From Glory to Maybe: Is Hermitage Still Relevant?
There is a bias in wine that singular expression derives from locating the most discrete source of the highest quality. The obsession with single vineyard bottlings is dominant in the fine wine world, and often these wines do offer the most interesting voices from a particular region. This focus obscures that some of the world’s greatest wines are blends: Sherry, Champagne, Tawny Port. It also obscures that blending is an art unto itself that can say something different from one vineyard or one vintage.
The odd truth about two of the Northern Rhone’s greatest regions is that their greatness lies in blending rather than single vineyards. Both Cornas and Hermitage are best served by the deft hand of masters who allow each vineyard to find its voice only in relation to others. It is the chorus and not the soloist that has the most dramatic and compelling music to sing in these regions.
The Blended Road to Greatness – Red Hermitage
The hill of Hermitage may be sub-divided into west and east. Western vineyard such as Bessards and Le Meal are planted predominantly on granite soils. The eastern vineyards such as Les Murets or La Croix lie on glacial soils, which is essential stones mixed with clay. Of course it is the western flank the bears all the fame, hosting the greatest wines. And yet, none of the apex wines are single vineyard bottlings. Producers such as Jaboulet (which is now returning to form after a decade of mismanagement), Chave and Sorrel make wines from multiple vineyards. Unfortunately the likes of Chapoutier set Hermitage down a path that is pushing it further and further towards irrelevance: single vineyards, high oak use, modern. There is nothing compelling about such wines and yet they have become the dominant model.
Each vineyard has important characteristics necessary for top wines: for example, the tannins of Les Bessards, the density and warmth of Le Meal, and the acidity and spice of L’Hermite. According to Gerard Chave, who blends seven climats into his Hermitage Rouge, it is simply not possible to make a top long-ageing Hermitage without certain vineyards, such as Bessards. The entire hill is situated around the northerly limit of Syrah ripening but its aspect protects the grapes from cooler northerly winds. Nonetheless careful selection and blending help make the most complete wines.
This does not mean that there is only one blend possible in Hermitage. Rather, there are multiple possible blends with different styles such as Chave’s monumental rouge or Sorrels perfectly traditional Le Greal – a blend of Greffieux and Le Meal. The limitation is that a single vineyard cannot offer the full spectrum of the Syrah grape, cannot make a complete wine, or show the true depth of the Hermitage hill on its own. As the traditionalists dwindle, the relevance of Hermitage in the conversation of the world’s greatest wines wanes.
Can Glycerol be Great? – White Hermitage
When speaking of Hermitage, its world-class white wine rarely gets mentioned. For one, very little is made (less than 20% of total production). It is also decidedly not a white wine on trend right now. It is not an acid-driven wine. It is not about freshness or bright fruit. Rather, white Hermitage is about glycerol and power. They have unique secondary non-fruit flavours and amazingly supple and waxy texture. The ageability of white Hermitage derives from alcohol and glycerin rather than acidity. It does not fit within the standard repertoire for white wine pairing, but demands creativity and outside the box thinking. It elides its true purpose as a food-focused white wine because most do not understand how to work with glycerol as a base for pairing rather than acidity. But that does not stop white Hermitage from being one of the world’s great whites that, when made well, can age for decades.
The best whites are predominantly Marsanne, with a smaller percentage of Roussanne. Chave, for instance, uses 85% Marsanne and 15% Roussanne, the latter of which he says adds complexity to the final blend while not capable of itself producing greatness. The claim for these wines is that they are massive and powerful in youth but completely dumb and uninteresting in middle-age. It is only after they pass through this ‘dumb’ phase that they become the true masterpieces they claim to be. I have personally experienced this in a tasting with Bob Lidquist of Qupe, where he poured young, middle aged and old Marsanne and Roussanne. It was astonishing how the 20+ year old whites regained freshness as compared to the awkward and often flabby middle-aged bottles.
But, as with the reds, there are only a handful of truly great whites that are exciting and age-worthy. They tend to come from the same producers as the best reds, as well as from the few up and coming small producers such as Philippe Jaboulet and Colombier. These producers avoid batonnage and age in older oak for 12-18 months.
The proof of white Hermitage’s divisiveness was on display at a recent dinner I attended, where we tasted two bottles of the top white of the appellation from JL Chave (2004 and 1999). Some, myself included, saw the greatness of the 1999 in particular, and its unique food-pairing qualities with east and south asian foods. Others claimed the wines lacked true character and excitement on the finish. Some complained the lack of acidity made drinking the wines very difficult for them.
My perspective is that these are undoubtedly great wines, but that they challenge preferences. The 1999 Chave Blanc for instance offered marmalade, hazelnut, slight oxidative qualities, and a ton of glycerol thick richness on the palate. It also had serious staying power and freshened up the next day. These are wines that need food to reach that next level, but they are also wines that some will find utterly compelling while turning others away. They also need patience. The 2004, for example, was clearly in a more awkward phase of its development compared to the open-knit 1999. It was more opulent and more tropical, but less complex and layered. Thus, while it is not easy to find one in its ideal state, when you do these are great wines. This explains why white Hermitage is perhaps the most divisive and least understood great whites in the world.
The reds, when from top traditionalist blending producers, can reach considerable heights. For consistency it is hard to go beyond the top two: Sorrel and Chave. At the same recent dinner, I tasted two different bottles of Jaboulet La Chapelle from 1997, with one completely fallen apart and the other a middling example of Syrah. It is unfortunate that the once great Jaboulet blend fell from grace in the 1990’s to the mid 2000’s. Recent bottlings are reportedly back on form. A 1985 Ferraton was also thin and disappointing.
The standout was the Marc Sorrel 1998 Le Greal, a wine of game, florals, and flesh. A couple years ago I also tasted the 2001 Le Greal, a monumental, near perfect Hermitage, richly black fruited but elegant. These wines are emblematic of great Hermitage, meaning finesse and flesh rather than size. They are complete, with fruit, spice, tannic structure, elegance, warmth, approachability and the ability to age for a very long time. They also include 5% Marsanne, which adds suppleness according to Sorrel. The great misconception is that Hermitage is a big and powerful wine. It should not be.
We come full circle to the title of this article. Is Hermitage still relevant? I think it is, though it is at risk of becoming irrelevant as producers move towards the Chapoutier modern style and as the only wines that represent its greatness are very expensive, nearly impossible to find, or both. Great Hermitage is now a rarefied pleasure, accessible only to the obsessive tenacious collector who sources the great traditional bottlings and cellars them for the appropriate amount of time. But there is no doubt that if you put this effort in, you will participate in one of the greatest wine experiences in the world, equal in my opinion to top Burgundy, Nebbiolo, or Bordeaux.
JL Chave Hermitage Blanc 1999: Excellent to Excellent+
JL Chave Hermitage Blanc 2004: Very Good+
Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1997 (Wildman and Sons, NYC importer): Good+
Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1997 (Julienne Importing, Chicago importer): Very Good+
Marc Sorrel Hermitage Le Greal 1998: Excellent
Ferraton Hermitage “La Cuvee des Miaux” 1985: Fair to Good