Syrah in Hermitage versus Healdsburg
Opera buffs have Bayreuth, Monet followers have Giverny, and Syrah lovers have the Northern Rhône! In late July of this year, we went to the "Mecca" of Syrah and stayed in Tain L'Hermitage to revel in the wines, the vineyards, and the fabulous food. Lise reminisced about her first trip to the region more than 25 years ago, when her love affair with Syrah was sparked by a Chapoutier Hermitage. During our 2011 trip, our appreciation for Syrah deepened as we discovered many similarities with our vineyard and winery in Healdsburg, and of course, many differences.
The Syrah grape is indigenous to France, and it's likely that the Rhône Valley (or very close by) is its birthplace. Wine has been produced there since at least the time of Christ. Today, Hermitage is the most famous appellation in the northern Rhône although its neighbors Côte Rôtie, St. Joseph, and Condrieu also produce excellent wines. What Hermitage has that its neighbors don't is a very distinctive hill, rising precipitously almost 1000 feet over the Rhône River. The south-facing slope of this hill soaks up the sunshine, producing Syrahs with a power and finesse that is truly remarkable.
The main Hermitage hill has very different soils on its east and west ends. The west has thin soils of granite and schist (coming from the Massif Central mountain range to the west), while the east has deeper soils of rolled stones mixed with limestone and clay (glacial deposits from the Alps to the east). The west side, whose best site is Les Bessards, yields finesse wines high in tannin with smokey bacon, blackberry, and gunflint flavors. The east side, whose best sites are Le Méal and L'Hermite, yields powerful wines with raspberry, jam, and warm flavors—more like Chateauneuf-de-Pape wines to the south. At Montemaggiore, our soils and wines are much more similar to those of the west side of the Hermitage hill.
Grapevines in Hermitage look very different from ours in Healdsburg. Individual vines are trained not along a trellis, but on a single pole with the canes tied together on top—a shape reminiscent of a wine goblet, thus called gobelet in French. The fruit is positioned very low, around six inches off the ground, in order to capture the heat retained by the stones, and to be closer to the roots (which supposedly yields more flavor). The Hermitage hillside is quite steep like ours, and is mostly cultivated by hand. You won't find irrigation lines, as most of their rain comes during the growing season. When we visited in late July, the grapes had already turned purple, whereas ours in Healdsburg would take another month to do so.
From a winemaking perspective, we were surprised at the similarity between Hermitage and Healdsburg. Although winemaking techniques vary widely within any region, Lise makes wine using methods very similar to that in the Northern Rhône. In fact, a visit to the Jaboulet winery revealed that we had the exact same crush equipment! We vinify the wines for the same length of time, at similar temperatures. We use the same coopers, and the same percentage of new French oak to age the wines. From a winemaking perspective, there are few secrets between Hermitage and Healdsburg.
If you love Syrah, or if you want to introduce someone to Syrah's beauty, a trip to France is in order. In his bible of the region "The Wines of the Northern Rhône", John Livingstone-Learmonth says "If ever in your life you want to take your friend, your lover, your child, or your favourite person to see a vineyard that converts them to the pleasure of wine, then please go to Tain l'Hermitage." An added benefit is that Tain l'Hermitage also happens to be the home of Valrhona, one of the finest chocolate producers in the world!
More photos from our trip to the northern Rhône can be found on Facebook