Hermitage; myth and reality

I had few preconceptions of Hermitage before I arrived. Like every wine lover I knew the image of the slopes surrounding the hermit’s chapel, and imagined idyllic Romanesque villages dotted at its feet. Time moves on and civilization sprawls, and wine lovers and wine producers are not always the most important people on the planet.

Hence Tain L’Hermitage is quite industrial, the pretty café lined squares are modern and designed to lure tourists. I called in for a ‘degustation’ (tasting) at a wine shop. The owner wanted to do some cleaning so wasn’t going to offer any that day, the next wanted R500 for four wines (one a top wine), so I headed to Jaboulet where I was ignored and then whilst discussing the wines available the hostess left me to answer her phone for several minutes while I stood staring at her. I left.

So it is that at the foot of the precious slopes, touching the La Pavillon and La Sizeranne vineyards are blocks of 1970’s apartments. What a view they have, some are literally 3metres from vines whose wines sell for R3000 a bottle and upwards. Summing it up, perhaps, was, as I strolled by, a collection of a dozen or so chefs in Toque Blanche (tall white hats) and aprons being filmed in the Sizeranne vineyard, looking busy - a sort of vinous ‘Masterchef’ - the absurdity of it was surreal.

And so it is that as I trekked, for 40 minutes, in 37˚C heat, hands on knees in places, up the severe gradient of L’Ermite Syrah vineyard toward the chapel, I arrived to find a party of school children who had driven up the road on the other side of the hill.

And so it was that I had to find a position to take the classic ‘hermit’s chapel’ picture without getting the German tourists in, or the monstrosity of the mobile phone mast planted 30 metres behind the chapel.

I asked staff at Maison Chapoutier how they feel about the mast. Wine producers don’t own the land it is erected on so they had no control, they hinted if they had it would never have happened.

And then there is the marketing excellence of the legend itself. The would-be recluse settling in a cave on the hill overlooking the Rhône, nice story. 

That is where the marketing seems to have ended. The two tourist information offices didn’t seem to have any, information, that is. There were brochures about events and restaurants, but they have seriously missed a chance to sell merchandise. I hate tacky, but where were the t-shirts, mugs and fridge magnets? No posters or place mats or overpriced tennis shirts (€45 in Beaune), no organized vineyard or producer tours, I had to ask for a town map and they didn’t have one in English.

Domain Chapoutier knew their market and had energetic, knowledgeable staff and a flow of customers, much more pro-active. They recognized my interest and finished the tasting with a ‘below the counter’ ‘Le Méal’ 2010 – a real treat and a gesture that always promotes good feelings, and it was very good indeed. But, as in Burgundy, it seems, image is everything, and with avid customers to this hallowed ground they don’t have to try too hard to sell. Chapoutier had a ‘special’ on with a €129 reduction ‘cellar door’ price on the fabulous L’Ermite Hermitage, but I still felt R11,400 a bottle was a lot. I probably am a wine pagan, but I’d rather look for a great Côte Rôtie at a fraction of that.

Beautiful top wines, very average Crozes-Hermitage and Côte du Rhône village, some awful Côte du Rhône all of which had at least one nought too many on their price tag. Lovely vineyards, wonderful views, elegant dining, dispassionate service. I wonder what the Hermit would think of today’s Hermitage?

Read part 3 of Dave's adventure in France this Friday

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