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Home of the Rhône's mightiest reds
The 25-mile drive along narrow Route Nationale 86 from Côte-Rôtie to Tain-l'Hermitage is enchanting. It passes small hamlets with stone houses and church towers, dams and bridges. The wide Rhône River meanders to the left of the road while the vineyards of the St.-Joseph appellation rise steeply on the right. Like much of the Rhône Valley, this area has become a magnet for people interested in fine food and great wine. Inspired by the international success of its local vineyards, this once-sleepy corner of the Northern Rhône is metamorphosing into a dynamic tourist destination.
Tain is a bustling town on the eastern bank of the Rhône River, linked by two bridges -- one for cars and a second, rickety one, for pedestrians -- to the charming city of Tournon-sur-Rhône on the western bank. Together, these towns form the heart of the area that includes five of the Northern Rhône's crus: St.-Joseph, Crozes-Hermitage, Hermitage, Cornas and St.-Péray. If you detect cocoa in the air in Tain, don't be surprised -- the town is home to Valrhona, one of the finest chocolate manufacturers in the world.
Tain is at the foot of the Hermitage hill, the most famous appellation in the Rhône Valley, and arguably the most beautiful as well. This cru rises some 600 feet above the valley floor like a camel's hump.
Many historians believe that Greek settlers made wine here; and archaeologists have proven that Roman colonists did. According to legend, the chapel was built by a knight, Gaspard de Stérimberg, after he was wounded in a battle during the 13th century Crusades. He became a hermit, the story goes -- hence the vineyard's name. Today, the winemaking house of Paul Jaboulet Aîné owns the hermit's chapel, and has named its most famous wine, Hermitage La Chapelle, after it.
Hermitage wines were served in the royal courts of Europe in the 17th century, and Thomas Jefferson purchased hundreds of bottles after visiting Tain in 1787. And yet, as with Côte-Rôtie and Condrieu, Hermitage went into a decline from the late 19th century to the 1970s, during which time phylloxera, war and unfavorable prices weakened the growers' resolve to farm these steep hillsides. Only in recent years has Hermitage made a comeback, especially with the help of some great vintages, such as 1978.
A great red Hermitage combines power and elegance, with lots of red fruit, firm tannins and a solid structure. Red Hermitage is made from Syrah, although winemakers can make up to 15 percent of the wine with white grapes grown on the hill -- Marsanne and Roussanne. White Hermitage, made mainly from Marsanne, has a reputation for being one of the world's longest-lived dry whites.
Still, the wineries here are small, and many of them are ill-equipped to handle a large volume of casual visitors. If you want to taste, it's advisable to call ahead, since many places are open by appointment only. Fortunately, the wineries do a good job of supplying the local restaurants in every vintage. This allows visiting diners to discover the depth and diversity of the region's many vineyard sites. "I can't receive many people in my cellar," says Jean-Louis Chave, whose family has been making Hermitage wines since 1481. "So it's good if they can go to restaurants and discover my wines."
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