How is red Burgundy 2015 faring?

2015 was a vintage marked with warm weather in Burgundy resulting in wines with a lot of fruit, and good concentration. Upon release I heard some saying it was somewhere in between 2009 and 2010 in terms of style. Tasting a number of them young I found them rather ripe for my taste, preferring the 2014s, having more tension. We’re four years down the line now, so I was curious to see how the 2015s had evolved since then and if they had some of their “baby fat”. Still too early to open the more prestigious appellations, so I decided to open a few bottles that should be up for business by now.

The first wine is Dureuil-Janthial’s Rully “En Guesnes”. I visited Vincent Dureuil in 2017 and I didn’t find him at a good  moment. There had been problems in the vineyards due to bad weather and he had been up all night. As you can imagine, he was not very talkative… Luckily his wines did the talking for him. Dureuil-Janthial is especially known for his white wines, but I find him equally impressive for the pinot noirs. And La Revue des Vins de France seems to agree about the overall quality of his wines, as he was recently chosen Winemaker of the Year in France.

His basic Rully is a wine that gives enormous drinking pleasure, with plenty of ripe red fruit, and great balance. The “En Guesnes” is clearly a step up : the nose is simply enticing!

The bottle needed half an hour or so to settle down, but once it did it was enchanting, with ripe cherries, and even forest fruit. This wine definitely had meat on the bone, good concentration, and had a very smooth, velvety mouthfeel. I’m hesitant to say this, but the character of this wine actually reminded me of certain Vosnes! There was also an interesting touch of curry spice, that gave it a very individual personality. I was especially looking out for the acidity in these 2015s,  and I’m glad to say that the balance of this “En Guesnes” was just right with good acidity to counter the ripe fruit. Ripe and smooth tannins gave the backbone, and the long finish made for a great wine! No hurry to drink this, but already so enjoyable.

During the same long weekend in Burgundy I also visited Alain Gras, perhaps not such a big name as Dureuil-Janthial, but still considered to be one of the top producers in Saint-Romain. It was, however, the Auxey-Duresses Très Vieilles Vignes that drew my attention there.

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Upon opening it gave a somewhat austere impression, but half an hour later the aromas were almost literally jumping out of the glass, with ripe red fruit, noble cedar wood, and a hint of rubber. Very expressive! Again perfectly balanced, no heaviness, instead offering tremendous drinking pleasure. A very cheerful wine, more abundant than Dureuil-Janthial’s. I found it to be best after chilling it for about 20 minutes.

The last of my little red Burgundy 2015 series was the regional Burgundy of Robert Sirugue, based in Vosne. His Petits-Monts 1er Cru is still in my top 5 of red Burgundies I ever had, a very memorable wine. The regional Burgundy 2013 then again was disappointing, very meagre, so I was curious how the 2015 would turn out (unfortunately I forgot to take a picture of this one). Not chilled it was not enjoyable! Cherries on alcohol was all that came through. After half an hour in the fridge the wine gave a better impression, with also some nice ripe raspberries. This wine was considerably lighter than the other two, obviously being a wine for fast(er) consumption. As soon as the wine’s temperature went up again, the heat started coming through again. This is a bit what I feared for 2015, and as could be expected, it was the wine with the lesser pedigree that had suffered most. With the vineyards for such regional wines often being in the plains of Burgundy, where the loamy soil is very heavy, it should not come as a surprise that hot vintages leave their marks on the wines coming from here.

But all in all, I was very happy with what I found. Just as some of the initially very ripe 2009s are now beginning to show more elegance, the 2015s might evolve the same way, and already now the balance seems to be better in the 2015s than it was in the early days of the 2009s. So I think the future is looking bright!

Rethinking Wine Enthusiast’s No 1 wine

In one of his NY Times wine columns, Eric Asimov makes a case for rethinking wine criticism. He sees the retirement of Robert Parker as an opportunity for wine critics to quit producing “dreary scores and tasting notes”. He argues that one of the core goals of any good wine writer should be to give consumers the tools to educate themselves. “The most valuable thing wine writers can do is to help consumers develop confidence enough to think for themselves. This can best be achieved by helping consumers gain enough knowledge to make their own buying decisions without the crutch of the bottle review.”

