One of the most diverse appellations in France’s Northern Rhône Valley, Crozes-Hermitage is also its biggest. As already mentioned, Rousset’s vineyards are in its most northern communes: Érôme, Gervans, and Crozes-Hermitage. The soil types and hill structures here differ greatly from the rest of the appellation. They are on moderately steep to very steep igneous rock terraces (with a very small amount of metamorphic rock) of the river’s left bank, above the Rhône and tucked back behind the famous Hermitage hill.
Rousset’s vineyards are just north of the Rhône River’s hard left turn that wraps around the south-facing Hermitage. The river carved out this narrow gorge, exposing hard granite rock on each side. This section on the left bank (east side) yields wines of texture and perfume from what we more commonly associate with Cornas and St. Joseph, minus the solar power of those more exposed appellations. Les Picaudières, in the commune Gervans, is historically one of the most revered terroirs inside of Crozes-Hermitage. With its granite and schist-like shards, nearly devoid of topsoil thanks to the steepness of the hill, gravity and hard bedrock, it may be one of the most singular wines from the entire appellation and surely one of its most recognizable when tasted. We haven’t seen or heard much about this historic vineyard from the legend now a few generations past, Raymond Roure, sold to Robert Rousset (Stephane’s father) some decades ago, but its history is worth further investigation.
Crozes-Hermitage is home to France’s noble and rustic red, Syrah, and the whites, Marsanne and Roussanne. In its three original communes the soil for Syrah is largely granitic, but with many small variations of igneous and metamorphic rocks, as is the case of Les Picaudières. His whites, composed of Marsanne, grow mostly on loess, a fine-grained crystalline soil blown in by the wind that results in deep topsoil deposits above granite bedrock on many of Rousset’s vineyards by the river. Loess is a slightly yellowish white color, rich in minerals and calcium, and ideally suited for white wine more than red. Across the river, in Tournon, one of the six original Saint-Joseph communes before numerous expansions, Rousset’s two parcels of St. Joseph are on pure granitic bedrock on a treacherously steep hillside.
A Shorten Version of the Geological History
The geologic setting of the region is interesting and worth bringing into the conversation because it is a significant defining factor between the goût de terroir of certain communes. We go back as far as the Massif Central’s conception more than three hundred million years ago, which is responsible for the granite and metamorphic outcrops found in the Northern Rhône. Now we should pick up the story with the Alpine orogeny and everything that transpired during and after this geological event that is still underway today.
The Alpine orogeny (mountain building event) began around forty million years ago and has carved out the Rhône Valley that sits between today’s Alps and France’s Massif Central and has resulted in opposing geological settings in Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage where on one end sits the ancient granite bedrock of the Massif Central, while on the other, there is a multi-layered alluvial deposition largely brought in by the Rhône and Isère Rivers, whose torrential clashes over the years are most evident on the south and eastern zones of the region. The Rhône River is also responsible for the separation of the western section of Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage from their granitic geological kin across the river.
Granite, one of the darling rock types of the Northern Rhône Valley, is all too often misattributed as the mythical legendary soil of Hermitage. It is indeed an important part of the hill, but it makes up only a small portion of its western flank—perhaps around 15%. The rest of the hill is a layer cake of different alluvial depositions, some rich in calcium carbonate soils (limestone marls, loess, and more) laid down over the last few million years, with the last of the depositions in the form of river alluvium cobbles, gravel, sand, silt, and sometimes clay.
Crozes-Hermitage represents a strongly terroir-diverse region where those with modest budgets can explore the differences soil can impose on a wine. And despite Syrah’s naturally strong vinous characteristics, it is a wonderful transmitter of its terroir, whether or not the terroir can deeply mark its wines. Certain producers represent specific areas principally on different terroirs within the appellation. To cite a few examples: Alain Graillot’s wines come from the Chassis plain on river alluvium, similar to the lowest vineyards of Hermitage, Domaine du Colombier’s wines from Mercurol are on a mix of alluvium with limestone deposits similar to Hermitage’s eastern side, and Stephane Rousset’s are grown on mostly granites similar to the western flank of Hermitage.
The only way to be relatively sure of the specific separation of bedrock and topsoil is to be diligent in your research of where each vigneron’s parcels are located within the appellation. Almost all of the wines only display the appellation name on the label. Insider tip: find the name of the village where they live, which is usually written on the label, and locate it on a geological map. The likelihood is that their vines are nearby, so that’s a good place to start digging.
Microclimates are an important influencer on Crozes-Hermitage wines. Rousset’s differ quite a lot from those on the fully exposed Chassis plain, or even up into Mercurol. The climate in the area behind Hermitage where Rousset’s vineyards are located tend toward warm days, but most of his vineyards are close to the river gorge and are also influenced from the surrounding forests. In the woods and next to the river the air cools quickly at nightfall, refreshing the vines and giving them more time to prepare for the next day’s heat. However, there are moments in the summer when the air goes still and the sun’s power is intense enough to alter the course of an entire vintage within a couple of days, as it did in 2016 where the wines that were picked even days after the heat went crazy show more dried fruit characteristics and higher alcohol. The winters are brisk but not extreme, except for the penetrating winds that often catch people off guard when dressing for a sunny day. The Rhône River also contributes to moderating the temperatures, but likely less than in the past, as hydroelectric dams now dramatically slow the currents from what they previously were in the spring and early summer. -TV