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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.