This article convinced me to write an article I was already brooding on for a while, but of which I wasn’t sure it was a good idea to write it. I’m talking about my experience with the number 1 wine of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 100 of 2018. If you haven’t seen that list yet, just try and imagine which kind of wine you would expect on the number one spot. I assume many will think of a top Bordeaux or Burgundy, a Barolo perhaps, or a Californian cabernet? Plenty of options, but I’m sure you didn’t think of a Barbera, did you? Yes, Wine Enthusiast’s Wine of the Year is a Barbera, or to be more accurate a Nizza, a former sub-zone of Barbera d’Asti which became a DOCG in its own right a few years ago. The Cipressi 2015 of Michele Chiarlo received 95 points and was described as follows :

“Elegantly structured, delicious and loaded with personality, this benchmark Nizza offers earthy aromas of truffle, leather, game, pressed violet and ripe black-skinned fruit. The aromas carry over to the savory palate, along with star anise, black cherry, mature plum and crushed mint. It’s balanced by polished tannins and fresh acidity.” 

This wine happens to be available in a supermarket here, and I had drunk the 2014 of the Cipressi a while ago. I recommended it even in a blog post I wrote about Barbera. Not knowing that the 2015 had meanwhile been ranked No 1 by Wine Enthusiast, I ordered a bottle to taste this new vintage. When the bottle came out the box, it was impossible to ignore the big label on the bottle that showed that the wine was voted No 1 by Wine Enthusiast. I was very surprised to see it, and for a moment I even thought it might refer to a best buy ranking. But no, it tops the general list with wines that Wine Enthusiast calls : “the best of the best”.

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How about that?! I bought “the best of the best” for around 15€. Hard to believe, isn’t it?But I am a firm believer that wines do not have to be expensive to be really good, so it was not without certain expectations that I popped the bottle. This is my tasting note (a lot less elaborate than Wine Enthuasiast’s) :

Attractive nose, dark cherries, cedar wood and a touch of barnyard. On the palate it’s pretty straight forward, fruit driven and supported by the typical barbera acidity.

I was disappointed. I’m not sure what I expected, but anything that is chosen as the wine of 2018, should have more complexity, depth, length, something out of the ordinary, something that makes you silent and conclude that life is good…

It was obvious that this wine was not in that league.

Surprising? Well, it shouldn’t be. This is what I wrote about a year go : “Barbera’s ripe but juicy black cherries, its freshness and virtual absence of tannins make barbera worth investigating. On top of that, barberas are normally not too expensive and can be enjoyed while young.”

And here’s a description by Ian D’Agata, author of Italy’s wine grapes, of how barbera wines should be: “bright, fresh, vinous, loaded with brambly fruit…”.

If you look at the Cipressi like that, it’s actually a good example of what a barbera should be. Loaded with fruit, fresh, attractive. Above average even. And definitely a good value. The kind of wine that I would normally enjoy. If… I approached it as barbera. What happened here was that I let myself be led by a ranking that created unrealistic expectations, instead of relying on what I know about barbera.

Or as Asimov puts it : “By subjecting seemingly every bottle to evaluation, year in and year out, these reviews convey the sense that the quality of a wine is random. With nothing else to go on but these reviews, consumers are not liberated by knowledge; instead they are bound to reviewers, dependent on the direction of the critical thumb.”

Funny detail : Wine Enthusiast’s website also shows user reviews. This is how one user described the same wine :

Smooth finish, great bouquet, excellent value. A great wine to go with a wide variety of food for the everyday table.”

 He nailed it…

 

 

 

New Etna Rosso finds

It’s about two years ago now (time flies!) that I took a closer look at Etna Rosso and recommended a few wines I liked. As I like to explore new things, I haven’t had Etna Rosso for a while, but recently I felt like going back to these intriguing wines. What I already mentioned in my previous post about Etna Rosso is confirmed in the wines I had this time as well : there is not one profile for Etna Rosso. Terroir and vintage are usually elements that are given to explain the differences, but my impression is that the style of the winery is just as important.

