23 June 2016 To accompany today's tasting article devoted to some of the best wines produced by a new group of a dozen leading French wine co-ops, we are republishing the article below which is substantially about another exceptional example, the Cave de Tain.
28 February 2015 This is a longer version of an article published by the Financial Times.
When André Jullien famously surveyed the world's vineyards in the early 19th century he was in no doubt about which were the three finest: Château Lafite in Bordeaux, Romanée-Conti in Burgundy and the hill of Hermitage in the northern Rhône. But today, while young vintages of the first two sell for between one and several thousand pounds a bottle, a young Hermitage rarely commands more than £100 a bottle.
One of the most frequent laments I hear from wine producers during my annual visits in the northern Rhône is how difficult it is to sell Hermitage. This is particularly strange since Hermitage is the acknowledged birthplace of the Syrah grape, currently one of the most fashionable all over the world.
The two most celebrated Syrah-based wines in the northern Rhône are Hermitage, which appends its name to the town of Tain, and Côte Rôtie, grown on steep terraces above the town of Ampuis 45 minutes' drive north of Tain.
Côte Rôtie was traditionally lighter and fresher than the solid mass of Hermitage, but the dominant producer Guigal revitalised Côte Rôtie commercially in the 1980s by launching, and drip feeding on to the market, three special, super-concentrated bottlings known as the La-Las, La Landonne, La Mouline and La Turque. Nowadays Côte Rôtie is much more dynamic so that there are now dozens of producers in the appellation, many of them relatively young and cosmopolitan, and many making wines more in the traditional ethereal mould.
By contrast the Hermitage appellation is dominated by a handful of large producers. About half of the (unextendable) 136-ha (336-acre) appellation is shared between the house of Chapoutier and the local co-op, the Cave de Tain. A further third is in the hands of Paul Jaboulet Aîné and Delas and the most famous family-owned grower-producer J L Chave. Fortunately all these producers are hugely focused on quality.
Chapoutier's Hermitage (or Ermitage, as they call it) vineyards have been biodynamic for many years now and the quality of both their red and white wines is admirably dramatic. (White Hermitage, made from Marsanne and Roussanne grapes, was at one time even more admired than the red and is still one of the long-lived wonders of the wine world, constituting a fifth of all Hermitage production.) The view from the headquarters of the Cave de Tain at the foot of the Hermitage hill is the paddock for the Chapoutier horses that are essential to their biodynamic vineyard work.
The Cave de Tain is one of France's best-run wine co-operatives. Unlike so many caves co-opératives in the Languedoc-Roussillon, the Cave de Tain has a particularly clear vision, a grasp of its potential markets, and has recently invested €10 million in very fancy new winemaking hardware. Thirty-five new fermentation vats in fashionable concrete mean that from the challenging 2014 vintage they are now able to differentiate much more precisely between different parcels and qualities of grapes from the total one thousand hectares of local vines they or their 300 members own, constituting about a third of the entire wine production of the northern Rhône. They make everything from own-label wines for UK supermarkets to their top bottling of Hermitage named after the cellar's founder Gambert de Loche and the sweet rarity Vin de Paille. They sell about 15% of their wine in bulk to other bottlers.
When I mentioned, rather tentatively, to Daniel Brissot, who was born on the hill of Hermitage and has managed the Cave de Tain's vineyards for the last 32 years, the difficulties of selling his signature wine, I expected him to react rather defensively. But he agreed immediately. 'There are too few growers. There was a time when the links between different producers were much better. But the Cave continues to lose members rather than gain them. The problem is that the vineyard land prices are so high, about a million euros a hectare, and out of sync with the price of the wine, much higher than in more dynamic Côte Rôtie, so there are real problems with succession.' French inheritance taxes continue to blight the country's vine holdings.
Most of the farmers who deliver their grapes to the Cave de Tain grow other crops too, typically apricots and cherries. The timetable is different from that of the vine, so that they can usefully employ workers full time.
When I started to write about wine nearly 40 years ago there was one wine that everyone I knew in wine dreamt about, Hermitage La Chapelle 1961 from Paul Jaboulet Aîné. Although it is now a rarity, such bottles as I have been lucky enough to taste were easily the measure of the best red bordeaux made in the legendary 1961 vintage. 'Jab' was then iconic and the charismatic Gérard Jaboulet one of the best-known figures on the international wine circuit. He died suddenly in 1997 and the family never quite capitalised on their early lead.
They sold in 2006 to the Frey family, who also own Château La Lagune in Bordeaux and have recently taken a stake in the Château de Corton André estate in Burgundy. Under the direction of Caroline Frey they are doing their utmost to restore the house to its former glory, opening inter alia a bistro and retail showcase in the middle of Tain l'Hermitage to supplement their modern cellars in La Roche de Glun to the south, but it is taking time.
Delas is making better and better wine, but the standard-bearers for the moment are just two: Chapoutier and Chave, the latter now run by Jean-Louis Chave, who has been expanding, building new cellars in the little town of Mauves across the Rhône from Tain for his négociant business. And Chave, yet to release his 2013s, is the opposite of noisy.
Most producers of Hermitage would agree that, after a long period of stasis or even decline, the most exciting appellation in their part of the northern Rhône is St-Joseph. Land prices here are a more affordable €120,000 a hectare on average, about the same as in the Crozes-Hermitage appellation that sprawls behind the hill of Hermitage on less propitious, flatter land that can easily be mechanised and is therefore more profitable. The Cave de Tain makes half of all Crozes too.
Perhaps Hermitage needs an image consultant? There is nothing wrong with the wine.
SOME GREAT 2013 HERMITAGES
Many wines with great potential were produced from the cool 2013 growing season and the overall quality of Hermitage has never been better. An increasing number of single-vineyard wines are bottled.
Chapoutier, Ermitage Blanc de l'Orée and L'Ermite
Delas, Dom des Tourettes
Fayolle Fils et Fille, Les Dionnières
Ferraton, Le Miaux and Le Reverdy
Philippe et Vincent Jaboulet
Vins de Vienne, La Bachole
Chapoutier, Ermitage Le Méal, L'Ermite and Le Pavillon
J L Chave
Delas, Dom des Tourettes and Les Bessards
Fayolle Fils et Fille, Les Dionnières
Ferraton, Les Dionnières
Guigal, Ex Voto
Maison Nicolas Perrin
For our wider coverage of the unusual Rhône 2013 vintage, soon to be expanded after further tastings in London, see Rhône 2013 – a guide.