Passing the Holy Gréal from Father to Son: Marc and Guillaume Sorrel

Passing the Holy Gréal from Father to Son: Marc and Guillaume Sorrel

Bonjour du premier voyage tout seul au volant,
                      One of my most personally meaningful new partnerships of the past three years has to be with the soft spoken Sorrel family of Tain l’Hermitage, artisan vignerons of the highest order, undeniably a benchmark reference point for the appellation.  After a year of Covid imposed absence, it was an absolute delight to taste the wildly impressive ’20s from barrel, and to get to spend quality time à table with Guillaume Sorrel and his wife Julie in November of ’21.  Much to my surprise, they told me that I am their only US importer at the moment, as they don’t have wine to sell, and they too appreciate the kind of intimacy and sincerity that we have going.  Guillaume is now flying solo, his father Marc truly taking retirement after the 2018 vintage.  Often, life long vignerons will say that they’re going to retire, only to constantly mettle and tinker, unable to let it go…..Much to the family’s surprise, Marc literally didn’t set foot back in the winery until cellar renovations were completed in the Summer of ’21; they think that he really needed to have total separation, and is now warming to being able to visit with a more natural ease.  Meanwhile, Guillaume continues to bring subtle evolutions to the estate, with the aforementioned cellar improvements certain to afford greater ease of work and precision.  Both 2019, which I did not taste having missed last year, and 2020 continue the string of quite warm and dry vintages; Guillaume vinified both years with whole clusters.  The house hallmark finesse still shines even with such powerful density, and I found myself in fits as we tasted through the ’20s.  The 2020s were reviewed with glowing remarks from stalwart N Rhône reviewer John Livingston Learmonth, very much a big fan of the fluid density of the vintage….Like so many good things that come in small packages, the biggest problem is spreading it around…..I have a decent lil’ chunk of the Hermitage reds, so I will be able to make many of you happy……If you haven’t had the Sorrel‘s wines before, or have yet to taste for yourself why the Hermitage hill is such a revered reference point for Syrah the world over, the time is now…..incidentally, the in stock 2017 and 2018 whites shouldn’t be missed by anyone who is a fan of Rousanne/Marsanne based wines at their most dynamic and complex, as the Sorrel‘s have a really really good touch, not to mention that the 2017 les Rocoules may be one of the greatest white Hermitage wines ever made……and so…..
                      It was nearly one thousand years ago that a wounded knight, Gaspard de Stérimberg, chose to lay down his arms and retreat from the world, taking refuge in a small shelter that he built at the top of a sun drenched hillside overlooking the Rhône river.  This small mountain comprised of granite and a complex amalgam of sand, limestone, and alluvial deposits had been under vine stretching back to the Greeks in 600 BC, then the Romans, but had gone fallow since their departure.  Stérimberg’s hermitic work replanting the vineyard quickly garnered enough renown that pilgrims would venture here, remove their shoes at the base of the hillside, and walk up the hill to the now famous chapel built in honor of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of the traveller, located in today’s lieu dit l’Hermite.  This is the origin for what has become one of the most famous, iconic, yet little understood appellations in all of France, l’Hermitage (aka l’Ermitage).  
                        The appellation itself is just 136 hectares, the smallest in all of the Rhône valley, divided into 20 single parcel lieu dits of varying composition and character.  For over 100 years, the dark Syrah wines grown here, arguably the birthplace of the varietal as well as the most powerful and ageworthy examples in the region, were systematically used to beef up Bordeaux and Burgundy wines, earning its own verb in the process: to “hermitage” a wine.  In the 1800s, after centuries of being the chosen wine of French royalty, the wines were the most expensive and sought after in the world alongside Chateau Lafite and Domaine de la Romanée Conti; it is interesting to note that the Roussanne/Marsanne based white wines fetched even greater prices than the reds at that time.  It was in the late 19th century amidst the continued fallout of the French revolution and the growing commercial importance of Hermitage that the larger négociants were born: Delas, Chapoutier, and Jaboulet.  Along with the Chave family, vignerons de père à fils since the late 15th century, and the cooperative Cave de Tainthese five owners today comprise some 85%! of the entire appellation.  Today’s momentous intro takes us to the well-under-the-radar next largest landowner on the list at a wee two hectares, a pinnacle example of the small-is-beautiful, artisan vigneron de terroir at the crowning apex of his long 40+ year career, passing the baton on to the next generation: Marc Sorrel and his son Guillaume.
