The saddle-shaped hill of Hermitage which overlooks the might of the river Rhône at Tain-L'Hermitage marks the geological confluence of the Alps and the Massif Central and has been recognised as an outstanding enclave of viticulture since Roman times. Not only does it benefit from a south-facing location and impressive 344 metre elevation, each of its 19 lieux-dits or climats (totalling 137 hectares) benefits from its own distinct micro-climate and soil composition which impart different characteristics to the grapes that issue from them.
Acclaimed wine-maker Jean-Louis Chave has vine holdings in 11 different parcels spread over 9 different climats and is the conductor and custodian whose fastidious blending skills make them all resonate in haunting harmony. If a particular barrel of wine does not fit in to Jean-Louis' intricate assemblage it is discarded and sold on to a local négociant. Here it is all about the blend – to produce a wine that is complete, more than the sum of its parts, not an Hermitage but the Hermitage.
Although there is a tendency to immediately think of red wine when one talks of Hermitage, the appellation enjoys an equally long and illustrious history of producing complex and age-worthy white wines from the Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. Indeed, when Thomas Jefferson in 1787, described Hermitage as being "The first wine in the world without a single exception", he was referring to the white not the red. The Domaine Jean-Louis Chave blanc is made from a blend of 80% Marsanne and 20% Roussanne that are raised in barrel and vat for at least 12 months prior to blending and bottling. Typically it exhibits diverse aromas of acacia flowers, dried fruit and nuts supported by a complex palate of peaches, apricots and minerals underscored with glycerine. It is one of France's (ergo the world's) great gastronomic wines and classic accompaniments include Bresse chicken with a black truffle and foie gras sauce, veal with wild mushrooms and poached lobster served with a simple beurre blanc.
The red Chave Hermitage is made from pure Syrah from 7 different lieux-dits vinified and matured separately for 18 months before blending. It is surprisingly approachable just after bottling, with its youthful fruit to the fore, but soon its formidable tannic structure emerges and it really requires a minimum of 5 years bottle age before one can begin to appreciate its full spectrum of flavours. A core of black fruit emanating from the gravelly soil of 'Les Bessards' to the west of the hillside is at the heart of the red Chave Hermitage. It is offset with diverse flavours of game, leather, earth, minerals and spices on a powerful and persistent palate. It is an opulent wine but there is an understated elegance and finesse, restraint even, that sets it apart from most blockbusters. Accompanying food recommendations are numerous but Jean-Louis favours small game with a wine of (at least) 15 years bottle age.
Since 2001 the Chave family has also produced some négociant bottlings of Hermitage under their 'J-L Chave Sélection' label. These represent a wonderfully accessible introduction to both the appellation and their wine-making. The white, called 'La Blanche', has a bouquet of wild flowers and conference pears and a smoothly-textured orchard fruit palate. The red 'Farconnet' has a wealth of black berry and cherry scents and flavours supported by fine-grained tannins.
From his base in Brézème Julien Montagnon also produces some négociant bottlings under his 'Maison Lombard' label. We were delighted when he offered us a parcel of his red Hermitage which has dark hedgerow berry scents and a rich black fruit palate with peppery undertones and deftly integrated oak. Already approachable it will cellar well for a decade.