By Erin Scala
Standing sentinel over the town of Tain-l’Hermitage, the hill of Hermitage rises up from a crook of the Rhone River. The wines of Hermitage have been on the radar of royal European courts for centuries, and their popularity dates back to Roman times. You’ll even find some vestiges of ancient Roman winemaking in the production of Vine de Paille, or ‘straw wine,’ a sweet wine made from dried grapes. You’ll also find Marsanne-Roussanne blends, and haunting Syrahs grown near a 13th century knight’s refuge, or hermitage, from where the region takes its name.
Hermitage faces some challenges: the land prices are high but the wines don’t sell for prices that directly correspond to land and labor costs. Because, from the business side, Hermitage wines don’t translate into easy money, here, you really find people who have poured their hearts and souls into the production of wines. And because Hermitage is tiny — just shy of 1.5 kilometers squared — you can really get to know the handful of key players who are continuing the long tradition of Hermitage winemaking.
In a way, the producers here are stewards of Syrah — this is likely the birth place of Syrah, after all, and its unique expressiveness on these hills is extraordinary. One of the interesting things you’ll find with most Hermitage is that people aren’t focusing on single vineyard wines. Most producers are trying to express the whole hillside and work hard to blend their vineyard holdings into a complex menagerie of the different qualities of syrah. This philosophic approach recalls all the other regions that use blending to their advantage, such as some Champagne producers, Bordeaux, and Jerez. But when talking about Hermitage blends, the blending is on an entire different level of intricacy, in particular with the reds, because the producers here talk of blending syrah from one location with syrah from another location just a stones throw away. And yet, this mentality of blending across small vineyards in a small proximity — this extreme attention to subtlety — is what gives the great Hermitage’s their uniqueness and character.
Keep listening to hear more from one producer whose family has continuously been in the wine business since the 1400s.
About Erin Scala: Originally from Virginia’s wine country, Erin Scala’s earliest memories of wine include picking and crushing grapes as a child. Scala moved to Manhattan in 2008 and had fun working at PUBLIC, a one-Michelin star restaurant in Nolita, and their adjacent bar, The Daily. She was inspired by the restaurant’s Australian and New Zealand-focused wine list, and in 2013, was honored by Wine Enthusiast in their “40 Under 40” feature for the depth of her selections from the region. After a stint at The Musket Room, Erin moved to Charlottesville, Virginia to run the wine program at Fleurie Restaurant and Petit Pois Bistro. When she’s not working on a Warm Up for the podcast, Scala is off in search of a vineyard, drumming, or writing her blog www.Thinking-Drinking.com. You can also follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
Images of Hermitage courtesy of Dreamstime