Here are three Etna Rossos I can wholeheartedly recommend :

ER 2014, Etna Rosso, Theresa Eccher

2014 is considered a difficult year for Italy, but things turned out relatively well for Sicily. Decanter’s Michael Garner describes the Etna Rossos of this vintage as balanced and perfumed, delicious to drink young. Theresa Eccher’s ER is very light in color. There is already some evolution here, the red fruit no longer being the freshly cut fruit that was probably there a couple of years ago. A hint of coffee, cedar, and a fresh, leafy herbaceousness give this wine an elegant and fresh profile. This is a very light type of Etna Rosso, for sure not one that is built to last. If the comparison with Burgundy is one that you often hear for Etna Rosso, then it is certainly applicable for this one. If you have this vintage, drink up, it’s in a nice spot now, and will not get better.

Nero Nibali 2015, Etna Rosso, Vino Nibali

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Very aromatic, the ripe red fruit comes floating out of the glass. There is a spiciness that reminds me of curry powder, and a hint of barnyard that adds to the complexity of the wine. A touch of noble cedar wood makes it complete. At this stage the wine is still very much fruit driven, but there is a structure behind it all that the ER of Theresa Eccher did not have. The tannins are ripe and give a bit of bite, which I like. Despite that, the global feeling I have here is one of satin softness. The savoury spiciness sets this wine very much apart from Theresa Eccher’s Etna Rosso. Beautiful!

Archineri 2012, Etna Rosso, Pietradolce

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Very ripe nose, with dried fruit, plum, spices, cigar. Very luscious wine, with also a hint of black chocolate in the background, kept sufficiently fresh by a good acidic backbone. The ripe/fresh contrast is quite big, but it works out well, the two keeping each other nicely in balance. If I didn’t know what this was, I might have guessed this was a Brunello… 2012 was a very hot vintage, so this could explain the very ripe fruit here. I am curious to try other vintages of this wine. Being able to deliver a wine in balance in such a hot vintage clearly proves craftmanship!

Conclusion :

Three different styles but three lovely wines. It was nice to reconnect with these volcanic wines and to see that the quality of these randomly bought bottles was very good . The focus on Etna wines these days does not only reflect a hype, but also the fact that this is simply a region that produces great wines.

Affordable pinot noir from Burgundy : a case of sour grapes?

In my previous post I told you about the tastings of pinot noir I organised a few years ago for my final dissertation to become a sommelier. I wanted to find out if it’s possible to find decent pinot noir under 15€. You already read that New Zealand pinot noir was doing very well in those tastings. But how did Burgundy fare? More than half of about 40 pinot noirs we then tasted were Burgundies.

I will not beat about the bush : exactly one Burgundy was considered to be good by the tasting panel. Not a great result… Some might argue that it is impossible to find good Burgundy under 15€, and if I were to re-do the exercize now, I would probably set the cut-off point at 20€ considering the sometimes crazy price increases in Burgundy.

What struck me the most was the very low quality of some of these bottles. It is actually very rare that I find a wine outright bad, even generic supermarket wines under 5€. They can be uninteresting, bland, lacking character,… But so sour, or harsh, that it is actually difficult to finish your glass, let alone the bottle, is something that hardly ever happens. And yet, amongst those entry-level Burgundies, there were more than a few of those. A useful reminder that Burgundy does not only produce some of the world’s greatest, but also wines you just want to pour down the drain…

Fortunately, the one Burgundy that was good, was also really good. In total I did three tastings and in every one there was always one or two wines that cost around 30€, so double the price of the other wines, just to make sure that everyone in the panel remained attentive and rated the wines on their real quality and not just based on the fact that these were mere “budget wines”. The Burgundy that scored really well, was actually thought to be the more expensive wine, with someone even suggesting it could be a 1er Cru… Well, it was definitely not a 1er Cru, not even a village wine, but the Burgundy 2012 of François Legros, a wine maker based in Nuits-Saint-Georges. It had a complex nose, well-integrated wood, good structure and length, probably helped by the vintage, which generally produced wines with more body, structure and potential to age.

Since this was the only Burgundy to perform so well in this price category, I decided to keep buying this wine. For the occasion of this post I opened the three vintages that I still have : 2013, 2014, and 2015.

