Wine tasting in Tain L’Hermitage

A visit to the house of Chapoutier

July 30 was chassé croisé Saturday.  The scale of the problem hit home when we found the narrow streets of Crozes-Hermitage, a quiet backwater which ought to be immune from through traffic, choked by a nose to tail procession of cars: aoûtien cohorts had fled the saturated motorway for the N7 and found that blocked too.   It  took only one enterprising navigator, or a sat-nav remote controller, to branch off through the vineyards, for the entire herd to follow. Their procession would eventually take them back to the N7 at Tain.

It was bad luck to be doing this ride in a traffic jam, but that was not going to spoil the thrill of cycling through the vineyards of one of Galaxy’s favourite wines: Jaboulet’s Hermitage, la Chapelle.  Special occasions only, mind: a case of 1961 recently fetched a quarter of a million dollars at auction. After savouring the grandstand view of the Rhône and the vineyards of St-Joseph on the Ardèche bank, rolling it around the palate and swallowing it, we slipped down to Tain L’Hermitage and near the station found the rival house of Chapoutier, where we had an appointment for a tasting visit.   For once I don’t think we were more than an hour late.

“If you don’t mind a short walk we’ll start in the vineyards,” said our taste-mistress, who combined charm, expertise and fluency, and expected a close interest in the technicalities of wine growing, which we did our best to demonstrate.  A short walk it was too, over the railway line and straight in to the first walled vineyard at the foot of the great and holy hill of Hermitage, where a 12th century knight took his retirement and prayed hard for absolution after the excesses of the Albigensian crusade.

Although the hermitage chapel is on Jaboulet territory, Chapoutier has the biggest share of the Hermitage appellation’s 130 hectares, and Michel Chapoutier is in his way a modern crusader for the biodynamic way of wine making.

“This hill is the home of the Syrah grape and M Chapoutier has taken it wherever he goes in the world to show how it can behave in different regions,” we were told.  Chapoutier has planted Hermitage vines in Portugal, Australia and the Roussillon.

The principles of biodynamic agriculture, laid down by the Austrian esoteric Rudolf Steiner in 1924, come with much mystical claptrap about burying cow horns stuffed with manure when the moon is in the right quarter for harnessing cosmic energy.  Does Michel Chapoutier really bother with all this?  Valerian, common horsetail, dandelion sheathed in cow’s stomach, oak bark, yarrow flowers in a stag’s bladder, ground quartz, cow manure ….. biodynamic compost sounds like the witches’ brew from Macbeth.

It is an open question how much the more mystical elements of the creed add to the sound principles of chemical-free organic farming.  The fact is, Chapoutier and other biodynamic growers have had great success producing superb wine. Where previous generations aimed for a signature taste, the focus now is to bring out the differences of character between each plot.  Berry Brothers & Rudd sells a good selection ( and supplies the required adjectives free of charge.  If lost for words to describe a northern Rhône red, try road tar, liquorice and cigar boxes (in preference to cowpat).

“The most diverse and complex wines to be found in the northern Rhône” BBR says of Chapoutier’s output, describing the Sélections Parcellaires (single-plot wines) as “the ultimate celebration of the concept of terroir.”  2007 was a good year in this part of the valley, but the big wines need 25 years in the bottle to reach their peak.

For his most precious wines Chapoutier uses the old spelling Ermitage; we came across the spelling Crozes Ermitage on the occasional bottle too.  All Chapoutier wine labels have been marked in Braille since 1996: “a symbol of openness” apparently – all the best wines are open – and clever marketing too.  Sainsbury’s had Chapoutier’s St-Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage last time I ran my hand along the shelf, and visually impaired shoppers in Tesco may feel their way to a keenly-priced Gigondas 2008.

The vineyard visit and tasting afterwards were richly enjoyable education, and the pressure to buy is not overbearing.  But since we were meeting up with friends with a car later in the day, we found room for a bottle or two to push in our panniers.  Tasting visits are by appointment ( although the shop on Avenue Dr Paul Durand is open every day and you could take your chance.  The nearby Hotel le Castel provides accommodation, and (still on Paul Durand) Le Mangevins ‘wine bistro’ comes with Chapoutier’s recommendation.