                       The Sorrel family has been farming here for some five generations, using the small, unassuming cellar facilities pictured above along the main road through Tain l’Hermitage, dating back to the late 18th century.  It was in the early 1980s that young Marc ceased selling a portion of the family’s grapes and chose to bottle the entirety of their production under their own label.  The family’s holdings are in some of the most prized parcels of the hill, with their best from ancient 100+ year old vines: from the red wine tenderloin parcels of le Méal, les Greffieux, les Bessards, and the little known Sorrel family monopole les Plantiers; and in white, a smidgen in les Plantiers, les Greffieux, and one of the pinnacle white wine stars of the hillside, the grand cru les Rocoules.  They also farm 1.5 hectares located above/behind the Hermitage hill in Larnage, part of the Crozes Hermitage appellation.  Remarkably, Marc has operated in old school, timeless fashion, doing literally everything himself and manually at that, including hand pumped, one-at-a-time bottling and labeling with a brush and glue right up until three years ago, the second to last vintage of his storied career.  Whereas there was some subtle variation in the house recipe for vinification and élevage over the years, the practices for at least the past decade have included uniquely used wooden barrels and a minimum of 50% whole cluster inclusion; in short, this remains a naked traditionalist house par excellence.
                        Whereas Marc’s wines have always been celebrated among a small passionate circle of cognoscenti, his laid back, man-of-the-land personality avoided the modern limelight.  That sense of privacy coupled with the tiny production and a fiercely loyal client base has kept the wines to a whisper amidst a saturated modern landscape of marketing noise and trophy hype.  The presence and influence of Marc’s son Guillaume, a fellow 40+ year old and good friend/classmate of Thomas Pico of Domaine Pattes Loup, cannot go unnoticed, as his contributions to refine all things vineyard work to bottling has brought noteworthy qualitative strides to the full breadth of their range (their best has always been great), as well as an impressive consistency.  I feel that it is by no means an overstatement to say that in the landscape of Grand cru worthy traditionalist Hermitage at its very best, the two greatest producers on the hill are Sorrel and Chave.
                         This past January 2019, Marc officially handed over the reigns to Guillaume, taking his retirement.  He was very very pleased to be able to end his life’s-labor-of-love on such an emphatic high note: he feels that without question, the 2018 wines stand as the finest of his career, which is not a superlative to take lightly…..Guillaume and I met in November to taste through the range in cask, and I can very much sense why the family feels so strongly; across the board, these are stunning wines of an intensity and poise that are quite simply as good as it gets…..Guillaume lamented to me that they do not enjoy the deep financial security of a Chave, who has increasingly elected to hold back quantities of their Hermitage to cellar them until greater maturity for fear that the turn-and-burn contemporary restaurant culture is effectively committing massive infanticide.  Guillaume would love to keep much of the ’18s for the ages, but the economic pressures of a tiny family operation necessitates turning the fiscal wheel.  In self-evident, proof-is-in-the-pudding fashion, the 2018s were all so freakin’ good that I immediately asked Guillaume if I can order Magnums of any and everything in the range, including wines that have never been brought to America before.  Guillaume, sensing my genuine wine freak passion and generational birds-of-a-feather likeness, gladly accepted my proposal, much to my delight…….
                         Thus, what follows is a soup to nuts offering of their full range, some of which have never been brought to America before, all offered in magnum to boot!!  Whereas the Hermitage wines are Grand cru class in a glass by any measure, for those of us without such deep pocketbooks or patience, I found the Crozes Hermitage wines to offer sensational value meets substance, chock full of the patte maison (house touch) and intensity.  Marc, Guillaume, and I are not the only ones who will tell you that the ’18s are exceptional vins de garde: John Livingstone Learmonth, perhaps the world’s leading devotee/critic of Rhône wines, praised the full range with superlatives, including a six! star rating for their flagship le Gréal, his highest possible rating.  I could not be more pleased to be able to offer these, as the timing could not be better, and the soulful substance and “my kind of people” vibe are in full effect…..Northern Rhône freaks, heads up!! This is not one to miss!!!…..and so……..
2020 Crozes Hermitage blanc  –  Yields of the Crozes wines were simply minuscule once again in 2020, so I am only getting a single case of each….I will do my best to spread it around….. This is one of the wines that has never been exported before, as they make so very little of it.  This hails from the two adjoining parcels in Larnage (La Bouvate and les Rennes), from vines aged some 70+ on average, just three barrels produced in total (75cs).  My note for the 2018: This is at once wonderfully rich and intense in concentration and then impossibly light and aérien.  To my taste and experience, such obviously classy intensity would outshine many Hermitage wines, at a price that is remarkably fair and affordable.  Once again, for those of you wishing to see what great Hermitage blanc is like at prices that would embarrass such competition, this is your stop…..
