The Legendary Hill of Hermitage

  • By Jacky Blisson MW
  • 03 Nov 2020
  • 5 MIN
  • Level 101
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Hermitage - Credit : Courtesy of Inter-Rhône

Rising up from the town of Tain-l'Hermitage, on the eastern banks of the Rhône river, the majestic Hermitage hill is one of most revered appellations of the Northern Rhône.

History

Hermitage has a long and storied history. The first vineyards were planted by the Greeks in approximately 600 BC. The iconic chapel that sits at Hermitage’s summit was a priory worship space dedicated to Saint Christopher. The current edifice was constructed in 1864, on the site of an original chapel built in 1100, whose previous incarnation was that of a Roman temple to Hercules. 

In 1224, the Chevalier Gaspard de Stérimberg, a wounded knight returning from the Albigensian Crusade, gained royal permission to build a small dwelling near the chapel, where he lived for many years. Hermits continued to use the site until the 18th century. The hill was referred to as Saint Christopher’s Hill until the 17th century, when the area was renamed Hermitage as a homage to Stérimberg. Hermitage achieved appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) status in 1937.

Geography & Viticulture

Hermitage consists of 136 hectares of vineyards. The lower-lying areas feature gentle slopes with trellised vineyards. In the steeper, higher reaches, vines are individually staked on terraces. Yields are capped at a maximum of 45 hectolitres per hectare (hl/ha) for white wines, 40 hl/ha for red wines, and a mere 15 hl/ha for Vin de Paille. At its highest point, the Hermitage hill rises to 344 metres in altitude. 

The hill was once part of the Massif Central, a highland area of granitic and metamorphic rock located in south central France that was formed some three billion years ago. The hill was cut off from the rest of the massif by a change in the course of the Rhône river. This explains the predominantly granite soils of the western Hermitage slopes, covered with mica-schists and gneiss. Closer to the river, rounded alluvial pebbles become more prevalent. 

While most Northern Rhône vineyards are considered continental in climate, Hermitage, with its southern location sheltered from cooling northern winds, possesses more Mediterranean weather patterns. The hill’s southwestern exposure bathes the vineyards in abundant afternoon sunshine. 

Wine Grapes & Styles

Red wine accounts for 70% of Hermitage production. Syrah is the exclusive red grape variety planted. Native to France, Syrah is a spontaneous crossing of Mondeuse Blanche, a fairly neutral white cultivar from the Savoie region, and Dureza, a near-extinct, rustic red variety from the Ardèche. Syrah from Hermitage is often described as being full-bodied and structured, with muscular tannins, and earthy, red berry, and leather aromas.

White Hermitage is made from Marsanne and Roussanne, two native grapes of the Rhône Valley which, DNA profiling suggests, are related varieties. Marsanne is said to bring elegance, power, and balance to blends, along with subtle aromas of apricots, honey, and acacia. Roussanne is higher in acidity and more fragrant, with orchard and stone fruits, interlaced with spice, pepper, and nutty notes.

A minute quantity of highly sought-after Vin de Paille (straw wine) is also produced, exclusively from Marsanne. The grapes are air dried for two to three months and then fermented over many months to years. Vinification and ageing take place in oak barrels of varying sizes, for 24 – 36 months. Hermitage Vin de Paille wines are lusciously sweet (110 grams/litre or more), with enticing flavours of honey, candied fruits, caramel, and roasted nuts.

Blending

Hermitage has a long history of blending, across grape varieties and terroirs. Texts from the 18th century mention the common practice of adding small volumes of white grapes into Syrah wines. An addition of up to 15% Marsanne and/or Roussanne is still permitted in red Hermitage wines today, though few producers use more than 5% white grapes, if at all.

Hermitage possesses numerous climats (vineyard plots) reflecting its huge diversity of soil types and compositions. These differences are amply displayed by the wide fluctuations in soil pH from one site to another. While single vineyard bottlings do exist, the majority of Hermitage wines are blends of several different climats. Some producers believe that blending heightens complexity and improves balance, while others prefer showing the complexity and the typicity of each climat.

Top vintages of the past fifty years: 2017, 2016, 2015, 2012, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2003, 1999, 1990, 1989,1985, 1982, 1979, 1978, 1969

Hermitage - Credit : Courtesy of Inter-Rhône