Producer: Paul Jaboulet Aine
Country Hierarchy: Rhone, France
Food Suggestion: Lamb
Wine Style: Red – Bold and Structured
Alcohol Content: 13 – 14%
Awards: Le Guide Hachette des Vins, 2009: 3 Stars Coup de coeur
Hermitage, the rich Syrah-based red from the northern Rhone Valley, is one of France’s most enduringly prestigious wines. It sits on the very top rung of Rhone Valley wines, which it shares only with those from the Cote Rotie (30 miles/45km to the north), and Chateauneuf-du-Pape (70 miles/110km to the south). Its white counterpart – Hermitage Blanc – is no less revered, and accounts for about one third of the appellation’s annual production.
The prestige of Hermitage (sometimes Ermitage) wine can be clearly traced back to the 17th Century, when it was an official wine in the French courts of King Louis XIII and his successor Louis XIV, the ‘Sun King’. Not just the monarchs’ preferred wine, it was also used as a gift for visiting dignitaries and foreign royalty. It was no less respected across the English Channel, as confirmed by Thomas Shadwell’s comedy of 1680, ‘The Woman-Captain’. In the play’s opening scene, the wealthy Sir Humphrey and his friend Bellamy cite ‘Champaign and Burgundy…and Hermitage’ wines as superior to those of ‘Langoon and Burdeaux’ which they deem suitable only for ‘porters and carriers’. Sir Humphrey later boasts ‘I do confess I am an epicurean’. The wine’s high status remained untouched for a full two centuries after this. It peaked in the mid-19th century, just as the famous wines of Bordeaux’s Medoc were beginning their rise to stardom.
The Iconic Hermitage Chapel © Christophe Grilhé
Before the name ‘Hermitage’ was granted international legal protection, it was used by wineries in various regions around the world, valued for its connotations of high quality. A high-profile example is Australia’s famous ‘Penfolds Bin 95 Grange’, which was labeled as ‘Grange Hermitage’ right up until 1989.
Both red and white Hermitage wines are long-lived and full-bodied. The red wines, which may be aged for 30 years or more, are produced exclusively from Syrah and are known for their rich aromas of leather, coffee and red berries. The less-famous whites, which may be cellared for about 15 years, have aromas of honeysuckle, tropical fruit and earthy minerals. They are made predominantly from Marsanne, with limited use of Roussanne.
Hermitage also produces ‘vins de paille’ – sweet white wines made from Marsanne and Roussanne grapes that have been dried out in the sun on straw mats (paille means ‘straw’ in French). These wines are expensive because of the labor-intensive processes required to create them, but they are also rich, full flavored and very long-lived. Produced only in warmer years, Hermitage vins de paille are strictly forbidden to undergo chaptalization at any time.
The whole of the granite hillside where the Hermitage vineyards are planted faces south, meaning that the grapes benefit from the maximum amount of sunlight throughout the day. The topsoil here is relatively thin compared to that of the valley floor and is made up of a wide variety of types – ranging from sandy gravel in the west, to rockier areas higher up and limestone in the center. As intense Rhone sunshine warms the hillside during the day, the granite bedrock stores this heat, encouraging the grapes to ripen more fully than those in less-exposed sites. The effect of the local terroir is most pronounced on the western side of the hill; it is steeper than the east and enjoys prolonged exposure to afternoon sunshine.
Syrah is a dark-skinned red wine grape. Its origins have been popularly debated, but its modern viticultural home is unquestionably the northern Rhône Valley of eastern France. In Australia, Syrah has developed such a distinct personality that it is essentiallly regarded as a distinct variety, is overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) known as Shiraz, and is regarded as the flagship national grape.
Syrah has proved successful around the world; wines are produced in many styles and display myriad dark-fruit flavors. Varietal Syrah can be quite floral in its youth, developing white and black pepper aromas and herbaceous notes as it ages. Some examples show tanned leather and smoky scents, while the fruit in these wines tends towards the very dark flavors of blackcurrant and licorice.
Syrah is also an extremely useful blending grape due to its deep color and typically high tannins. In the southern Rhône it is common for Syrah to be blended with any combination of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsaut, among others.
Some of the world’s most famous Syrah wines are the peppery, earthy reds of the northern Rhône, specifically of the Côte-Rôtie, Hermitage, Cornas and Saint-Josephappellations. While Hermitage has been held in high regard for many centuries, the “roasted slopes” of Côte-Rôtie have emerged as a leading source of Syrah only towards the end of the 20th Century. In Côte-Rôtie, up to 20 percent Viognier can be co-fermented with the red grapes to lift aromas and stabilize color; Syrah-Viognier blends are now made in many other regions.
One of Syrah’s most valued assets is its ability to produce wines capable of aging and improving over many decades. The most valued appellation in this regard is the hill of Hermitage; its name is so respected that for many years it was used as a synonym for Syrah in Australia. A well-built Hermitage requires 10 years or more to relax into its plummy, spicy fullness, and will reward cellaring for a further decade at least.
Several hundred miles up the Rhône Valley from Hermitage, near the river’s origins at the Rhône Glacier, Syrah has found a happy home in the Valais, in warm, sheltered sloping vineyards where it can produce remarkably full, complex wines. A further 700 kilometers (450 miles) east, the grape variety enjoys the climate of eastern Austria’s Burgenland, moderated by the waters of Lake Neusiedl.
Across the Atlantic Ocean Syrah has a cult following in the western United States, in California, Washington and Oregon. While it has not seen the runaway success enjoyed by Cabernet Sauvignon or Zinfandel, nor the feverish worship of Pinot Noir, a dedicated band of American winemakers has been devotedly working with Syrah since the 1970s. Known as the Rhône Rangers, these men and women have proven that the variety can produce complex, rich wines in all three of the above states.
Further south, Syrah has been proving itself in both Chile and Argentina for at least 20 years, and is finding its own style on either side of the Andean peaks. It has also achieved success in New Zealand, and in South Africa.
Synonyms include: Shiraz, Hermitage.
Food matches for Syrah include:
- Cassoulet (hearty stew of confit duck and pork sausage)
- Pork spare ribs with barbecue sauce
- Rosemary-crusted lamb tenderloin with red wine jus
(sources : wine-searcher)