“Shiny yellow robe. The nose is springy, a good mix of ripe fruit and clarity, licorice, toasting, quince present. The palate has a nicely rich, elegant debut, offers squeezy appeal, is succulent and pleasing, well founded, tasty. There is a peach presence in the flavour. This will go well with trout and almonds. 2031-33 July 2021” Four stars, John Livingstone Learmonth for this 2020
Sorrel‘s white Crozes comes from 60-year-old vines planted in Larnage, on kaolin-rich soils. The 2020 Crozes Hermitage Blanc—there are just three barrels, from yields of just 15 hectoliters per hectare—is another impressive vintage of this wine. Hints of toasted grain and grilled pineapple appear on the nose, while the palate is medium to full-bodied, ripe and round, with a rich, almost velvety texture and a long, long finish.” 91-93 Joe Czerwinski
2020 Crozes Hermitage rouge – Yields of the Crozes wines were simply minuscule again in 2020, but they have given me a few more cases to try to spread it around……  My note on the 2018: The first of the red wines shocked me to delicious attention.  Again, from two neighboring parcels in Larnage, and (for the first time) with 100% whole cluster in this solar year (50% in 2017).  There is incredible intensity of flavor here, as the yields were but 25 hl/ha, lower than most Grand cru Burgundy.  Aromatically, its light black fruits, smoky meats, and whole cluster spice are just gorgeous and wonderfully complex.  In the mouth, the same flavors are present, with a depth, resonance, and succulence that had me shaking my head.  The wine is completely seamless and harmonious.  I don’t believe that one could possibly ask for more……Guillaume tells me that at yields like this, he is basically losing money to make this wine….!  But since it is a Crozes Hermitage, one can only charge so much…..To my taste, this is a remarkable value, as its intensity and pedigree are undeniable.  Get what you can justify, and thank me later.  A little * awarded here.

“Bright, dark red robe; there’s an emphasis of cassis de Dijon liqueur on the nose, sweet tones, blackcurrant leaf-bud. The palate is linear, propels its black berry fruits with freedom, comes with engaging, tasty features, takes up soft tannins that provide their own nourishment. It’s joli, nicely presented Crozes with a spherical shape and rather fragrant length. 14°. 100% whole bunch. 2034-36 July 2021” Four stars, John Livingstone Learmonth

Sorrel‘s entirely whole-cluster 2020 Crozes Hermitage comes from his 60-year-old vines in Larnage. Gorgeous aromas of violets, dried herbs and cassis emerge on the nose, while the wine is full-bodied and creamy-ripe in the mouth, showing tremendous length on the finish. There will be no racking or filtration prior to bottling. Worth a search.” 92-95 Joe Czerwinski
2020 Hermitage blanc “Classique” – My note on the 2018: Again, a wine that is produced is such small quantities that it hasn’t been exported to America before, the Sorrels made a scant three barrels (75cs) of their blanc Classique, hailing roughly 80% from les Greffieux and 20% from les Plantiers, sometimes with some young vine Rocoules added into the mix.  Again, the combination of richness, weightless poise, and self evident class had me in fits; there is something of a magical balancing act here.  An undoubtedly delicious and mesmerizing example of the unique nobility of Hermitage blanc.  A little star * awarded here.
“Marsanne from Les Greffieux, bought in 1983-84 from Madamemoiselle Chierpe, re-planted 1990, can be plus a little Marsanne from Les Rocoules, fermented, raised 5-10 year 228-litre oak casks 14 months, from 2007 20-25% new oak used, only sold in France, not enough for export, 900-1,800 b” JLL
“Yellow robe; the nose is discreet, involves cooked lemon, fennel, roasted nuts, more to emerge mildly more than suddenly. The palate gives gentle gras on debut, is well toned, a bit arm’s length for now, but is going to be open quite early with a tender approach and well tempered, low-key length. It’s a refined, traditional Hermitage blanc, does well on that basis. From 2023. 2040-42 July 2021” Four Stars, John Livingstone Learmonth
Sorrel‘s “classic” white Hermitage comes essentially from les Greffieux. From 60-year-old Marsanne vines and set to spend a total of 18 months in older oak (nothing newer than four years), a barrel sample of the 2020 Hermitage Blanc was a thrilling joyride of honeyed white peaches and ripe pears. Full-bodied, rich and incredibly textural, it should be a beauty.” 93-95 Joe Czerwinski
2020 Hermitage blanc les Rocoules  –  Perennially one of the greatest white wines of the appellation, from principally 100+ year old vines on the clay/chalk/alluvial stony soils of les Rocoules (from which the guts of Chave’s Hermitage blanc also hails), this is self evident, as good as it gets class in a glass, no matter how you slice it.  The 2017 has an even more weightless quality, Guillaume had mentioned to me, than the ’18, which plain dazzled me for its impossible harmony of such richness with lift.  From Learmonth’s superlative review and recommendation to begin tasting it in 2023-2024, to Marc’s 30+ year wine endorsement, to this fellow who now writes for Parker Joe Czerwinski and his superlatives, much to whet the appetite….
