I've heard Hermitage described variously as ‘burly,' ‘muscular' or even ‘the manliest of French wines'. In centuries gone by, Hermitage was added to thinner vintages of fine Bordeaux to ‘pep' it up and give it some depth of character. When at its best, in the hands of skilled wine makers, Hermitage is the greatest wine of the northern Rhône valley and arguably the finest expression of Syrah anywhere in the world.
The two greatest producers of Hermitage are Jean-Louis Chave and Paul Jaboulet Âiné, and it is these two wine makers that Christie's Wine Department and The Fine Wine Experience chose to focus on for an extraordinary dinner that stepped back in time to look at some of the oldest and rarest vintages of these wines commercially available. The Chave family have been making wine in Hermitage since 1481, so their wines have a level of pedigree that is rarely seen. Their house production is relatively small, focusing on red and white Hermitage only, rather than offering a wide range of wines. Chave's wines are known for being elegant, perfumed and very pure in style. The Jaboulet family, who have been making wines since the middle of the 19th century, are a much broader operation. They make wines ranging from simple Côtes du Rhône, through Crozes-Hermitage and St. Joseph right up to the jewel in their crown: Hermitage ‘La Chapelle'. La Chapelle is known to be a little earthier than Chave's wine, a bit more hedonistic and powerful; to compare the two is to take a pair of legends and let them have it out.
To begin there is an extraordinary pairing of Chave's Hermitage Blanc 2007 and Jaboulet's Hermitage Blanc 1961 accompanied by a light, herbaceous dish of seared scallops with pea and broad bean salad. The Chave wine is exotic and powerfully aromatic with notes of pineapple, quince and vanilla - it is a huge, spicy mouth-filling ‘event'. The 1961 is more of a curio; old and musty with a slightly oxidized, sherry-like nose. One the palate it's more impressive; rich, but dry, with a rancio edge.
Wild mushroom risotto comes steaming on platters to see us through four vintages of Chave Hermitage from the 60s and 70s. The 1971 is smoky, a touch medicinal with a distinctive meaty richness. The 1970 is made in a markedly different style; lighter and more feminine. The 1966 Hermitage stands out as a wine of infinite poise and elegance. Clear ruby in the glass it looks and feels almost Burgundian - like a fine old Musigny perhaps. On the palate there is an extremely pure expression of red fruit, silky tannins and taut, refreshing acidity - this is one of life's great wines. The 1964 is a little murky on the nose, but again exhibits a lovely pure fruit character.
The next flight, mature Jaboulet ‘La Chapelle' starts with the 1966. The nose is powerful and multi-dimensional; coffee, preserved fruit and roast meat aromas seep from the glass - it is almost overwhelming. The 1955 is similarly meaty, jagged and muscular. There are noticeable, but smooth tannins and a distinct sense of pure, mature Syrah and this works very well with the lamb fillet that is served as a main course. The 1949 will stay with me always - a wine unlike anything I have tasted before. Stylistically it could perhaps be compared with Chave's 1966; there is a purity and freshness that is astonishing in a 62-year-old red wine. Behind this light, ruby façade lie layers of fragrant earth and smoke with wild notes of animal. Its finish is long and abundant; it is a wine that demands a significant emotional response. The 1944 is stylistically very different; it's more rustic and hard-edged. It doesn't have the elegance of 1949, but it is impressively fresh and vibrant - a great food wine. The final tranche of four wines focuses on two of the three great Hermitage vintages from the latter half of the 21st century: 1978 and 1990. These are chosen to go with ripe Southern French cheeses - power being the common theme. The 1990s are impossibly youthful, deep purple and tannic. The Chave is more developed with a touch of leather and spice, whilst the La Chapelle is full of cassis and other dark fruits; it almost tastes New World. The 1978s are big tannic monsters, wines that require bread and strong cheese to mop them up. The wines in this flight are all impressive and delicious to drink but there is certainly a sense that we're committing infanticide: the 1978s have decades in them, the 1990s could have half a century or more - let's all hope we're still here to enjoy them.
These are terroir wines that speak clearly of the land that gave birth to them; nowhere else will you find 60-year-old Syrah that tastes like this. They have the ability to age slowly, taking on layers of complexity and moving through distinct stylistic phases. This tasting showed that Chave's and Jaboulet's wines are consistent, but at the same time unpredictable: opening the older bottles is a joy, as there is an element of the unknown, and a sense that the wines had been caught in a moment in time, never to feel or taste quite the same again.