Wed 09 Sep 2015

On tour in the Rhône (or a tale of two chapels): part I


This is about a three-day trip to the Rhône Valley in June when I acted as guide to a small party of members. These lucky (or not so lucky!) few had earned their place on the tour having signed up new members to The Society earlier in the year.

For me, this was the second of such trips, the first having been to Champagne, and fun, that certainly was: lunch at Alfred Gratien when Olivier Dupré, sleeves rolled up preparing freshly caught lobsters with a sharp blade came near to doing himself a mischief, is still talked about today!

Arriving in the Rhône by Eurostar

Arriving in the Rhône by Eurostar

The Rhône trip had to be just as special as indeed it was. Happily, we were spared any sharp blade incidents, but there was a hair-raising safari by Land Rover in the Dentelles de Montmirail – more of that epic adventure later!

Planning the trip – spoilt for choice
Devising a trip to the Rhône Valley should not be a challenge for The Wine Society. It is a region we know well with certain supplier relationships that go back a very long time indeed. Yet our wealth in this very large region, number two for AOC red wine after Bordeaux, made choices all the more difficult.

The Rhône is strong on landscape and geology, so what better way to explore it than to visit places with a good view, interesting terroir and of course, good wine!

These days, of course, a trip to the Rhône can start at St Pancras International. And that is what we did, travelling in comfort and without needing to change, all the way to the Rhône.

When it comes to wine, it’s people as well as place that matter

Nicolas Jaboulet

Nicolas Jaboulet

Wine is about terroir but it’s also about people and people tend to come and go. Nicolas Jaboulet, scion to a great family name, might have expected a role in what used to be the family firm. But that was not to be and instead he started up afresh in partnership with another great family: Perrin of Beaucastel. Our first tasting was of his wines, including The Society’s Exhibition Crozes-Hermitage which we do in partnership).

Then came Ampuis, or Ampodium to use its Latin name. This is a small town built between the river and its world-famous vineyard called Côte-Rôtie. Time did not allow for an exploration of the roasted slope itself. That was a shame: it would have been such fun to have ridden on Gilles Barge’s monorail up the steep incline of his vineyard called Combard. Maybe next time.

Instead we had our meeting underground at Guigal, met by Philippe Guigal himself in his extraordinary cellars with its row upon row of barrels and a bottling and packaging hall seemingly operated by a platoon of well-disciplined robots (my colleague, Nicky Glennon wrote about this in her Romans and Robots blog post).

Guigal's trusty robots on the packing line

Guigal’s trusty robots on the packing line

Etienne Guigal, Philippe’s grandfather also started from nothing, leaving his old employer, creating a wonderful name and leaving his son Marcel to carry on, eventually even buying up his old employer! There were more acquisitions with vineyards in Saint-Joseph and Hermitage.

Guigal deity with a bunch of syrah... or is it viognier?

Guigal deity with a bunch of syrah… or is it viognier?

Hermitage…lessons in history and geography
Hermitage is one of the great wines. It has as fine a view as any, great geology and of course a fine chapel. And what could be better than to spend a little time with Paul Jaboulet Ainé who, of course, own the chapel which gave its name to one of the greatest wines of the world, Hermitage La Chapelle.

Hermitage is probably the most famous vineyard in the northern Rhône. Though not the oldest, as winemaking further north in Ampuis goes back longer; indeed amphorae and other artefacts are on display at Guigal and most growers feel the need to have something from those days on show as badge of honour, maybe.

The northern Rhône cuts a furrow through two land masses. The eastern side, largely made up of limestone, eventually rises to form the Alps, while the western side, much older, forms the edge of the Massif Central and is dominated by granite. The river flows fast in between. Over the millennia the Rhône has changed its course several times and much of the limestone was a sea bed anyway, eroded and then lifted up as the Alps were formed.

Rock of ages…and wine
The river was a barrier separating two worlds and even today, despite bridges, those two identities persist. Most of the appellations sit on one side or the other. Cornas and Saint-Joseph are both largely on granite. Crozes-Hermitage, for the most part, is planted on an ancient river bed and the land is strewn with stones and pebbles washed down from the mountains.

