Crozes’ Feat

Crozes-Hermitage produces four times as much wine as Condrieu and Côte-Rôtie combined. You buy Cornas in a wine shop but you can pick up Crozes-Hermitage in a supermarket. Rare it ain’t. So perhaps it’s not surprising that other northern Rhône appellations have more cachet with wine snobs. But I’m here to tell you that the best wines of Crozes-Hermitage are delicious, (relative) bargains and worthy of a place on anybody’s table.

Christelle Betton in the Les Chassis vineyards south of Tain l'Hermitage.

Christelle Betton (Domaine Betton) post-harvest in the vineyards south of Tain l’Hermitage.

But what exactly is Crozes-Hermitage? What (apart from price) makes it different to its neighbour Hermitage? And why is it worth searching out the best producers? Well read on…

First of all, a bit of geography. The vineyards of the Crozes-Hermitage wine region surround the small town of Tain l’Hermitage on the banks of the Rhône river, which flows from north to south, towards the Mediterranean, down the eastern side of France. Lyon is around an hour’s drive to the north and Avignon around 90 minutes to the south. The (hand drawn!) map below shows the Crozes-Hermitage vineyards in yellow, Hermitage in green and the southern part of St. Joseph, on the opposite bank of the Rhône, in orange. (You might need your magnifying specs for this one).

EPSON MFP image

The vineyards of Crozes-Hermitage (yellow), Hermitage (green) and southern St. Joseph (orange)

You can see that the bulk of the Crozes-Hermitage vineyards lie south and east of Tain, running down as far the Isère river. There’s a good reason for that – the land is relatively flat and easy to cultivate. There are large swathes of vines here, but also cherry, apricot and peach trees.

In comparison, the Hermitage vineyards are found only on the south-facing slope of the hill that overlooks, or rather dominates the town. The wines from here, red or white, should be powerful, concentrated and capable of ageing for years, if not decades. No Crozes-Hermitage is ever going to match an Hermitage on those counts, but that’s nothing to be ashamed of – very few wines can.

Behind Hermitage hill is a series of smaller hills and valleys that form the northern sector of Crozes-Hermitage. The vineyards here take up the south and south west-facing slopes or squeeze into the thin stretch of flat land between the hills and the Rhône. (In fact, the eagle-eyed among you may have noticed on the map the village of Crozes-Hermitage, a few kilometres north of Tain, which gave its name to the wine district.)

A hillside vineyard in the village of Gervans, early March. Compare this with the flatter vineyards in the photo of Christelle Betton.

A hillside vineyard in the village of Gervans, early March. Fruit trees are in the foreground. Compare this with the flatter land in the photo of Christelle Betton.

In theory, this north-south Crozes divide matters because the northern sector vineyards, around the village of Crozes-Hermitage itself and neighbours Gervans, Erômes and Serves, are largely planted on decomposed granite whilst large parts of the southern sector are on stony alluvial soils brought downriver by the Rhône and Isère. In the eastern sector around Mercurol and Larnage there’s more clay. And in turn that all matters because it has an effect on the flavour of the wine – all Crozes-Hermitage reds are pure syrah but the southern wines should be softer, bursting with fruit, while those from the north should be a bit spikier, with more obvious tannins and acidity (some would say better structure).

Well that’s the theory, but in practice a lot of the northern producers, like Laurent Habrard of Domaine Habrard and the Fayolle Fils et Fille estate, both based in Gervans, also have land on the southern plain, so their wines are a blend of grapes from the two sectors and the distinct “terroir” differences are smoothed out.

Laurent Habrard

Laurent Habrard

That’s not to say that there aren’t different types of red Crozes, it’s just that the biggest difference is usually a stylistic one imposed by the winemaker: between super-fruity reds made to be drunk young and fuller-bodied wines made to be aged. Typically, it’s the un/less-oaked wines that are lighter, can be drunk younger and give an uncomplicated, if highly enjoyable, blast of syrah fruit (blackcurrant, raspberry, black cherry). They are smile-inducing, thirst-quenching and fun.

Marc Romak and Marlene Durand

Marc Romak and Marlène Durand, Domaine Melody

One of the best is Domaine Melody’s “Les Friandises”, but there are many other wines that make an excellent job of the light’n’fruity style –  the Crozes from Gaylord Machon that he calls “Ghany”, “Les Pitchounettes” by Domaine de Lucie (half raised in tank, half in larger, previously-used barrels) and Maxime Graillot’s “Equinoxe” (40% is aged in used barrels).