Burgundy 2013

 

The brick rim shows obvious evolution in the color. Mainly red fruit in the nose. The toast aromas that were more prominent a couple of years ago are now completely integrated. This wine is undoubtedly the slimmest of the three, reflecting the vintage’s freshness and accessible style. Not so much margin left here though, so drink up.

Burgundy 2014

 

The evolution also starts to show here. The nose is a bit shy upon opening. There is fresh red fruit and a nice cedar wood touch. This wine was packed with fruit when I drank it about a year ago, which is much less the case now. I read somewhere that some 2014s might be in a closed phase right now. Or is the fruit already fading away? I kept some for the day after and the wine was more open and refined on day 2, so not at the end of its life yet. A beautiful example of the vintage again, with good acidity and tart red fruit being the drivers of this wine.

Burgundy 2015

 

The color is somewhat darker, more concentration in the core. The fruit is riper and tending more toward cherries. The profile is generally much rounder and riper. I actually had to cool it down a bit, as the acidity that normally plays the role of balancing the wine was here more on the background. On day two the wine showed a very different wine, boasting succulent raspberries and more freshness. It obviously still had to shed its baby fat. This wine has the greatest potential of the three and will really shine in a year or two. Very nice!

Even though I had drunk each of these wines before, it was very interesting to be able to compare them now. In general the quality stays at a good level, which is remarkable for Burgundies of around 15€. To be able to deliver consistently well-performing wines, also in challenging vintages such as 2013 and 2014, is a feat of winemaking so bravo to Mr Legros for that. And despite the price increases also for this wine, they remain modest (so far), and contribute to making decent Burgundy pinot noir accessible for wine lovers.

The 2015 sold out in my wine shop, so I hope to lay my hands on the 2016 soon. Probably my favorite Burgundy vintage of the last ten years, so very much looking forward to that!

Good and fairly priced pinot noir? Try New Zealand!

Pinot noir is one of my favorite grapes, and it probably is for many people. High demand for something is never good if you expect to get something cheap, but the problem with pinot noir is that THE reference region for the grape, Burgundy, is only about 30,000 hectares (roughly 74,000 acres). That is one tenth of Bordeaux, and not even 2,5% of the area under vine in California! And then pinot noir only represents 30% of the wine made in Burgundy… If people from all over the world want those wines, well you get the picture, don’t you? The prices of red Burgundy go up every year and quite dramatically so in the case of wines that have become the target of speculation.

When I did my dissertation for my sommelier course about five years ago, I chose  “quality of pinot noir under 15€” as my subject. I wanted to know if it was possible to find good pinot noir at a price that most people still find acceptable. Acceptable of course depends on a few things, such as where you are located. I’m located in Belgium, which means that transport costs are limited in comparison to the US or Asia. I’m not even sure if it is possible to find red Burgundy in the US under 17$? At the time I did my study I was still able to find quite a few here, but I’m sure that would be more difficult today. Another factor that plays a role in what you find acceptable is whether you are an occasional wine drinker (“do you have merlot?”), a more advanced wine-lover (“I prefer left-bank over right-bank Bordeaux”), or an outright wine freak (“I bought Les Petits Monts because that’s just above Richebourg!”). Market research regularly shows that the first category on average spends 3-4€ on a bottle of wine. You can’t even find a 37,5cl bottle of Burgundy for that price. The wine freak is not a good reference either, because once the Burgundy fever got hold of you, you find 30€ for a village Gevrey a bargain. So perspective is really everything here.

So what did my study came up with? Out of more than 40 wines tasted (more than half of which were Burgundies) only one (!) red Burgundy was approved by the tasting panel. Ouch… Luckily there were alternatives. The New-Zealand pinot noirs punched above their weight, or should I say price. Not one performed really bad, which some Burgundies did, and most were genuinely liked by the panel. Brancott Estate’s pinot noir was then one of the top performing wines out of the whole series.

The reason why I come back to this study now is because I recently drank Vidal’s Pinot Noir Reserve 2017, which reminded me of how good New Zealand pinot noir can be.

