The Northern Rhone Disrobed: Tasting Hermitage at Michel Chapoutier

The Northern Rhone cannot be pinned in place. Its best wines are looms to a kindred thread, each weaving an ethereal and intellectual expression from the great common material of the north: Syrah. If there is a heart to the labyrinth of the Northern Rhone, then it is Hermitage. With a diminutive chapelle skulking nameless at the peak of Hermitage hill, it is the slopes and crevices of the land and the vines that struggle to exist on them that is the power and the glory of Northern Rhone Syrah. Or perhaps Hermitage is the minotaur, a mythical and muscular power that is hard to discover but unmistakably awe-striking when found.

Walking in the Veins of the North

We have lost touch with time. We focus always on the youthful, the exuberant, the immediate, the striking. Mountains more than molehills. We ship our old into homes to hide away, sequestered from society. We like easy answers, not enigmas. As much as we have lost touch with time, we fail to perceive the ancient.

Hermitage is an ancient hill. Many years ago, the Rhone river used to run past on the opposite side of the hill. As time past and geology shifted, the river changed course and carved out the western portion of the hill, which is technically a part of the Massif Central mountain range. The eastern half of the hill, on the other hand, holds ancient deposits from Alpine glacial movements.

Now a famous hill, it might seem unperceptive to call Hermitage ignored or unseen. But for all the attention given to this place, not enough has been focused on its mystery. The popular image of Hermitage as “masculine” syrah, full of power and force, is a simplification.

Hermitage is power, yes, but it is power shameless and threadbare. The rows of vines, like wisened veins, trudge over the ancient landscape transforming its latent energy into small grapes that produce flavours unlike anywhere else in the world. This wine is not masculine or feminine, it is ancient.

It is often explained that Hermitage refers to a place where the hermit St. Christopher lived after returning from the Crusades. An interesting fact, perhaps, but more an insight into what Hermitage can be. The mythology of hermits is strong in many cultures – they are prophets and pariahs, enigmatic but also often holding great power; sometimes living in humility and shame, but more often beings that have forsaken society rather than the opposite.

Hermitage is also a pariah. It is the most individualistic wine in the Northern Rhone and one of the most individualistic in the world. To call it masculine is like calling the Pyramids of Giza “grand”. The adjective withers in the face of the noun it purports to understand.

On Tour With Chapoutier

I walked through the Chapoutier vineyards admiring the granite alluvial soils and the complex undulation of aspects that makes wines from adjacent vineyards taste and feel like warring families rather than loving siblings. That is, until the juices are blended together to produce, through harmony, a deep complexity. Vineyards more beautiful and far more dramatic sit across the river in St. Joseph – but the soils under that striking image are far younger and the aspects and exposures less precise and nuanced. Granite soils are porous to water and less fertile than the clay soils more predominant in St. Joseph. The wines have to fight harder to survive, but also have to keep hold with shallower roots.

Planted land since Roman times, Tain itself was a wine town in the empire. This has led to much conjecture on the origin of Syrah, the great grape of the northern Rhone. However, relatively new evidence now suggests that the now iconic Syrah did not travel from distant lands such as Persia to reach the Rhone, but rather was a cultivar of an indigenous grape, discovered and tamed in the post-Roman period.

The western slopes of le Meal see far more sun and produce far louder wines than, for example, Les Greffieux. Further to the east, the vineyards turn from granite to limestone and iron and from Syrah to Marsanne and Roussane, the base of the much underappreciated Hermitage Blanc. The Mistral winds allow Chapoutier to practice biodynamics with less fear of rot, though rotting grapes were still quite noticeable in the vineyards of his neighbours.

Demand for Hermitage has a similar story to the rest of the Northern Rhone. No one purchased these wines in the 1950’s, even though they had a far greater reputation in the past when they were blended with Bordeaux to give those wines colour and fruit. Eventually, the reputation returned in the 1980’s and developed ever since. Chapoutier has been important in that realm, though I feel that his new wines have moved away from some of the most important nuances of the hill to deliver more vibrancy and fruit.

Wines of the Future Rather Than the Past

Why is Hermitage the heart of the Northern Rhone Labyrinth? Because it is the most ancient and the most enigmatic despite its great power. It is also at the crossroads of north and south, possessing the great qualities of both “warm” and “cool” climates in a near paradoxical amalgam. It is not unlike truly great Barolo, its great intellectual rival. Though where Barolo is hard and angular, Hermitage is fleshy muscle – both are prophetic and clearly of the ancient rather than modern world.

I tasted through Chapoutier’s entire range of Rhone wines, including two Hermitage rouge and one blanc. He makes far more Hermitage wines than this, with many highly priced single vineyard offerings. The quality was strong across the board, but, again, I found these wines too modern and too focused on the future rather than the past. Compared to the red Hermitages of Bernard Faurie and Marc Sorrel and the whites of producers like Colombier and Phillipe and Vincent Jaboulet, Chapoutier fails to deliver the sort of intrigue I expect from Hermitage. The wines are, of course, consistently delicious, but they fall short of profound.

St. Peray 2010 (blanc): Minerally orchard fruit with a solid level of expressivity. Sees malo in barrel. A good fresh easy drinking wine. 13% ABV. Very Good. €10.50

St. Joseph Deschants Blanc 2010: More body than the peray, and good for food. This is 100% Marsanne and a good though not exciting white. Very Good. 13.5% ABV.

Condrieu Invitare 2009: Typical rich orchard fruit driven Viognier made well, but again, not exciting. 30% new wood. Very Good+ to Excellent. €37.

Chante-Alouette Hermitage Blanc 2007: Honey and candied lemon on the nose. This sees 40% wood fermentation and is made with 100% Marsanne. The palate is quite viscous and holds low-ish acid. While not quite as bright and expressive as I’d like to see, it’s a solid wine. It is simply beat out by other producers, though. Very Good+. €39.

St. Joseph Deschants Rouge 2009: Classic. Pepper and game, but gobs of fruit over top. The minerality in the finish keeps this interesting, but it is basic St. Joseph done well. I’m not a St. Joseph Syrah lover myself, as I find the terroir just can’t match the best of the Rhone. Nonetheless there are a few producers doing great things, such as Villard. I do not feel Chapoutier is amongst that crowd, though I would not refuse a glass of this. Very Good+. €15.50

Cornas Les Arenes 2009: A big rich style, but keeping Syrah’s super aromatics. A bigger jammy style as you’d expect from Cornas. This is very tight right now and needs time. Very Good. €30

Cote-Rotie Les Becasses 2007: 100% Syrah. The aromatics are good but not great. I expect a lot of pretty flowers and light berries on the nose of a great Cote-Rotie, and this is offering nothing too much beyond the minimum. The mineral finish is nice, though. Not worth the money. Very Good to Very Good+. €42

Hermitage Sizeranne 2007: Deep brambly fruit, this is not what I expect for Hermitage. Yes, the price is low and reasonable, but there are better wines coming from producers that don’t keep their best fruit for stratospherically priced upper echelon wines. Very Good+ to Excellent. ~€50

Ermitage le Pavillon 2001: Here we go. This is what Chapoutier is all about. Explosively aromatic, expressive, powerful fruit and brightness on the palate. A profoundly mineral driven mid-palate means this wine is not all obvious power. It also has an ethereal quality, both ferral and old. Stone, Flesh and Hide. Modernist, but beautiful. 14%ABV Excellent+. €147.

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