On a hot, mid-May afternoon I entered Yann Chave’s cool cellar for a tasting. ‘There used to be a joke,’ he said, while uncorking a bottle, ‘that it’s easier to sell a two-person coffin than a white wine from Crozes-Hermitage.’ I looked around warily, took comfort in the fact that I could only see wooden barrels, and sipped as Yann explained that years ago the wines were sometimes oxidized or cloying, with exaggerated notes of honey and acacia. But, like the other Crozes-Hermitage whites I tasted on my winery visits, Yann’s had vivacity and a crisp, dry finish, which just goes to show the inaccuracy of regional stereotypes. The quality of both reds and whites has improved immensely in Crozes-Hermitage, where a new generation of winemakers looks to express subtle differences in terroir.
Back in 1937 – when Crozes-Hermitage was both the name of the commune and the appellation – comparisons with its illustrious neighbour, Hermitage, were inevitable. But how could Hermitage’s granitic slope, at a mere 136-hectares, cast such a huge shadow over a wine region more than 10 times its size? The answer, then as now, lies in the terroir.
In 1952, 10 more communes were added to the Crozes-Hermitage appellation and today, at 1,700 hectares, it is the second largest AOC in the Rhône after Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Differences in terroir help to explain why one bottle can cost 15 euros and another 50. If we take the Hermitage hillside as the appellation’s dividing point, 80 percent of the wine comes from the south, where the grapes from the alluvial valley floor in Beaumont-Monteux, Chanos-Curson, Mercurol, La Roche-de-Glun and Pont-de-l’Isère are used to make affordable, fruit-forward blends. Since the land is relatively flat, viticulture can be mechanized, which also helps to keep costs down. While the combination of clay-limestone and galets roulés, a good exposition and a conscientious winemaker often results in a very nice wine, it will rarely be mistaken for a precisely focused Hermitage that only reveals its secrets after many years in the cellar.
Some of the appellation’s best vineyards are on the granite and loess hillsides in the northern communes of Serves-sur-Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage, Erôme, Gervans, Larnage and Tain-l’Hermitage. Each of the producers I visited makes at least one Crozes-Hermitage red of terroir, though they don’t all come from vineyards in the north and winemaking techniques vary considerably.
In the last 20 years, important changes have taken place in Crozes-Hermitage’s vineyards and cellars. First, there has been the transition to organic viticulture. In Gervans, Laurent Habrard’s parents found peaches and apricots more profitable than grapes. Curiously, while Laurent was in conversion to organic farming in the early 2000s, he lost two out of three fruit tree harvests without experiencing any reduction in vineyard yields. ‘We are very lucky to have something that is so easy to produce organically in the Rhône Valley,’ he said. ‘Whether you are in the south or the north of the Rhône, you always have the wind and that’s a very important element for limiting disease and helping organic viticulture.’
Mercurol winemaker Gilles Robin followed a similar path in developing his domaine, as his wife Fabienne told me. ‘The older generation had a lot of fruit trees and a few grapes, but they were all sold to the cooperative. The children of these people, like Gilles, have taken over the vineyards, left the cooperative and they do the wine themselves. Before, people didn’t know how to make wine so well. Now, the winemakers study, or are oenologists, and because of this you have better quality in Crozes-Hermitage.’ With that increase in knowledge has come a recognition of the merits of minimal intervention. Philippe Belle, who is based in Larnage, said: ‘Before we worked with the wine a lot in the cellar. More pump-overs and racking. For me that was a mistake because the terroir gives everything the wine needs. If you just leave it alone it will be finer and more elegant.’
With a wealth of professional experience, Jean-Luc Chapel, Domaine Paul Jaboulet Aîné’s brand ambassador, is well-positioned to comment on the appellation’s improved quality: ‘I started my career with Jaboulet as a sommelier with some very old vintages to choose from; at this time every bottle had a lot of sediment. The wine is very clear and pure now. In terms of ageing, we use a bit less oak and are more precise in the barrel-aging. Biodiversity and biodynamic agriculture are huge for me. Years ago, I didn’t think so because I was waiting for the proof, but now I am totally convinced. Today, the wines have more brightness, elegance and better colour.’
Indeed, during each tasting I marveled at the elegance of the white wines. While only 12 percent of the wines made in Crozes-Hermitage are white, innovations at harvest time, such as the use of smaller buckets, optical sorters and the refrigeration of the grapes before pressing, have helped improve freshness. Though there are still examples of luscious, full-bodied wines being made in both colours, purity of fruit has become a focus for many winemakers. Green mulch cover in the vineyard helps retain moisture while all that brooding fruit can be given a lift by including some stems at the press, reducing or eliminating punch-downs of the cap, and using lightly toasted oak barrels for ageing.
Crozes-Hermitage’s larger producers also have the ability to conduct vineyard experiments, the results of which benefit the entire appellation. To combat hail, which caused devastating losses in 2019, Maison M Chapoutier has tried everything from water cannons to salt balloons. In a Côte-Rôtie trial, they limited the size of the plants to better understand water retention in the soil and they even purchased 60 hectares of vineyards in Australia. ‘What we have practiced for the last 20 years in Australia,’ said Maxime Chapoutier, ‘was very useful for France because the climate is getting warmer and it helps us to adapt.’
While I have no information on trends in coffin sales, Crozes-Hermitage whites must be doing well. The scent of honey in Domaine Belle’s Roche Blanche shows the unique character of the Marsanne grape, and sent the gentlest of shivers up my spine; it combined well with fennel and herbs in a spicy, mineral wine.
Read Crozes-Hermitage: Out of the Shadows (Part Two) here.
Andrew James is a professor of English literature at the School of Commerce at Meiji University in Tokyo, Japan. He is currently on sabbatical leave in France at Université Grenoble Alpes in France in order to write a book on Bandol wine. His great interest as a wine researcher is understanding the evolution of wine-speak, and the reflection of culture in wine language.