The world-famous Hermitage appellation, which has long been considered the top wine region in the Rhône, has faced challenges in recent years from Côte-Rôtie's more modern, masculine wines, particularly the boutique cuvées of E. Guigal. However, the best Hermitages, with their silky elegance and diverse flavors of rich, layered fruit, are quite impressive. Hermitage also produces some of the best white wines in the world, which have been said to be even better than the reds by some critics.
Hermitage is a 345-acre contiguous vineyard, making it the smallest of the top three Rhône appellations (Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie, and Châteauneuf-du-Pape). The wines are very exclusive, even more so than those of Côte-Rôtie. Only about 60,000 cases of red wine are produced each year.
The only red grape allowed in the red wines is Syrah, which is often considered to reach its peak of expression in these wines, but Marsanne and Roussanne are permitted to be blended in the amount of 15% total. Together they also make up their own white wines, which are equally great. The white wines are more exclusive than the reds, but both are highly revered and also generally very pricey.
The rumors behind the name of this appellation indicate that the region was originally the location of a hermitage for a wounded knight in the Middle Ages. Later on, viticulture became popular in the area. In the 17th century the area began to receive recognition, and its wines were quickly considered the best in the Rhône. The appellation received AOC status in 1937. Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, Côte-Rôtie's wines began to improve, and in recent years the regions have come to be considered equal in stature. However, most classicist drinkers still prefer Hermitage because of its solid history, lower production, and the wines' more elegant, balanced flavors.
Climate and Viticulture
Located in a part of the Rhône with a continental climate, the Hermitage appellation has cold winters and hot summers, although in the summer the Rhône river provides a cooling influence. The vineyards are located on a southwest-facing slope right above the river, where they are exposed to sunlight for most of the day. The soil is mostly made up of high-quality granite, but there are some lower-quality gravelly soils in some of the inferior parts of the vineyard.
The primary grape here is Syrah, which makes up at least 85% of the red wines and is often used varietally. Many wine drinkers, especially those who prefer classical wines, consider great Hermitage the best expression of Syrah in the world. The main competitors are the great Côte-Rôties and some top Australian wines, all of which produce more modern, aggressive wine than Hermitage does. The best Hermitages are rich and broad when young but also lush and smooth, with distinctly vibrant flavors of red berry fruit, cherry, and spice, and intense florality and minerality. Massive concentration and richness contrast here with smoothness and sweetness, as well as a silky texture. As for aging, the wines are very versatile, able to be served after a year or 40 years with equal quality, though very different flavors. As a result of Hermitage's success, Syrah is known as Hermitage in many parts of the world.
Marsanne and Roussanne, in addition to being blended with Syrah, also make their own white wines here. And unlike some great red wine appellations where limited amounts of white are an afterthought, in Hermitage the whites have incredibly complex flavors of dried fruit, tobacco, and herbs, and are amazingly rich and honeyed yet not even slightly sweet. The whites are often classified as among the best in the world, comparable to great Burgundy Chardonnay and Sauternes. Experts recommend at least 10 years' aging, and the best of these wines can last 30 years.
Hermitage is probably the most reliable appellation in the Rhône in terms of quality; almost no bad or even average wines are made. The result of this is that all Hermitage is expensive. We list six of the best of the best producers, whose wines tend to be considered world-class by the preponderance of critics.
- Maison Chapoutier: Chapoutier makes many wines here, all of which are terrific, but we only opt to discuss a few here. Their world-class white wines include the rich, smoky L'Ermite and the exotically spicy, round Le Méal. The red L'Ermite is this producer's best wine, with explosively vibrant yet subtle red fruit flavors, herbal elements, and wild floral scents. Other red cuvées are not too far behind: the precise, subtly perfumed Les Greffieux, the intense but sweet Le Méal, and the fruity-spicy Le Pavillon.
- Domaine Jean-Louis Chave: There is little doubt that Chave's wines are the best of Hermitage, and they compete with Guigal's Côte-Rôties and Beaucastel's Châteauneuf-du-Papes for the title of best in the Rhône. The main wine here is labeled "Hermitage" with no subregion, costs $200-$400, and has flavors of amazingly precise red and dark berry fruit, strong florality and minerality, and an impressive combination of richness and roundness. Somehow, the Cathiard cuvée version, which is produced only in the best years, manages to surpass it every time, with much more power and concentration. At almost four times the price it is the most expensive wine in the Rhône. A runner-up is the amazingly complex white wine, which with its combination of honeyed, rich fruit flavors and subtle, layered herbal scents, is one of the best white wines in the world. Though these wines are indubitably great, all must be aged for at least 20 years for the flavors to become truly appreciable.
- Delas Frères: Delas' Hermitage Les Bessards is a tip-top cuvée with flamboyant, perfumed flavors of red fruit and minerals. The flavors of the wine are vibrant, but the texture is thick, and aging is recommended. The Marquise de la Tourette is much richer but also needs aging to soften.
- Paul Jaboulet Aine: Jaboulet is a producer whose wines' quality is on the rise, especially in Hermitage. The white Chevalier de Steinberg Blanc is full of vibrant, honeyed yellow fruit flavors and floral nuances, while the red La Chapelle is a lively, violety expression of Syrah that combines richness with powerful perfume for an almost liqueur-like aftertaste.
- E. Guigal: Guigal's basic Hermitage is certainly good, with fresh fruit flavors, a silky texture, and good richness, as is the concentrated, smoky, exotically flavored Hermitage Blanc. However, the truly great cuvées are labeled Ex-Voto, with the white an amazingly complex expression of herbal scents, yellow fruit flavors, minerality, and stunning richness, and the red a gamy, chocolaty, Bordeaux-like pot of medicinal concentration. These great wines need to be aged several decades.
- Domaine Marc Sorrel: The fresh, earthy Hermitage and ripe, spicy Hermitage Blanc from this producer are good. But Sorrel's best wines are the deep, nutty, herbally flavored white wine Les Rocoules Blanc and the deep, concentrated, chocolaty, earthy Le Greal. One of the heaviest expressions of Hermitage made today, the Greal is strongly recommended to be aged for 10 years or more.
Hermitage has six official subregions, which are technically vineyard divisions. Some producers use these, though the greatest producer of Hermitage, Jean-Louis Chave, ignores them.
- Les Bessards: This western section of the vineyard is known for Delas Frères's cuvée of the same name.
- La Chapelle: Paul Jaboulet produces a well-known wine here.
- Les Greffieux: Maison Chapoutier makes one of their best cuvées here.
- L'Hermite: Rendered as L'Ermite on the label of Maison Chapoutier's phenomenal cuvée, this spot is located on top of a mountain.
- Le Méal: Chapoutier makes both a red and a white wine from this division of the vineyard.
- Murets: An eastern portion of the vineyard.