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2013 Hermitage Blanc, Chante Alouette, Maison Chapoutier
Chapoutier now produces the most diverse and complex wines to be found in the northern Rhône. Since Michel Chapoutier took control of this long-established firm in 1988, quality has soared.
All the vineyards are now run on biodynamic principles and now all the grapes in Hermitage and Châteauneuf du Pape are totally destemmed prior to fermentation. Previously, Chapoutier wines were criticised for the length of time they spent in old wood - Michel Chapoutier has thrown out the old chestnut foudres and now the wines spend a maximum of 18 months in small oak casks, up to a third of which are new. Chapoutier’s wines are bottled unfined and unfiltered to help preserve their character.
Crucial to Michel Chapoutier's philosophy is the production of "téte de cuvées", which include La Mordorée made from 60 year old vines on the Côte Blonde and Hermitage La Pavillon from 70 year old vines at the base of Les Bessards. Michel Chapoutier first produced Hermitage Vin de Paille in 1990 and it is by far the finest sweet wine produced in the Rhône Valley.
The Chapoutier Sélections Parcellaires are some of the most celebrated and rare wines in the entire Rhône Valley, their precisely delineated provenance providing the ultimate celebration of the concept of terroir, most importantly the terroir of the Hill of Hermitage. These single vineyard Hermitage wines are identified by the ancient name of ‘Ermitage’.
In the north, the white wines of Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage, St-Joseph, and St-Péray are produced from blends of Marsanne and Roussanne. Generally Marsanne is the dominant partner and it lends colour, body and weight to the blend, as well as richly scented fruit. Roussanne, a notoriously low yielder and pernickety to grow, produces intensely aromatic wines which contribute bouquet, delicacy and finesse to the blend.
Until about 15 years ago there was very little interest in southern Rhône whites as it was widely believed that the combination of dull non aromatic grapes and the baking summer heat meant quality wine production was nigh impossible. Since then the quality has improved markedly through the introduction of cool fermentation techniques and increased plantings of northern Rhône white grapes.
The base of many blends is still Grenache Blanc, a widely planted variety producing fresh wines with apple-like fruits, often with hints of aniseed. Ugni Blanc is still found in many blends, as is Clairette though their general lack of character and definition has led to a reduction in plantings. The future for southern Rhône whites appears to lie with Roussanne, Marsanne, and, increasingly, Viognier.
Hermitage is the most famous of all the northern Rhône appellations. The hill of Hermitage is situated above the town of Tain and overlooks the town of Tournon, just across the river. Hermitage has 120 hectares and produces tiny quantities of very long-lived reds.The vines were grown in Roman times, although local folklore claims their origins to be nearly 600 years earlier. The name ‘Hermitage’ first appeared in the 16th century, derived from a legend of the 13th century Crusade, involving a wounded knight called Gaspard de Stérimberg, who made refuge on the hill, planted vines and became a hermit.
During the 17th century Hermitage was recognised as one of the finest in Europe. In 1775, Ch. Lafite was blended with Hermitage and was one of the greatest wines of its day. In the late 19th century, however, Phylloxera wiped out all the vineyards.
The wines are powerful, with a deep colour and firm tannins, developing into some of the finest examples in France, with the potential to age for many decades. The best Hermitage is produced from several climats or more, blended together. The main climats are Les Bessards, Le Meal, L’Hermite, Les Greffieux and Les Diognieres. Most of the finest climats face broadly south, giving maximum sunshine. Most growers only have one or two climats and they might not complement each other; Hermitage quality can therefore vary hugely. Only the top producers have extensive diversified holdings.
Eighty percent of the wine produced is red, however up to 15 percent of white grapes can be used in the blend. Most growers use 100 percent Syrah and utilise the white grapes to make white wines only. Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Tain l’Hermitage Co-operative are the principle proprietors of the appellation’s vineyards.
The white wines are made from the Marsanne and Roussanne grapes. Great white Hermitage has the ability to age, taking on the fruit characters of apricots and peaches, often giving a very nutty finish. The best examples in great vintages can last 50 years.
Mature red Hermitage can be confused with old Bordeaux. In a blind tasting of 1961 First Growth Clarets, the famous 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle was included. Most people, including its owner, Gerard Jaboulet, mistook it for Ch. Margaux.
Recommended producers: Chave, Jaboulet, Chapoutier, Ferraton, Colombier
Best vintages: 2006, 2005, 2004, 2001, 1999, 1997, 1991, 1990, 1985
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