Hermitage: Hidden Dragon

A brief introduction to the wines of Hermitage…

Some of the most eminent winemaking villages of France also turn out to be the most beautiful. Tain l’Hermitage sadly isn’t one of them. Far from ugly, but fairly unremarkable, it crouches at the bottom of an imposing hill of granite that forces a bulge in the east bank of the Rhône. It’s located in the steep valley of the northern Rhône, before the river widens on its way to Avignon.

There are two compelling reasons to visit Tain l’Hermitage. One is to visit the Valrhona chocolate factory outlet. The other is to stock up on wine. Because the terraced south-facing slopes of this sacred hill produce the finest Syrah grapes in the world.

Tain may be a little plain, but the wines from the slopes above evoke a fantasy world. The reds smell of wood smoke, autumn leaves, fireworks and crispy bacon, all swirling amongst thick black fruits. After a couple of decades, the fruit steps aside, letting the other aromas in the glass combine to smell of dragon’s breath.

There are dry whites too that are equally regal. Oily layers of apricot and peach juice flow out of the glass, widening to create an estuary of flavour. Comparatively rare, they are made of the Marsanne grape, sometimes with a little Roussanne blended in. They also have complex flavours that develop over time; hints of peach, celery and rhubarb in youth, nuts and honey with age.

For such breathtaking wines, the prices are low compared to the other great wines of France. A bottle will still set you back the price of a pair of theatre tickets. A good one will contain just as much drama for you to share. Look for wines by M. Chapoutier, Paul Jaboulet Ainé and Marc Sorrel – but particularly those made by Jean-Louis Chave. For a more affordable introduction, try The Wine Society’s ‘Exhibition’ Hermitage 2006, or Tesco Finest* Hermitage 2007, both made by reliable growers and offer great value at around half the price of the top growers.

Though in the shadow of the hill, the region of Crozes-Hermitage just beyond uses the same grape varieties to create wines in a similar style which start from under £10 per bottle. Try Alain Graillot, David Reynaud, Gilles Robin or Jean-Luc Colombo for the best –  they might not transport you to Middle Earth, but can be excellent wines in their own right.

First published in Living France magazine.