As you walk through the winding streets of Tournon, it can seem like many quaint towns in France. Restaurants and cafes buzzing, rude drivers honking impatiently, stone churches announcing their glory with every ring of the bell. Such a place is experienced best at night, when the streetlights illuminate the old buildings, creating that oh so French glow. It is the perfect time to cross the Rhône River, over the historic Marc Seguin suspension bridge, which is one of Europe’s oldest. This is a walk like no other, the link to the iconic hillside village of Tain l’Hermitage. It’s right there in the name, Hermitage, but as you glide across the creaky bridge, feeling the history of this old place in every step, the famous hill is nowhere to be seen. The village gives off little light and darkness covers all. All, that is, except for one shining, remarkably bright light that seems to float high up in the air, pulling all wine lovers to the holy grail of Rhône destinations. It is a sight that gives goosebumps to those who appreciate wine as a gateway to culture and beauty in the world. It is, of course, the Chapel of Saint Christopher – or what is simply known as La Chapelle.
The history of Hermitage is inexorably linked with the history of La Chapelle. In 1224, a knight named Gaspard de Sterimberg returned from the Crusades seeking calm and serenity after the horrors of war. Awed by the beauty and dramatic vistas of Hermitage, he settled at the top of the hill where, with the permission of the Queen of France, he built a stone chapel to be used as a place for prayer and refuge. Those who joined him atop this pastoral hill planted vines on the perfectly exposed south-facing slopes and began to make wine. The wines first gained considerable fame when Louis XIII declared Hermitage to be the wine of the court after he was offered a glass during a visit to the region. Since that time the royalty of France would include Hermitage, along with Champagne and Bordeaux, in their gifts to the monarchs of Europe. These wines were so desirable that during the 19th century the term ‘hermitaged’ was coined to describe when a domaine from Burgundy or Bordeaux would add Hermitage to their wines in order to increase body and structure. This notoriety did not go unnoticed by the Jaboulet family, and in 1889 the eponymous Paul Jaboulet purchased 2.83 prime hectares on the Hermitage hill. He would have to wait until 1919 to finally purchase La Chapelle itself, creating the foundation for a wine that would become the standard for Syrah in the world.
As it stands today, Hermitage comprises barely 140 ha (to put that into context, Chateau Margaux is 260 ha). It is split up into three main sections: Les Bessards, l’Hermite, and Le Méal. Paul Jaboulet Aîné owns vineyards on every part of the hill, with La Chapelle being predominantly from the limestone based soils of Le Méal. Historically this area yields powerful, dense wines that age gracefully for decades. To balance the sheer power that comes from this terroir, La Chapelle includes grapes grown on the granite slopes of Les Bessards, which yield a higher toned, mineral expression of Syrah. This magical blend of terroirs is just one reason that La Chapelle is a beacon that calls out to wine lovers the world over, but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Lafite, Yquem, Paul Jaboulet’s La Chapelle… These are the legends of wine. But what makes them so iconic and revered? Ageability and consistency year to year are musts, but it doesn’t fully explain the emotions when an immaculately stored bottle of Jaboulet La Chapelle is presented. Perhaps it’s the knowledge that when we take a sip of this haunting wine, we are part of a long lineage of pleasure seekers who have discovered great wine to be a portal. It takes us back to ol’ Louis XIII taking his first sip of Hermitage, and we feel exactly what he felt at the very moment. Or maybe we feel the overwhelming calm and peace felt by the knight Gaspard de Sterimberg when he stepped inside his newly built chapel for the first time, allowing the afternoon sun to warm his war-ravaged bones. We’re not just experiencing the now when we drink a wine such as this, we become intertwined in its cultural history, allowing the centuries of joyous and spiritual experiences to be felt with every sip from a quickly dwindling glass. This is all perhaps a bit too romantic, but when I am lucky enough to have a sip of Jaboulet La Chapelle, I am brought back to the old suspension bridge in Tournon, walking towards the majestic hillside of Hermitage, in absolute awe of the shining beacon that is guiding our path.