This past fall, we visited the famed hill of Hermitage above the town of Tain l'Hermitage in the northern Rhône Valley.
Our final destination was M. Chapoutier, one of its most famous producers. The video below is the fourth in our French wine series, and gives you an idea of the unique terrain that is the appellation Hermitage. An intense finish to the 2019 harvest meant Michel Chapoutier was not available to interview, but as you might expect, everyone who works at Chapoutier knows the story, loves the story and can tell the story. Our host, Maxime Ramel, is as passionate as they come about wine and is an excellent example of the exacting standard required to work at Chapoutier. We tasted a wide range of wines over two days and report on that at the end of this post. We hope the video will inspire you to visit the northern Rhône Valley, and we can't think of a better place to start than at Tain l'Hermitage.
The Chapoutier family has been making wine in the Rhône Valley since 1808. In 1989, after some very spirited discussions about wine style, a young, and opinionated, Michel Chapoutier bought the family business from his grandfather. He took the company in a new but old direction - namely back to the land. In Michel Chapoutier, the Rhône has a fierce prophet and one who can not only explain the impossible-to-translate notion of terroir but live and breathe it into every one of his wines. His convictions were hardened in the United States, where he worked in the 1990s. Back then, Michel observed that no one in America was interested in site; it was all about varietal wine. It had to be shocking for someone from a culture where place is king.
It is fair to say his wines speak for themselves or should I say to the terroir and frankly, they reek of it.
When Michel speaks of terroir, he leads with his beloved Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) Hermitage, the spiritual home of Chapoutier. High above the town of Tain L'Hermitage, among the hallowed vineyards of the Northern Rhône the Hermitage AOC spreads across four very different soil types - each, incredibly, born in a different geological era including the Pre-Cambrian (600 to 3,300 years ago), Paleozoic Era (230 to 600 million years), Mesozoic Era (63-230millon years) and Cenozoic (recent times to 63 million years). It is the diversity of soils at Hermitage that fuels Chapoutier's desire to make wine that respects its origin.
For Michel, winegrowing is about "paying attention to each plot, listening to the world, the environment, anticipating the needs of the earth and it goes far beyond the famed 'Ermitage' labels they produce (That's Hermitage without the H, the original French spelling before the English bastardized it). The folks at Chapoutier take as much pride in crafting regional wines as they do their famed Sélections Parcellaires. Michel says, "with the same dedication given to the most prestigious bottles, investing just as much faith. The aim is always to convey the same love of wine, to give complete beginners a chance to discover its diversity."
The farming at Chapoutier is biodynamic. The philosophy is keeping an open mind and being consistent from vineyard to vineyard. It's a strategy that has spawned the Sélections Parcellaires labels. The small production wines made from distinct, low-yielding parcels of land express the essence of the Rhône's most prestigious appellations. Each plot tells its story, and each year that story changes ever so slightly, to reflect the growing season or climate. As logical as that sounds, few in today's wine world employ, or should I say connect, so strongly with the land.
Another Chapoutier tenet is "when you change the soil, you change wine style." From granite to sedimentary rock from fluvial to alluvial deposits, it is all part of the mystery of wine and in the case of the hill of Hermitage, it tells the story of the geology and the grape that makes it the long-lived birthplace of syrah. To give you a sense of how terroir can be a point of differentiation, consider the Rhône River. It flows north to south, yet by some quirk of nature through the ebb and flow of time, the river turns to run below the town of Tain L'Hermitage to run east to west. Thus the vineyards that cling perilously to the hillside are tilting to the south where they gather the life and warmth of the sun so necessary to ripen syrah.
Michel further separates his wines from the pack on a whole other level – how they taste with food. He is refreshingly concerned about food and wine, suggesting there is an increasing number of oenologists who aren't food lovers making big, powerful wines that are impossible to marry with food. In Michel's mind, gastronomy demands wines of texture and flavour, not a massive amount of fruit.Chapoutiers' restaurant Marius Bistro embodies this philosopy with dishes made from seasonal, organic and local ingredients. Diners can pair them with wines from a 1,000 bottle cellar featuring the great appellations of the Rhône Valley, the rest of France and some beyond its borders. The restaurant resides within the recently opened Fac & Spera Hotel & Spa, on the same street as the original tasting room, complementing Chapoutier's six lodgings located in their vineyards. It's just another step in the Chapoutier development. True to their Fac & Spera motto (Latin for Do & Hope), expect a new tasting facility and education center in the next few years. It's another example of the Chapoutier commitment to place.
French wine series:
Languedoc-Roussillon & Paul Mas
Main photo: Emma Rymes