Rhone Valley Syrah/Shiraz & Syrah Blends Hermitage
The Rhone Valley of southern France is a particularly fascinating wine region, with a history that stretches back to at least six hundred BCE, when the ancient Greeks first began cultivating vines there. The region itself is split into two distinct sub-regions, with the northern sub-region being famed for its production of exceptional Syrah, Marsanne, Roussane and Viognier wines, packed full of interesting character and expressing the terroir found there. The southern sub-region is home to an enormous variety of grapes, and produces red, white and rosé wines, and some of the world's most famous and adored blended wines. The continental climate of the region is ideal for growing grapes, and the winds which blow from the Central Massif help temper the heat in the vineyards, leading to very ripe fruits holding plenty of flavor.
The most important grape of the Northern Rhone Valley, Syrah is quickly becoming one of the most noted grapes planted in America. America's best bottlings hail from the Central Coast, Santa Barbara, Sonoma County and Napa Valley. Syrah displays a spicy blend of black pepper and raspberries, with dark fruit undertones; full-bodied with smoke, tar and tannins. It is made into a few magnificent varietally labeled wines, but is also often the base grape for Rhone-style blends. There are those who believe that the Napa Valley should be planted mostly to Syrah, for it thrives in warm growing regions. In Australia, where it is the most-planted red variety, and in South Africa, the grape is known as Shiraz. While viticulturally identical with Syrah, Shiraz grown in Australia is typically sweeter and riper, with more chocolately notes than pepper and spices.
Hermitage is the northern Rhone's most famous red wine appellation. A small district, Hermitage produces remarkably rich, deeply-colored, aromatic red wines made only from Syrah, and complex white wines blended from Marsanne and Roussane. In the 18th and 19th century, Hermitage wines commanded prices akin to First-Growth Bordeaux.
Hermitage is located on a granitic hill of about 311 acres, with southern exposure, and a number of different soil types divided into various climats within the vineyard. The granite and exposure encourage optimal ripening of the grapes. So closely is the variety Syrah identified with the appellation that in Australia, Hermitage is sometimes used as a synonym for Shiraz (the Australian name for Syrah).