At the recent Maison Marques et Domaines portfolio tasting in London, senior winemaker at Delas Frères, Claire Darnaud unveiled a new Hermitage cuvée not yet commercially released. As a matter of urgency, The Buyer sent its intrepid Rhône specialist Bart Feys to sample this latest expression from the fabled Hermitage hill and to ponder the virtues of single site versus blended Hermitage.
‘Single Vineyard’ or Prestige cuvées have often been promoted in order to attract critical acclaim for a domaine, rather than out of vinous curiosity or drive and can adversely impact the quality of the ‘traditional’ bottling from the same vineyard.
The House of Delas Frères is one of the standout négociants in the Rhône valley with highly prized domaine holdings across the prestigious Northern Rhône appellations of Crozes-Hermitage, Saint-Joseph and Hermitage. Established in 1835, Delas has grown extensively since and now owns 10 ha of vines on the Hermitage hill (out of a total of 130ha), indisputably the grandest site in the whole of the Rhône valley. Taken over by Champagne Deutz in the late ’70s and since 1993 part of the Roederer Group, substantial investment in facilities and people has allowed Delas to produce quality, authentic and terroir-driven expressions of their prime Rhône vineyard holdings.
The jewel in the crown of the Delas vineyards is their 10 hectare holding on the Hermitage hill, a granite outcrop that rises majestically from the Rhône river and watches over the town of Tain-l’Hermitage.
The bulk (7.5 ha) of the Hermitage holdings lies in arguably the grandest of all the Hermitage terroirs, namely Les Bessards, with 2.5 ha in Les Grandes Vignes, above Les Bessards, and a small parcel in the l’Hermite sector. The orientation, altitude, exposure to prevailing winds and soils all contribute to the individual characteristics of these terroirs and have traditionally allowed the best winemakers to blend wines from different sites and parts of the Hermitage hill to produce a wine that is greater than its constituent parts.
One could argue that single vineyard red Hermitage, or at least labeled as such, is a relatively recent phenomenon and stems from a desire to express the individual character of specific lieu-dits on the Hermitage hill, not dissimilar to the different intricate expressions of Pinot Noir one can discern across adjacent or even within vineyards in Burgundy.
A more cynical observer may point out that in the past ‘Single Vineyard’ or Prestige cuvées have been promoted in order to attract critical acclaim for a domaine, rather than out of vinous curiosity or drive. Another downside that is sometimes leveled at the marketing of limited-production wines is that they can adversely impact the quality of the ‘traditional’ bottling from the same vineyard.
One of the cornerstones of the Delas philosophy is to allow terroir to express itself as naturally as possible, and in the best vintages this allows for the production of a small set of ‘single vineyard’ wines from sites that carry a truly unique signature. Examples include the Saint-Joseph Sainte-Epine, the Crozes-Hermitage Le Clos, the Hermitage Les Bessards and the Condrieu Clos Boucher. Production of these cuvées is usually limited to around 5,000 bottles. The Hermitage Les Bessards was first produced in the glorious 1990 vintage and has since become a standard bearer for the Delas lineup, produced only in the best vintages. The mainstay red Delas Hermitage is called Hermitage Domaine des Tourettes, a blend from the Les Bessards, Les Grandes Vignes and l’Hermite terroirs and accounts for roughly 85% of the Delas output from the Hermitage hill.
Back in 2010, the Delas winemaking team (Claire Darnaud and Jacques Grange) decided to follow the potential of the wine from the Les Grandes Vignes terroir in more detail, instead of routinely blending it into the main red Hermitage. The terroir lies above the iconic La Chapelle on the Hermitage hill at approximately 300m altitude and, ironically, is part of the Crozes-Hermitage commune (but not the AOC). As far as I am aware, no other winemaker is currently producing a red Hermitage specifically from this terroir. The higher altitude of Les Grandes Vines leads to a slower ripening of the grapes and the vines are also more susceptible to northerly winds. The vineyard is organically farmed and is composed of pure granite with only a very thin layer of topsoil. Production is a measly 2,000 bottles.
I had a chance to compare recent vintages of the Hermitage Domaine des Tourettes side by side with the as yet unreleased Hermitage Les Grandes Vignes.
2014 Hermitage rouge Domaine des Tourettes
Aromatically very expressive, classic Northern Rhône syrah meaty/gamey nose, elegant and fresh with a stalky note adding to a textured and balanced feel. Classic and beguiling, already a joy to drink. Harvested before the rains arrived.
2015 Hermitage rouge Domaine des Tourettes
Dark, brooding nose with black fruits and graphite notes. Intense, compact and dense granitic mouthfeel. Firm ripe tannic backbone with a remarkable freshness and again a textured palate that adds interest. Textbook vintage delivers an ageworthy wine. Low night time temperatures led to slow ripening of the tannins. One for the cellar.
2016 Hermitage rouge Domaine des Tourettes
Forest fruits, very elegant and pure. Mulberry, mature raspberries with some underlying smokey graphite notes. Long and minerally inflected finish. Raised in Burgundian oak casks. Beautifully composed and elegant.
2017 Hermitage rouge Domaine des Tourettes (cask sample)
Fleshy ripe blue fruits. Ripe tannic structure with black fruits and olive tapenade. From a warmer solar vintage, but still remarkable freshness.
2016 Hermitage rouge Les Grandes Vignes
More intense, higher toned red fruits. Firm tannic spine with granitic feel, forest fruits. Cool, fresh and more structured than ’16 Tourettes. Dare I say a Burgundian feel?
2015 Hermitage rouge Les Grandes Vignes
Pure red fruited, freshness with intensity and structure of the ’15 vintage. Cool and fine.
Ans so what is the verdict?
How different is the Hermitage rouge Les Grandes Vignes from the Hermitage rouge Domaine des Tourettes?
First off, and importantly, both wines have a distinct personality. Les Grandes Vignes is the more structured wine with a more pronounced red fruit melange as opposed to a black fruited, olive note on the Domaine des Tourettes. It is also striking how Les Grandes Vignes conveys a cooler, fresher, almost Burgundian impression – maybe it’s the closest thing to a Grand Cru Burgundy from Hermitage!
Whether Les Grandes Vignes is the better wine, only time will tell, but it certainly will be fascinating to see how its personality develops over time. This tasting exemplified the Delas house style with a hands-off approach to let the vintage and terroir express itself. The wines feel very unforced, pure and generous.
No date has yet been set for the official commercial release of the Hermitage rouge Les Grandes Vignes.