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It has loads of freshly cut red fruit, a bit of laurel, and great freshness. What I like most here is that there’s no obvious wood aromas, despite the fact that it spent 11 months in French barriques. Not that I mind thoughtful use of wood in pinot noir, but one critical note I could make on some of these budget New Zealand pinot noirs is that they tend to have a similar profile, not in the least because of the use of wood that kind of defines them. Vidal’s pinot noir does not have that, it’s all vibrant fruit here. It’s frivolous in a way, and reminds me of a good domaine’s basic Burgundy. This is a fun wine to drink, and yet it gives you that distinct pinot noir feeling that Burgundy lovers look for. The great thing is that I bought this wine for 12€. That’s what I call a bargain!

 

Sangiovese : how well does it stand the test of time?

I had the luck to participate in a tasting of old Sangioveses. Not having a proper cellar to keep wines for decades myself, I was very happy to be given this chance. And if that wasn’t enough, there was also a Sassicaia 1991 thrown into the deal! But more about that later.

Honestly, I wasn’t convinced of the ageing potential of Sangiovese… I have a difficult relationship with this grape. I have had very good experiences, but also less good ones. I like Sangiovese when the fruit is not cooked or too jammy, and when the alcohol levels are under control. But in recent vintages, alcohol levels of 14,5% or even 15% were more often the rule than the exception.  The fruit of those wines tends to evolve to dried fruit, and unless there’s good supporting acidity underneath that, such wines can be rather heady.

So when the opportunity came to taste a few really old Sangioveses, I knew I had to do this to finally know if these wines are worth cellaring for a couple of decades. When I say really old, they were indeed really old, the oldest bottle being a 1971… This was the line-up :

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  1. Isole e Olena 1983, Chianti Classico
  2. Brolio Riserva 1971, Chianti Classico, Barone Ricasoli
  3. La Casa 1979, Brunello di Montalcino, Tenuta Caparzo
  4. Il Poggione 1977, Brunello di Montalcino
  5. Tenuta Sant’Agnese 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  6. Avignonesi 1979, Vino Nobile di Montepulciano
  7. Sassicaia 1991, (at that time still) Vino da Tavola

A really exciting line-up, with a perfect spread over the three most important wine producing regions for Sangiovese! Already the fact that I was going to taste a few wines that had spent more time on this planet than I have, was something to look out for. And yet, at the same time, I was kind of preparing myself for wines that were dead on their feet.

Isole e Olena 1983

The first wine was already immediately a surprise, because it appeared much younger than I had expected. Black cherry, plum, chocolate, tobacco, leather, a touch of cedar wood. Beautiful nose! The mouth feel was surprisingly fresh, and the wine even had some tannins still. Based on the nose I perhaps expected a wine with a bit more body, but still, this Chianti was alive and kicking. Good start! When I came back to this wine a bit later it was evolving to aromas of black tea, which I found less attractive, so no long airing needed here.

Brolio Riserva 1971

Twelve years further back in time, and that was immediately obvious, the color having evolved to copper/amber. It took a while for the aromas to show as there was a bit of dustiness that had to be whirled out the glass. After a couple of minutes we finally got some dried fruit, chocolate, dried spices, and even raisins. The wine was relatively thin, although not completely dead. Still a bit of dried fruit and chocolate, but it was clear that the best years of this Brolio were long gone.

La Casa 1979

Still ruby red with a brick colored rim signalling the evolution. Great nose! Dried fruit, floral tones, cedar wood, chocolate, plum, nutmeg, and a touch of animality. Very complex. The wine is very intense and deep, fresh as well, and still displays ripe red fruit. The balance here is remarkable. This wine is now perfect. Amazing after 40 years…

Il Poggione 1977

Clearly evolved color. The aromas come timidly out of the glass. Still some red fruit, spices, a touch of iron. It opens up a bit more after a while in the glass. After the impressive La Casa this wine appears a bit thinner, but it’s especially the tannins that draw the attention here, being a bit rough even after more than 40 years in the bottle. The balance is not completely right.

Sant’Agnese 1979

Transparent and evolved in color. Not very expressive, the fruit is ripe or dried even. There’s something dusty here as well. A touch of cedar and pine tree. In comparison to the previous wines, this Vino Nobile is a bit warmer, riper, and the acidity is lower than in the previous wines. Still noticeable tannines here. Good effort, but I personally prefer the elegance and freshness of the Brunellos.

