Hermitage is one of the northern Rhône’s most exclusive appellations. JAMES LAWTHER MW tells the story behind the great wine and recommends the best of the 2001 vintage
The hill of Hermitage is a splendid sight, one which takes the breath away. A high-reaching island realm, it towers above the Rhône at a point where the mighty river meanders east, its folding slopes grey and austere in winter but uplifted by summer light and vegetation. Along its flanks, a stairway of terraced vineyards and dry-stone walls descend to the town of Tain below.
In terms of surface area, Hermitage is tiny – a mere 140ha (hectares) of predominantly Syrah grapes with about a quarter of the vineyard planted to the white Marsanne and Roussanne. From these varieties, sturdy, long-ageing wines are produced. The Syrah-built red is deep in colour, firm and intense with a panoply of spice and dark fruit flavour. The white, predominantly Marsanne, is fat with fruit and glycerol, the best showing a balancing freshness on the finish. Mature, the red resembles fine, old Bordeaux, while the white intensifies in aroma and flavour with notes of wax, apple and quince.
Hermitage has been recognised as one of France’s great wines for a considerable time. The origins of the vineyard are said to be Roman, the name derived from a hermit who, according to legend, cultivated the vine on the hill in the Middle Ages. By the 17th century, red and white Hermitage was being served in aristocratic circles around Europe, the white often more highly prized than the red, which was used for bolstering quality Bordeaux in the 18th and 19th centuries. Early 20th-century gloom and disinterest allowed the vineyards to lapse but the reputation of the wine was reborn in the late 1970s.
Cool Climate Syrah
Hermitage stands on the 45th parallel and is bound by a continental climate. In other words it’s on the northern limits for ripening Syrah. The appellation’s generally southern aspect is a critical factor, allowing grapes to mature to a certain level of sugar ripeness. Those with well-maintained vineyards who harvest late look for phenolic ripeness to curb herbaceous notes and a hard-edged feel to the wines. The balance, if anything, is more Médoc than Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
There’s a misconception that the hill of Hermitage is just one massive granite block. The western side of the hill is indeed granitic, linked at one time to the Massif Central. But in the centre and east, other soil patterns can be found. Each site is known locally as a climat and offers a varying nuance to the wine.
Written by James Lawther