Wines from Hermitage are some of the most delicious and rewarding to age. They can taste a little closed off in their youth, but over time they transform into deeply complex wines packed with peppery, smoky flavors. There is also a lot of flavor variety in wines from this region. For example, a wine enthusiast posting on the Wine Berserkers forum tried two bottles of Hermitage at dinner—a 2004 M. Chapoutier Ermitage Le Pavillon and a 2007 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle. The 2007 wine was flavorful and juicy, but still a little green–a common quality in relatively young Hermitage. The 2004 wine was more complex, aromatic, and much more mature tasting, despite being only a few years older. Although these two estates are located only about three miles apart, the two wines couldn’t have been more different. Terroir, age, and vintage strongly influence Hermitage wine characteristics.
Hermitage wines are diverse and fascinating to drink—some are bold and tannic while others are more aromatic and herbaceous. This guide to the characteristics of Hermitage wine will help you find just the right bottle for your collection.
The Rich, Complex Flavors of Hermitage
The Hermitage wine region is located in the northern Rhône, about 70 miles north of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. While it is in the northern part of the Rhône valley, it’s located farther south than many other northern Rhône appellations, like Côte-Rôtie. This has a significant influence on Hermitage wine characteristics. Côte-Rôtie wines are more acidic, perfumed, and delicate because the climate is slightly cooler. Wines made in Hermitage are much more powerful and rich because the climate is warmer and the vineyards receive more exposure to direct sunlight. As a result, the grapes ripen fully and develop more sugar, creating wines that are bold, very high in alcohol, and quite age-worthy.
What sets Hermitage wines apart from other types of wines in the northern Rhône is their richness of flavor and how they mature over time.
Like other areas of the northern Rhône, Hermitage is known for its production of Syrah, Marsanne, and Roussanne. Producers in Hermitage make single varietal red wines from Syrah or dry white blends from Marsanne and Roussanne. Some producers will also blend a very small amount (less than five percent) of Marsanne with Syrah, but this isn’t very common.
The grape varieties used in this region contribute to Hermitage wine characteristics in the following ways:
- Single-varietal Syrah is complex, tannic, and peppery.
- On its own, Marsanne is rich and earthy (but can lack complexity and aroma).
- On its own, Roussanne is very aromatic and herbaceous (but can taste too lean or underripe).
- Marsanne and Roussanne blends have the best of both varieties’ characteristics. They are rich and earthy as well as aromatic and herbal.
- Syrah and Marsanne blends are incredibly powerful and rich; however, few producers make these blends because Hermitage Syrah already tastes so complex on its own.
What sets Hermitage wines apart from other types of wines in the northern Rhône is their richness of flavor and how they mature over time. Syrah from Hermitage is deep purple in color with concentrated dark fruit flavors and black pepper notes. Other Hermitage wine characteristics often appear with time. Master of Wine Jancis Robinson explains, “The trademark flavor of French Syrah is black pepper. A good Hermitage certainly has this in spades, but can mature into something more redolent of leather and, in very ripe years, spice.”
As for the white wines of Hermitage, they are usually dry and quite high in alcohol. While they can taste flabby in hot years, when the weather is cool in the area, they are fresh and have long, complex finishes. Like the reds, the best white Hermitage wines can age for decades and evolve more complex flavors over time. This is why many wine enthusiasts collect both red and white wines from Hermitage; both types of wine gain in value as they age and are among the most delicious examples of Syrah, Marsanne, and Roussanne in the world.
How Terroir Influences Hermitage Wine Characteristics
Hermitage is famous for its granite soils. Some of the best wines are made in vineyards located on rocky hills filled with large chunks of granite. The rough terrain is fast-draining, which prevents the vines from getting too water-logged and results in smaller, more concentrated grapes. The granite near the surface also absorbs a great deal of heat during the peak summer months and radiates this heat even after the sun goes down. This keeps vines and fruit quite warm. Vineyards in the western part of the region have the most granite, particularly L’Hermite and La Chapelle. These two terroirs are located at the very top of the hill of Hermitage and receive direct southern sun exposure. Because of this, producers in this area, like Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aîné, make wines that taste exceptionally powerful and ripe.
Most of the top producers in Hermitage grow and select grapes from multiple vineyards and blend them to achieve the best results.
However, this isn’t the only type of terroir in the region. Some vineyards receive less direct sunlight and have soil which contains a mix of granite, clay, and other types of stone. This is most common in the eastern part of the region. While the wines made in the east are delicious and can be age-worthy, they’re not as intense in flavor as those made in the western part of Hermitage.
Terroir is also important in Hermitage when it comes time to blend the grapes. Most of the top producers in the appellation grow and select grapes from multiple vineyards and blend them to achieve the best results. For example, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave uses Syrah grapes from seven individual vineyards to make the Chave Hermitage label, believing it adds complexity to the wine. Very ripe, concentrated grapes from the top of the hill can be blended with leaner grapes from the lower slopes, creating a wine that has excellent structure and balance. It’s part of what keeps Hermitage so consistent in quality from year to year.
Hermitage Wine Characteristics Change Over Time
Perhaps what is most notable about Hermitage wine characteristics is how they evolve over the decades. These wines are specifically made to age for many years before they reach maturity. In fact, some of the finest Hermitage wines are unapproachable in their youth as prominent tannins and high alcohol content make it difficult to taste the other, more subtle, flavors in the wine.
Because Hermitage wines become more layered and delicious with age, they often gain significantly in value on the secondary market.
Below you’ll find a guide to how the grape varieties used in Hermitage wines typically age over time:
- Syrah and Syrah-heavy blends are rough and tannic in their youth. You’ll still find plenty of black fruit flavors, pepper, and some earthiness in the wine, but these will be overpowered by tannin. After about ten years, these wines become more refined and complex, developing notes of mushroom, smoke, black cherry, and most importantly, that signature Hermitage spice. The best wines age for decades, but lower-quality wines often mature more quickly and are more approachable early in life.
- Marsanne and Roussanne blends and single varietal wines are a bit more approachable than Syrah in their youth, but still taste quite lean and closed off. You’ll find some minerality as well as bright citrus fruit. As they age, they become nuttier and creamier. You can start drinking them after about five years of age; however, they taste more elegant and complex with more time in storage.
Because Hermitage wines become more layered and delicious with age, they often gain significantly in value on the secondary market. This makes them excellent investment wines for collectors who want to make a profit off of resale. However, since these wines are among the most flavorful in the world, you may decide to drink them when the time comes instead. Typical Hermitage wine characteristics pair well with a variety of foods. Aged Syrah pairs best with hearty, smoky dishes, while aged Marsanne and Roussanne blends show well alongside creamy soups or buttery dishes. Regardless of what you plan on doing with your Hermitage wines, you’ll experience these wines at their best when you give them the time they need to reach their full potential.
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