Roaming the Northern Rhone Valley: wining & dining in Tain L’Hermitage & Tournon
The terroir of the Northern Rhone Valley is one to behold. How winemakers manage to grow vines on the ultra steep banks surrounding this part of the Rhone is simply astounding. Roaming around the hilly slopes and densely packed vineyards of Hermitage, Cote Rotie and St Joseph, you get a true sense of the jaw-dropping gradient and practical challenges faced by growers here.
The challenging terroir however has a silver lining: the steep hills offer maximum exposure to sunshine and optimal drainage for the vines – both of which come together to produce some of the best quality grape juice in the Northern hemisphere.
For white wine aficionados, there’s the rich, full-bodied, Viognier-based Condrieu, bursting with peaches and apricots. There’s also the floral, citrus fruit-led St Peray and white St Joseph – fresher whites that are blends of Marsanne and Roussane grapes.
However, it’s the silky, elegant, full-bodied reds that the Northern Rhone Valley is most renowned for. For a region whose red wines are made almost exclusively from the Syrah grape, I’m always surprised at how markedly different this single grape variety can taste across the neighbouring appellations.
At the easier drinking end of the scale is St Joseph – good value, medium-bodied reds which drink well young. Most feature fruity notes of raspberries and cherries. The tannins are firm, but in no way harsh with a good kick of spice in each mouthful.
Also on the lower end of the budget scale is Crozes-Hermitage – typically full-bodied, brimming with black fruit, peppery spice and tannins. These can also be enjoyed young but I find the quality can vary widely from one producer to another given the large size of the appellation.
Slightly pricier, and arguably the most full-bodied of the lot is Cornas. Powerful and robust, what it lacks in finesse it makes up for with an abundance of black fruit, structured tannins and a spicy, often smoky finish. Make sure whatever you open is ready for drinking though. I found some of the younger Cornas wines rather flat and overly sour. The best ones we tasted were aged at least 5 years for the fruit to fully develop and the tannins to mellow out.
One step up from Cornas on the budget scale is Cote Rotie, literally meaning “roasted slopes” – a reference no doubt to the long hours of sunshine which bathes the steep hills of the area. Highly tannic, floral on the nose, bursting with rich black fruit and a smoky, peppery finish, these wines are said to have serious ageing potential.
But for me, it’s the Hermitage appellation where Northern Rhone Syrahs really come into their own. Once aged (most growers I spoke to recommend anywhere from 5 to 20 years+!), Hermitages take on a truly wonderful perfume. There’s buckets of ripened red and black fruits. The tannins are structured but silky smooth with a lingering, peppery finish that caresses the palate. Unmatched in elegance, it’s up there with the finest red wine on the planet and totally worth the premium it commands over its neighbouring appellations in the Northern Rhone.
What to see
Both sister towns of Tain L’Hermitage and Tournon-sur-Rhone can easily be covered on foot. Stroll along the banks of the Rhone by Tain L’Hermitage, cross the Passerelle Marc Seguin bridge and explore Tournon’s cobbled lanes and Le Jardin d’Eden (Garden of Eden). A climb up the steep and picturesque vineyards of Hermitage are also a must to fully appreciate the region’s incredible terroir. To follow the main walking trail, take a left at the Tain L’Hermitage train station, walk past the car park then turn right towards Chapoutier’s vineyards, aiming for La Chapelle – the white chapel on the top of the hill. There’s some fabulous views of Tain, Tournon & the river Rhone from the top.
For wine tasting, many of the bigger name producers (Paul Jaboulet Aine, Chapoutier, Cave de Tain, Ferraton) have tasting rooms in the centre of Tain L’Hermitage that are open majority of the week to receive guests. Most tastings are free, but certain producers like Jaboulet do charge a small tasting fee for pours of their premium, aged wines. Be sure to check for opening days and times, especially if you intend on driving out to visit some of the smaller artisan producers outside of town (many of the smaller wineries are only open on specific days or by appointment only).
Chocoholics also have reason to rejoice in Tain L’Hermitage. Valrhona’s Cite du Chocolate offer free tastings of their world renowned chocolate as well as tours of their Discovery centre.
Where to eat
Run by a delightful Franco-Japanese couple, our lunch at Les Mangevins in Tain L’Hermitage was one of the highlights of the trip. This cosy and convivial wine bar serves up hearty, modern French cuisine with a touch of Japanese influence. Expect dishes like Escargot with Onsen Egg & Petit Pois or Valrhona Chocolate Molleaux with Matcha ice-cream, Strawberries & Rhubarb. Add to that superb wines by the glass, fabulous service and great value for money and it’s no wonder it’s one of the most well regarded eateries in the region. Reservations are essential – it’s a small place and gets very busy!
On the other side of the river in Tournon, the marvellous Comako is not to be missed. Expect phenomenal produce, intricate cooking and beautifully presented food at this friendly and welcoming Modern French restaurant. Their €33 set menu which includes 3 courses plus amuse bouches and local cheeses was fantastic value considering the quality at play. The Lamb fillet with kataifi, black olives and spiced cous cous is an absolutely must if you see it on the menu!
Don’t want to pay a hefty restaurant mark up for a great bottle of wine? Pick up a hunk of local Charolais Beef from the local butcher as we did and wash it down with a bottle of lush Hermitage.
Where to stay
If you are travelling by car and have a group of 5 to 6 people, I highly recommend a stay at the Les Gites de Cedres cottage located a 15 minute drive up from Tournon in the hills of St Joseph. With mod cons galore, boundless amounts of lounging space (both indoors and outdoors), a fully stocked wine cellar and adjoining games den, it’s a true home away from home in the most idyllic and rural of settings.
Les Gites de Cedres
Au revoir La Vallée du Rhône. We will most definitely be back again for our Hermitage fix!