Avignonesi 1979

Remarkably dark color in comparison with the previous wines. Quite a different nose also : black cherry, rubber, dried fruit, liquorice, coffee. Again a warmer impression in this Vino Nobile and again slightly drying tannins. The wine did evolve nicely in the glass, however, opening up beautifully with aromas of tobacco and more cedar wood. 40 years old and still margin. Hard to believe.

Before I move on to the Sassicaia : what’s my conclusion after these 6 Sangioveses? Well it’s clear that Sangiovese is worth tucking away in your cellar for a long, long time. Apart from the Brolio, all the wines were still in a good shape, which was much more than I had hoped for before the tasting. But not only were they not dead, most still displayed beautiful fruit aromas, noble cedar wood, and above all freshness. The Vino Nobiles were a bit warmer, but the Brunellos and the Isole e Olena were very fresh, even salivating wines, a characteristic I don’t often find in todays Sangioveses. That things have changed in Tuscany since the 1970s was probably the most obvious in the alcohol levels : all wines had between 12,5% and 13,5%. Difficult to imagine that nowadays…

If you were wondering about the Sassicaia, I will not beat about the bush : it was corked! What a bummer… But still, there are a couple of things worth mentioning for Sassicaia fans. 1991 was the vintage that received a 81 score in Wine Spectator, not a glorious score for  one of the world’s most famous wines. It is described as a wine that was thinner than other vintages. On top of that, Monica Larner, the Italian reviewer for The Wine Advocate, wrote this in April 2017 :

The 1991 Sassicaia has reached the end of the line. It shows overly oxidized aromas of dried meat, old leather and dried fig. This was a hot vintage and the bottom has dropped out on any residual fruit or fiber. The mouthfeel is tight, gritty and there’s a sudden note of bitterness on the finish. The effect is flat and void of any significant dimension. However, you do feel the vintage heat.

So I had no high hopes for this Sassicaia. When I discovered it had cork taint, I was even more disappointed of course. But I could still tell that this was not a wine that had “reached the end of the line”, quite the contrary actually, I could still discern loads of fresh fruit. Despite the off aromas there was still a glimpse of an elegant and vibrant wine, making the disappointment that it was corked even bigger. So if you’re lucky enough to have Sassicaia 1991 in your cellar, no reason to rush! Then why did Monica Larner say it was at the end of the line? Could it have been a badly stored bottle? Or was there bottle variation? It’s interesting to read the reviews on Cellartracker : some are really raving, while others mention oxidation. I wished there was a second bottle to put to the test, but alas…

To sweeten the pill our host came up with a replacement bottle for the Sassicaia : the Col d’Orcia 1991, Brunello di Montalcino. A good deal younger than the other Sangioveses we tasted earlier on, but still 28 years old! The difference in age was noticeable quite well : still loads of fruit, blueberry, rosemary, tobacco, leather, cedar. Great nose. The tannins were still present but in general the balance was good. Great length as well! Very enjoyable now, but still so many things going on that it can easily hold up for at least another decade!

And that was the end of a great evening. La Casa of Tenuta Caparzo was my personal favorite, but it was definitely not the only oldie with a good performance. This tasting illustrated very aptly how good aged Sangiovese can be. Anyone up for a follow-up tasting in 40 years?

 

A walk on the Hermitage

Theoretical knowledge is one thing, practical knowledge another. During my sommelier studies we had to learn a lot of facts by heart. You learn about production zones, allowed grapes, vinification methods, and of course you taste a lot of wines. But driving around in a region, walking in the vineyards, seeing the grapes is still so much more enriching. When I was in the northern Rhône last summer, I decided I wanted to drive from south to north, just to have a feel of all the appellations. When you see the northern Rhône on a map, you think vineyards in Saint-Joseph for example have an eastern exposure. Having seen the vineyards, and even having camped underneath one, I can assure you that things are much more complex. There are quite a few small rivers there that connect to the Rhône and that have vineyards on their slopes, meaning the vineyards do no face east, but south or south-east! I also saw how small Condrieu is, and how unbelievably steep the Côte Rôtie is. No wonder these wines are so expensive.

