore.
Thanks Hermitage; you’re amazing!