Hermitage is exceptional because it is both. Its western side, typified by the vineyard called Bessard, is granite and geologically belongs to the Massif Central, while the eastern side is mostly limestone. The changing course of the mighty river, shifting sea levels and mountain building conspired to isolate the granite part of Hermitage, welding it to its limestone other half and creating today’s hill of Hermitage.

La Chapelle, Hermitage

La Chapelle, Hermitage

Paying homage at Hermitage La Chapelle
We were in good company when we visited the top of the hill with Jean-Luc Chapelle, roving brand ambassador and Jacques Devernois, cellarmaster at Paul Jaboulet. The object of the visit was of course the Chapelle itself. This chapel stands on holy ground, marking the site where the crusading knight Gaspard de Sterimberg, rested and meditated.

We walked around the chapel, admiring Chapoutier’s vineyards that surround it! Jaboulet’s ‘La Chapelle’ doesn’t come from here or indeed from one specific spot on the hill. Jaboulet own roughly 50 acres of Hermitage and the wines are always blends from different plots, the sum being greater than the parts.

Lessons in site-specific wines
I mentioned the granitic Bessards already. When standing at the chapel and looking down, Bessards lay before us. This is where Hermitage gets its structure from. Pure Bessards is powerful but also tight and tannic, almost as if it were armour plated!

Beyond is another plot called l’Hermite which has a complicated geology with granite and limestone, sometimes with a covering of wind-born soil or loess and which I think makes an especially refined wine.

The very top part of the hill, incidentally, is very pure granite as here was always above sea level. But the height of this vineyard makes it less sheltered so that wind is a constant factor.

Le Méal is further on, not really visible from the chapel. It lies in a perfect amphitheatre-shaped bowl of limestone and clay, strewn with small stones. It gets very hot here and so not surprisingly Hermitage from here is rich and full-bodied. It is where Jaboulet have their largest holdings so it is often a key element in their La Chapelle.

Walking up to the chapel is a wonderful life-enhancing experience, especially if time is taken to observe the changing folds in the hill, changing flora and changing composition of the soils. Time was not with us on this trip so a coach was used, there and back.

Dining in Hermitage country
The little town below the hill is called Tain l’Hermitage. There is nothing especially pretty about it. It is built on either side of the N7, that most famous of all trunk roads that starts its life at the Place d’Italie in Paris and ends at a border crossing with Italy (bien entendu!). It’s a dangerous road at any time with large trucks trundling through.

There was a time when eating in Tain was a miserable experience. The grand people went further afield to Valence, Vienne or Lamastre for fine dining. That is now changing, thanks in no small part to the existence of the Valrhona chocolate factory which attracts visitors and students from around the world. Tain is becoming quite famous and there are now some decent places to eat.

Jaboulet’s offices are out of town but they now have a tasting room on the main square and with it a small wine bar with excellent food served at lunchtime, to be washed down with Jaboulet’s wines, of course. Almost next door Nicolas Jaboulet has his office, shop and tasting room, where his wines and those of his associates, the Perrins of Beaucastel can be tasted. Opposite is one fine and idiosyncratic wine shop, held by a father-and-son team of Greek parentage. Everyone goes there if only for gossip and some brilliant Greek olive oil.

The jewel in Tain is one tiny restaurant, right next door to Chapoutier. It is called Mangevins. He is local and does wine and front of house. His wife is Japanese, perfectionist in the infinitesimally small kitchen. The food served is always outstanding, fresh ingredients and often with just a hint of Japan mixed in with local.

The wine list is outstanding. This is one place to go as a teetotal! We had Montlouis from Jacky Blot but it could have been a riesling from Trimbach. The highlight, wine wise was a Cornas from Pierre Clape with a chocolate dessert.

Chapelle and chocolate, it works!

Chapelle and chocolate, it works!

A revelation that was repeated the following evening chez Jaboulet when the chocolate pudding was given added meaning by Hermitage La Chapelle 2003. A further study is surely needed on chocolate and wine!

Marcel Orford-Williams
 Society Buyer


  • The second part of the tour when the group head for the southern Rhône will follow soon.
  • There’s early news of the 2015 vintage in the Rhône here.
  • If your appetite has been whetted for Rhône wines you may be interested in our Vintage Rhône offer, showcasing the wines of the 2011 vintage.

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