  My tasting note on the 2018 : A similar profile of weightless intensity as the Classique blanc, but with an impossible to miss step up in amplitude and complexity both aromatically and in the mouth, this is still an embryonic expression of what will surely evolve tremendously.  Guillaume tells me that Marc believes that Hermitage white is even more ageworthy than the red, and that it is infanticide to open a bottle prior to its fifteenth birthday.  I have a hard time imagining this being anything but dazzling gorgeous in the full flush of its youth, but I, like so many wine lovers, hardly know aged white Hermitage at all.  Livingstone, who knows his sh!t lifetimes more than I, gave this his highest rating of the vintage en blanc.  What else can I say?  As good as it gets…..A little * awarded here.  5 barrels made (125 cases).
“85-95% Marsanne, 5-15% Roussanne from 1928, 1930s, early 1950s on Rocoules, fermented, raised 4-5 year 228-litre oak casks 16-18 months, from 2007 20-25% new oak used, 900-2,600 b” JLL
“yellow robe; the bouquet is very promising, offers style and clarity of fruit, good variety to come, peach, peach stone, cooked lemon airs present. The palate is also very silken, continuous, comes with very good elegance, length, harmony. It holds lovely potential, is classy, balanced. There are quince notes on the aftertaste, light jam there. “Rocoules didn’t suffer at all from the drought,” G Sorrel. From 2025 or so. 2043-45 July 2021″ Five Stars, John Livingstone Learmonth
2020 Hermitage rouge “Classique” – As we step into the Hermitage red wines, it is worthwhile to mention that the best red wines on the hill are from a tenderloin section on the western side, whose contiguous sites most aficionados will recognize: le Méal, l’Hermite, les Bessards, and les Greffieux.  All of the Sorrel red parcels are found in this area, including a family Monopoly owned site that sits at the foot of the hill below les Greffieux/Meal/l’Hermite named les Plantiers.  I hadn’t heard of les Plantiers before, having visited with Chave and Chapoutier several times.  As it is a monopoly, no wonder I hadn’t heard of it before……Their Hermitage rouge Classique hails from 85% les Plantiers, as well as 15% from les Bessards (which Guillaume plans on separating in the future to make a small Bessards cru bottling!).  The land is flat here, a welcome relief says Guillaume after working the steeps/terraces of some of the other parcels.  The soil is deep here, of particularly lime rich clay.  My thought on the 2018: I thought that this sh!t was ridiculously good, in a completely unexpectedly finessed fashion, like Côte Rôtie at its most aérien and delicate best, or a Burgundy-like power without weight animal.  This is very much paler than the Crozes, with a dark red fruit tone, and painful weightless intensity.  I would have never thought that such a finessed creature could be possible, both from a deep soiled, lower slope parcel as well as a hot year like 2018.  But I guess that’s why they don’t make wine on paper…..!  I’m tellin’ ‘ya, this stuff is stunningly finessed, the delicate beauty to the le Gréal’s beast…….get what you can justify, and thank me later.  A little * awarded here.  12 barrels made (300 cases).
“Dark red colour; the nose is reserved, but shows promise, offers a restrained aroma of black fruits, nice shafts of freshness. The palate is well themed with pure fruit, fresh tannins slotting in, plays a good harmony, is en finesse, already good to drink. There’s a good accumulation of its pure fruit on the close, red cherry there. It’s genuine, and a good example of the 2020 vintage, too. From 2024 or so. 2045-47 July 2021” Four Stars, John Livingstone Learmonth
“Syrah 80% from Les Plantiers (1970, flat land, 77%), 20% from Les Bessards (late 1980s, 15%), Les Greffieux (late 1980s, 8%), destemmed, 2 week vinification, cap punched, aged 1-6 year 225 & 228-litre oak casks 16-20 months, unfined, unfiltered, 2-3 bottlings, 3,500 b” JLL
“Chiefly (90%) from Les Plantiers—a little-known lieu-dit toward the western base of the slope—with about 10% Les Bessards, Sorrel‘s 2020 Hermitage looks like its customary supple, silky self, with masses of raspberry fruit, ample weight and richness and a long, elegant finish. It should drink well soon after release and evolve well for more than a decade.” 92-95 Joe Czerwinski
2020 Hermitage rouge Le Gréal  – And lastly and certainly not least, the estate flagship bottling, taking its name from an invented combination of the two parcels that comprise it: le Méal and les Greffieux turned le Gréal.  They are roughly 90/10 in proportion, so it is principally le Méal, and very very old vines at that located at the center or the cru, pushing up on 100 years… has layers of geological complexity that change throughout the parcel, both granitic and alluvial.  My note for the 2018: At this point, I just stopped writing anything, fully arrested by the depth and intensity of the wine.  This is notably more powerful and dark relative to the Classique in all aspects, with even more savory and multi-dimensional interest.  It is at once jaw droppingly powerful, yet completely graceful, all elements intense and harmonized; the finish resonated for a very very long time.  Fine wine, at its very best, elicits an arresting emotional response, and this is one of those wines…..