Maxime Graillot

Maxime Graillot

Although Domaine Betton‘s “Espiègle” is 100% oaked, the barrels aren’t new and recent vintages have all been about fruit and flowers. In general, this style is lovely served cool alongside nothing more than a few slices of salami, and frankly without even that, but it sits happily with a simple roast chicken, veal or Toulouse sausages. (There’s also a completely unoaked wine from Domaine Lombard that has the estate’s trademark purity of fruit, although perversely I’d say that they’re looking for something slightly more serious.)

Julien Montagnon, Domaine Lombard

Julien Montagnon, Domaine Lombard

As for the richer, fuller-bodied (although I’d never say heavy) wines, there’s often the impression of cooked fruit – stewed blackberries and damsons – and grilled meat. Personally, I’m happiest if that also comes with a lick of acidity to keep the freshness and a side-helping of floral notes, but I realise that’s not everyone’s cup of tea. When I was starting in wine I sold Domaine Belle‘s “Cuvée Louis Belle” which certainly fitted the bill for me (made with grapes from plots in Crozes-Hermitage village and Larnage, by the way). It wasn’t the biggest wine, nor the deepest-coloured, but it was silky, refined, pure, really quite classy. You could perhaps put Alain Graillot (Maxime’s father) into that stylistic camp, too.

David Reynaud, Domaine des Bruyeres

David Reynaud, Domaine des Bruyères

Other winemakers use a combination of southern Crozes grapes and oak for wines that emphasise the plumper, softer fruit and darker colour you get south of Tain. Yann Chave‘s “Le Rouvre” can be pretty opulent, as can some of the more high-end offerings from David Reynaud’s Domaine Les Bruyères.

Remy Nodin

Remy Nodin

Rémy Nodin‘s grapes come from Pont de l’Isère – his “Le Mazel” 2013 is rich but also deliciously floral; Christelle Betton uses fruit from the Les Chassis plain south of Tain for her chocolate-tinged “Caprice”; Etienne Chomarat’s Domaine de Chasselvin “Les Lièvres” also picks up on the chocolate.

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel

Lucie Fourel‘s “St. Jaimes” takes its grapes from south of Tain, although it’s notable as much for the complex flavours you get from fermenting non-destemmed bunches. Domaine Melody‘s “Etolie Noire” is unusually rich and dark-fruited. Laurent Habrard‘s red, which mixes Gervans and Les Chassis fruit, has its share of sturdiness. His 2009, tasted just a few months ago, still had lots of life in it. I’d also put in an honorable mention for Delas Frères, which makes a range of red Crozes which at the top end combine concentration, plenty of stuffing with at least some refinement.

With the fuller Crozes I’d be thinking of eating beef, lamb (grilled over an open fire if I’m lucky, but otherwise almost any way it comes) and duck breast served medium-rare.

Guillaume Sorrel

Guillaume Sorrel, Domaine Les Alexandrins

One estate that bucks the trend is Domaine Les Alexandrins, which has a deliberate policy of making two Crozes-Hermitage reds in exactly the same way, with the same barrel treatment etc, but sources the grapes from different parts of the southern region so that any differences are purely down to the terroir. “Attrirance” is lighter and juicier while “Séduction” has greater weight and richness.

But what unites all of these wines is their pure, direct syrah fruit and the relative softness of their tannins. They’re friendly, easy to enjoy but there’s plenty going on if you care to look. And the great news is that most Crozes-Hermitage rouge  costs less than 20€ at the cellar door, and many delicious wines fall in the 10-15€ range. There’s a retailer/importer list at the bottom of the page so get buying.

Santé

Paul

Note: Crozes-Hermitage also produces white wine. The best are just as delicious as the reds – rich and creamy from the marsanne and roussanne grapes used to make them, perhaps with a bit of oak, and flavours of apple, pear, grapefruit, butter-rich pastry, almond, spring flowers. I prefer them with food than as an aperitif – fowl, white meats, richer fish dishes. Although not intended for long-term ageing, they certainly can live a few years – Christelle Betton recently donated a bottle of her 2006 (thank you Christelle!) which had aged very gracefully, combining quince fruit with notes of honey (although the wine was dry) and verbena. It was deeper coloured – green gold – and richer than the 2013 I drank a few days later, which is as you would expect.

Note 2: Many of the UK supermarket own label wines (often made by the local growers’ co-operative, Cave de Tain) and some of the wines from the two big local producers, Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet, fall into the bright and breezy category. Maybe that should be aim to fall into that catergory – I’m often slightly disappointed by the cheaper Crozes-Hermitages from all three, although I find that easier to excuse in the case of the co-op as the wines are generally cheaper, at least at the cellar door. (But not at UK supermaket Sainsbury’s. Last time I was in England I picked up a £10 bottle of Crozes made for Sainsbury’s by the Cave de Tain which was inoffensive but pretty forgettable. There was also a “Taste the Difference” Crozes, this time made for Sainsbury’s by Chapoutier, again at £10, which did make me wonder why they have two Crozes, one “special” and one, by inference, not, at the same price).