So having driven all along the northern Rhône, it’s only logical that I also wanted to see the Hermitage, that sleeping giant on the “wrong” side of the river. Hermitage is probably the most prestigious appellation in the northern Rhône, and unfortunately there is also not much wine being produced. The reason for this is that the surface for production cannot become bigger, the vineyards being limited to the Hermitage hill. There are 136 hectares that can be used for Hermitage, all the other zones on the left bank, mainly in the back of the hill, belonging to Crozes-Hermitage, with a production area of 1,633 hectares, just to give you an idea. In 2015 the total production was 5,340 hectolitres.

The first thing that struck me when I saw the Hermitage, was the perfect exposure. Again, if you look at the map, you might think that the Hermitage faces west or south-west, as it lies along the Rhône, which runs from north to south. In fact, the Rhône takes a couple of sharp turns just before the Hermitage, and the hill itself faces south. Immediately after, the Rhône takes its normal course again.

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This picture is taken from the Hermitage. Here you can see how the Rhône starts taking its turn. The vineyards in the back are Crozes-Hermitage.

In fact, when I talk about “the” hill, that’s not entirely correct. The Hermitage is not simply one hill, one bump with an even surface, like the Corton hill in Burgundy. It’s actually a very long-stretched hill. In certain places there are parts of the hill that come more to the fore, while in other places there are tiny brooklets that divide the hill.

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The Hermitage seen from below

As you can see very well in the picture above, the hill is very complex with different exposures, some better than others. Some parts of the slopes do not face south, but rather south east or south west and will be in the shadow in the morning or in the evening. A second thing that is very visible on this picture is the difference in height. In certain parts of the Hermitage the hill is so steep that terraces are needed to keep the soil from sliding down in case of heavy rains. In the front behind the wall, however, these are also Hermitage vineyards, and they are completely flat.

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Another example of the different exposures of the vineyards on the Hermitage.

To add to the complexity, the soils are also very different, both from west to east, as from high to low. I’m not a geologist, so at the risk of oversimplifying things, I will explain how I understand the geology.

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This picture is not taken in the vineyards, but in the nature reserve just next to the Hermitage. Here you can see the granite rocks and how they decompose in smaller pebbles and ultimately in sand.

The mother rock is granite. The west part of the Hermitage is where the granite is most dominant. This is where the lieu-dit Les Bessards is situated. This vineyard is considered to be among the best for syrah. It’s here that Chapoutier’s L’Ermite comes from and where the famous chapel, owned by Paul Jaboulet, lies.

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In the middle (from west to east) you will find the lieu-dit Le Méal, another prestigious site for red Hermitage. Ferraton’s Le Méal 2004 was an experience that will stay with me forever. Very rich, but also very complex. Wonderful! Here the soil is mainly made of pebbles and loess, which is a sediment of dust that came with the wind. If you go to the bottom of the hill, however, you will find a much richer soil mainly made of clay, not considered to be the best sites of the Hermitage. And finally the part furthest to the east is less steep and is composed of what the French call “poudingue”, literally pudding! This refers to a conglomerate of galets, stones, that are kept together by calcareous sediment. In general, the eastern part is considered to be better suited for whites, about one quarter of the production. But when I was walking on the west part I also found quite a few vineyards with marsanne, the grape most often used for white Hermitage.

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A bunch of Marsanne grapes

As you will probably notice, the bunch Marsanne grapes you see above does not seem to be in the best shape. Well, that brings me to my last observation I made up there on the Hermitage. The hill is very complex, but that is not the only thing that explains the differences in style you might find when drinking Hermitage from different producers. The bunch of Marsanne you see above is from a vineyard belonging to Michel Chapoutier. As you may know, Chapoutier’s viticulture on the Hermitage is biodynamic. So no synthetic fertilizer or pesticides. The difference with the grapes I saw in the vineyards of Paul Jaboulet could not be bigger.

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A healthy looking bunch of syrah grapes in a vineyard of Paul Jaboulet

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Bunches of weathered syrah grapes of Michel Chapoutier

I don’t want to spark a debate about biodynamic vs traditional, but it just goes to show that many factors influence the character of the wine you ultimately get in your glass, and it’s not only terroir.

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Tired but happy with my walk on the Hermitage!