Hermitage, the rich Syrah-based red from the northern Rhone Valley, is one of France's most enduringly prestigious wines. It sits on the very top rung of Rhone Valley wines, which it shares only with those from the Cote Rotie (30 miles/45km to the north), and Chateauneuf-du-Pape (70 miles/110km to the south). Its white counterpart – Hermitage Blanc – is no less revered, and accounts for about one third of the appellation's annual production.
The prestige of Hermitage (sometimes Ermitage) wine can be clearly traced back to the 17th Century, when it was an official wine in the French courts of King Louis XIII and his successor Louis XIV, the 'Sun King'. Not just the monarchs' preferred wine, it was also used as a gift for visiting dignitaries and foreign royalty. It was no less respected across the English Channel, as confirmed by Thomas Shadwell's comedy of 1680, 'The Woman-Captain'. In the play's opening scene, the wealthy Sir Humphrey and his friend Bellamy cite 'Champaign and Burgundy...and Hermitage' wines as superior to those of 'Langoon and Burdeaux' which they deem suitable only for 'porters and carriers'. Sir Humphrey later boasts 'I do confess I am an epicurean'. The wine's high status remained untouched for a full two centuries after this. It peaked in the mid-19th century, just as the famous wines of Bordeaux's Medoc were beginning their rise to stardom.
© Christophe Grilhé
Before the name 'Hermitage' was granted international legal protection, it was used by wineries in various regions around the world, valued for its connotations of high quality. A high-profile example is Australia's famous 'Penfolds Bin 95 Grange', which was labeled as 'Grange Hermitage' right up until 1989.
Both red and white Hermitage wines are long-lived and full-bodied. The red wines, which may be aged for 30 years or more, are produced exclusively from Syrah and are known for their rich aromas of leather, coffee and red berries. The less-famous whites, which may be cellared for about 15 years, have aromas of honeysuckle, tropical fruit and earthy minerals. They are made predominantly from Marsanne, with limited use of Roussanne.
Hermitage also produces 'vins de paille' – sweet white wines made from Marsanne and Roussanne grapes that have been dried out in the sun on straw mats (paille means 'straw' in French). These wines are expensive because of the labor-intensive processes required to create them, but they are also rich, full flavored and very long-lived. Produced only in warmer years, Hermitage vins de paille are strictly forbidden to undergo chaptalization at any time.
The whole of the granite hillside where the Hermitage vineyards are planted faces south, meaning that the grapes benefit from the maximum amount of sunlight throughout the day. The topsoil here is relatively thin compared to that of the valley floor and is made up of a wide variety of types – ranging from sandy gravel in the west, to rockier areas higher up and limestone in the center. As intense Rhone sunshine warms the hillside during the day, the granite bedrock stores this heat, encouraging the grapes to ripen more fully than those in less-exposed sites. The effect of the local terroir is most pronounced on the western side of the hill; it is steeper than the east and enjoys prolonged exposure to afternoon sunshine.