Note 3: This is the blog of Rhône Wine Tours. We spend a lot of time around Tain l’Hermitage and if you’d like to join us just go to our website – www.RhoneWineTours.com for more details.

Retailers and importers:

For the UK, it’s largely retailers names that I give.  Most will be able to deliver wine so even if these people aren’t on your doorstep that shouldn’t be a problem. Otherwise, agents/importers can point you in the right direction. In the USA, the names I give are those of importers. Give them a call or send an email and you should be able to find out your nearest retailer.

In order of appearance:

Domaine Habrard – USA, Return to Terroir, Balanced Wine Selections.
Fayolle Fils et Fille – Thorman Hunt is the estate’s UK agent; USA, BNP Distributing Co and Cru Wines.
Domaine Melody – UK, Flint Wines.
Gaylord Machon – sold by the small Caviste chain in southern England. Imported by Carte Blanche Wines.
Domaine de Lucie – also sold by Caviste and also imported by Carte Blanche; in the USA it’s VA’s Wine Traditions.
Maxime Graillot/Domaine des Lises – UK, Berry Bros. and Yapp Bros.; USA – Michael Skurnik and Chambers & Chambers.
Domaine Betton – UK, Theatre of Wine.
Domaine Les Alexandrins – USA, JAO Wine Imports; UK , John Gauntley.
Domaine Lombard – I think that most, if not all, importers concentrate on Lombard’s Brézème wines. But if you contact one of these you should be able to find out more: USA, Paul M. Young Fine Wines in California, Casa Bruno in Oregon, Cru Sélections in Washington State and Cellar to Table in New York; UK, Yapp Bros.
Domaine Belle – The Wine Society and Caves de Pyrène in the UK; USA, Wine House and Robert Kacher Selections.
Alain Graillot – Not surprisingly, the same as son Maxime: UK, Yapp Bros.; USA, Michael Skurnik and Chambers & Chambers.
Yann Chave – Stone, Vine & Sun and Winegrowers Direct in the UK; Weygandt Selections in USA.
Domaine Les Bruyères (David Reynaud) – In the UK, The Winery and Swig. You could also contact Liberty Wines – they import the wine rather than retail it, but they should be able to tell you where you can buy it. In the USA, Regal Wine Imports.
Rémy Nodin – USA, Jeff Morgenthal at Gran Fondo Wine Co.
Domaine de Chasselvin – The Sampler in the UK.
Delas Frères – UK importer, Berkmann Wine Cellars; USA, Maisons Marques & Domaines.
Domaine Les Alexandrins – USA, JAO Wine Imports; UK , John Gauntley.
Cave de Tain – USA, Kysela Pere et Fils; UK, check out the supermarkets – Waitrose and Sainsbury’s certainly. As for independents, N.D. John stock some of the (well made) higher-end wines, Spirited Wines. Imported by Boutinot.
Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet are widely available

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Responses to “Crozes’ Feat”

  1. Bob Rossi says:

    Very enjoyable post. I almost never buy Crozes-Hermitage in the US because there are so few available, they’re pretty pricey for what they are, and I don’t want to experiment unless I can taste first. But I love northern Rhone Syrah in general, as well as all northern Rhone whites. When we stayed in the area several years ago, we drank a lot of St. Joseph, since that was the most prevalent red wine near where we stayed. But we did visit Domaine Belle at a tasting arranged by Bobby Kacher’s staff, and those were some of the best wines I’ve ever had. I really wanted to take home a bottle of the red Hermitage, but the last night before our return to the US, we decided we didn’t want to risk transporting such a wonderful wine in our luggage, so we opened it about 4 hours before dinner. It was one of the best wines I’ve ever had. Pierre Gaillard’s wines were also outstanding, and the Cave de Sarras, in my opinion, is one of the best cooperatives in France. On the other hand, we were both disappointed with the wines at the Cave de Tain.

    • admin says:

      Sorry Bob, I just found this in my spam. Some of this I’ve covered in my reply re the visits to Chapoutier etc. So I’ll just add that I’ve never tasted the Cave de Sarras wines – I drive past their front door a lot, but always on the way to somewhere else. But I’ll drop in next time I’m in the area. As for the Cave de Tain, I think the regular “classique” wines can be so-so (but no worse than the Chapoutier/Jaboulet equivalents and less expensive too. And the current Hermitage rouge classique 2010 is excellent and a bargain at 30€). Best to spend just a couple of euros more (that’s here, obviously) and go for the vineyard selection range – in the last year I’ve had good Crozes, St. Peray and Cornas from them. I tasted the 2009 “Gambert de Loche” Hermitage, but it was still way too young. Massive though!