Local legend says that Hermitage is the oldest vineyard in France, planted by the Phoenicians in the sixth century B.C. Whatever the truth, this small 325-acre appellation in the Northern Rhône is famous beyond all proportion to its size. Thomas Jefferson was a fan, and so were the czars of Russia. Until the mid-19th century, Bordeaux producers even used to slip a little Hermitage into their own wines to add color and strength. Hermitage is the greatest expression of the Syrah grape, profound and powerful.

So what's the secret of Hermitage? As in real estate, "location, location, location" - a south-facing granite hillside that retains heat and provides excellent drainage into the nearby Rhône. Delas Frères is one of the few producers privileged to control a major chunk (22 acres) of the Hermitage hill. Their Marquise de la Tourette bottling comes from three separate plots on this well-charted slope. Dark and smooth with lush berry fruit, it's complex, rich, and lovely.

2000 Perrin Vinsobres Côtes du Rhône Villages ($16)


The Perrin brothers, Jean-Pierre and François, are the proprietors of the Château de Beaucastel, not far upstream from Avignon. (They're also the co-owners, with wine dealer Robert Haas, of Tablas Creek Vineyard Winery in California's Paso Robles region.) These guys, being descended from several generations of winemakers in the region, have a
better grasp of the Southern Rhône, its terroirs, and its grapes than just about any other wine producers.

Vinsobres is one of the 17 communes - not hippie love nests, but the French equivalent of townships - which are permitted to add their names to the Côtes du Rhône Villages appellation. Two former such communes, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, have graduated to full-fledged appellations, and Vinsobres may do the same one day. The dense, rich 2000 Perrin Vinsobres is a sexy blend of Grenache and Syrah. It's a real value for its modest price, lobbing gobs of ripe blackberry at the palate, freshened by tangy acidity and followed by a clean finish.