Nestled under the famous Hermitage hill in Tain, Cave de Tain was established in 1933 and is widely accepted as one of the best co-operatives in France. Wines are made from grapes grown in the North Rhone appellations of St Joseph, Crozes Hermitage, Hermitage, Cornas and St Peray. The red wines from these appellations is all Syrah (although in theory, up to 15% of white grapes are permitted to be used in Hermitage Rouge) whilst the white wines are predominantly Marsanne with some Roussane. Viognier is the grape of Condrieau which is further north (nearer Cote Rotie).
We were lucky enough to have the talented Marie-Josee Faure perform the first part of our tasting. Currently studying for her Masters of Wine (only 5 MWs in France at time of writing), she is pioneering a separate project called Terres de Syrah which is aimed at promoting wine tourism in the area. Check out the website for organised tastings, formal meals and walks through the appellations.
We had a tour around Cave de Tain’s winery, starting with the entrances where grapes from the 300 growers are delivered via a strictly coordinated schedule at harvest time. These grapes are all graded according to quality which then determines their destination – a blend or wines composed of specific parcels. These wines range from own label blends for UK supermarkets (Waitrose or M&S), for example, right up to top quality Hermitage from Cave de Tain’s own plot of land – inherited from its founder – on the famous hill of Hermitage.
- St Joseph Grand Classique 2014
Situated on the right bank (west side) of the river Rhone, St Joseph is predominantly a red wine region so this 100% Marsanne is relatively rare. With aromas of almond and brioche, yet a fresh minerality, this wine is considered a little more aromatic than many white St Josephs. It’s not as rich as a Rousanne; a little more racy somehow.
- Crozes Hermitage 2014
On the opposite side of the river to St Joseph, Crozes Hermitage is the north Rhone’s largest appellation. It’s viewed as a cheaper Hermitage as it doesn’t have the gradient to produce fruit of quite the same quality and finesse. As with St Joseph, Syrah is the dominant grape grown here. White wines make up just over 10% of the production and up to 15% may be blended with red wines at the time of fermentation.
This white Crozes Hermitage is 100% Marsanne again and is fuller and richer than the St Joseph. There’s a definite whack of tropical fruit along with fresh white stone fruit; it’s aged a little in barrique which gives lovely hazelnutty, toasted notes.
- St Peray Fleur de Roc 2014
An appellation that only produces white wine, this St Peray, consisting of 95% Marsanne and 5% Roussanne is very different to the richer Domaine du Tunnel 100% Rousanne St Peray that we enjoyed on our first night of the holiday. With its mineral streak, this is sleeker and fresher – yellow plums, quince and almonds – but still with a rich mouthfeel.
- Hermitage Blanc Grand Classique 2010
The birthplace of Syrah, the appellation of Hermitage itself is limited to the prominent and steep south-facing granite hill, an extension of the Massif Central, looming over the little town of Tain. A little over 20% is planted with Marsanne and a bit of Rousanne, the remainder Syrah.
This 100% Marsanne is full bodied and opulent and bursting with honeyed orchard fruit and musky white flowers balanced with more of that minerality coming from the granite soils. This wine would make a textbook example for the WSET tasting exams as it displays very prominent primary (fruit), secondary (oak/winemaking process) and tertiary aromas (ageing). So on the latter two, there’s a lovely creaminess coming from the oak – along with a bit of pastry and toast. Tertiary: lashings of honey, hay, oatmeal – it’s quite savoury.
- Hermitage Blanc Special Selection 2011
Some of the Marsanne vines whose grapes go into this white Hermitage are 100 years old. Compared to the Grand Classique, this is a little more refined – it’s made with the grapes from just two plots – and still a baby. Floral and orange peel on the nose, it’s a little fruitier and less savoury, with a lovely toffee aftertaste.
- Terroirs d’ Exception Crozes Hermitage Sud 2014
Composed of select parcels of grapes from certain vineyards and sub-regions in the south of the appellation; we got more black fruit in this Syrah compared with other examples. And then a lovely smattering of spice and liquorice on the finish.
- Crozes Hermitage La Grace 2013
This is made with parcels of grapes from the village of Mercurol, which tends to have more alluvial soils whereas the Sud has more granite. The result is layers of concentrated cranberries and redcurrants with a smattering of white pepper.
- St Joseph Espirit de Granite
Produced from 35-40 year old vines, this St Joseph comes from the foothills of the Massif Central. The granite soils yield a lovely peppery, flinty wine but at the same time, it’s fresh and quite elegant despite the understated power. Lots of crunchy red berries too.
- Arenes Sauvage, Cornas 2010
Cornas is a much smaller area than both Crozes Hermitage and St Joseph and on the west side of the river, south of the latter. It is exclusively a red wine appellation and is materially warmer than Hermitage which is a mere 7 km to the north. This is because its granite slopes are arranged in a south facing, semi amphitheatre, protecting the vines from the cold winds. Cornas translates to burnt earth in ancient Celtic and is the first appellation of the North Rhone red wines to be harvested.
There is distinctly more black fruit on the palate – black cherries, damsons and blackberries – with a savoury twist of black olives and a lick of herbs. It’s still amazingly fresh despite the abundance of ripe, baked fruit. Young Cornas is infamous for being chewy and tannic; this is starting to soften – it’s still quite tannic but they are well integrated and developing finesse.
- Kilikanoon Alliance Hermitage 2009
Hermitage made by an Australian wine maker! Australian winery Kilikanoon originally built its reputation on Shiraz which is the same grape as Syrah but denotes a different style (Shiraz: bigger, fruit forward wines; Syrah more restrained). Founder and wine maker, Kevin Mitchell, formed an alliance with Cave de Tain in 2007, and visits to check and process his grapes – from four select Cave de Tain plots – every vintage, overseeing everything from harvesting to the wine making.
Unsurprisingly, this is a sweeter, jammier wine than the more austere, traditionally produced Syrah. Plums and ripe cherries mingle with sweet spices – nutmeg, cinnamon and cardamom.
- Grand Classique Hermitage 2009
Made with grapes from Cave de Tain’s own plot on the hill, this traditional Hermitage smells very different to its Australian-made counterpart. Less of the candied plums and more savoury. On the palate too: along with the concentrated raspberries and cherries, the lick of pepper and the herbs, there’s a lot of meaty, gamey notes.
- Hermitage Epsilon 2006
One of Cave de Tain’s most prestigious wines, Epsilon is composed of two Syrah blends from L’Hermite and Le Meal on the hill. It’s produced only in the best years, and limited to 1,000 to 1,500 bottles. 2006 was the perfect year for this amazing wine. On the nose, it’s very savoury – I thought it smelt like mushroom risotto! On the palate, there’s a hit of fresh red fruit, sweet red pepper, but with a lot of gamey, truffley, earthy and liquorice flavours: it’s like a meal in a glass. It’s incredibly refined; the fine tannins are well integrated. One of the best wines I’ve ever tasted.