The red Hermitage Le Gréal can be very good indeed, a true child of the hill, and is indeed mighty in vintages such as 2010, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2020 – the last three crackerjack wines.” – JLL
“85-90% 1927-28 Syrah and some Roussanne, Marsanne from Le Méal, 10-15% 1984-85 Syrah from Greffieux, can be about 50% destemmed (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017 all whole bunch), 3 week vinification, early pumping overs to oxygenate the yeasts, cap punched, aged 25% new, 75% 1-6 year oak 16-20 months (first new oak was 2004), unfined, unfiltered, 2,432-5,000 b” JLL
“Very dark robe; cordite, smoke airs feature with intense blackberry on the nose – for all that, it’s well measured, has soaked up the sun rays, glistens with well being, gives a very good start. The palate shows more richness than the nose, is profound, lingering, very deep, coated. Its richness comes from within, then there’s a burst out of gaol on an explosive finale. It’s more harmonious than the 2019, gives a good combination of salt, moss, iodine, with cloves on the finish. It will go a long way, is aromatic, has compelling certainty with silk for now, flair to emerge. There’s a cluster of powdered tannin on the close, velvet there, too. It will go well with spiced cuisine. From 2028 or so, decant.  It’s hovering above *****, so gets the ****** call-up for now. 2054-56 July 2021” Six stars, John Livingstone Learmonth (his highest rating…)
2018 Hermitage blanc 

“(Les Greffieux, used 228-litre cask, malo completed) full yellow; has a grilling, toasted aroma, cooked citrus in the air, white plum, white peach – it has style. The palate tastes well, carries good appeal, with balance and steady length, not a false step. This is kind, joli, appealing Hermitage, carries detail, persists, tick tock. It’s classic, traditional Hermitage. From 2024, decanting advised. 2040-43 Nov 2018” Four and a half stars, John Livingstone Learmonth

Sorrel‘s 2018 Hermitage boasts scents of gently toasted hazelnuts over a lush base of peach and pineapple fruit. Full-bodied, it’s ripe and honeyed, finishing with great persistence and texture.” 93-95 Joe Czerwinski

2017 Hermitage blanc les Rocoules  As good as it gets…..!
“thick, deep yellow, a gleaming robe; Has a sweet n’plump aroma, plum and exotic fruit such as guava jelly airs. The nose lies low, carries much potential, extends long, really keeps going, has a smouldering intensity. This is like red wine on the palate – it has the structure, is eighteenth century Hermitage blanc for the very long haul. There’s bounty in the glass, with nuttiness, apricot, greengage in the flavour. It is thorough all along the palate, with Marsanne at its heart, giving it notes of mineral, dorsal column, while the 8% Roussanne adds flattery. This is remarkable, since there is precision in the late stages also, and an aromatic aftertaste. 14.3°. Harvested 3 September 2017. Decanting advised. From 2023-24 to allow it time to get going, do not drink around 2020. “Be patient with this – it will live for 30+ years,” Marc Sorrel. 2050-52 Nov 2018 Previously Nov 2017 ***** (228-litre cask) shiny, full yellow. The bouquet is lovely, has real pedigree, a graceful hazelnut aroma, ginger, citrus tang, a note of aniseed and licorice cut, expressive Marsanne on the agenda. The attack is wholesome, pursues its path well, delivers flowing richness, holds squeezy, effortless content, old vine sève or sap. There is a cooked lemon clarity in it. This has very good freshness, is a balanced, complex wine, detailed, long and true wine. 14.5°. 2039-42 Nov 2017″ Five Stars John Livingstone Learmonth
“Is this the greatest Les Rocoules I’ve ever tasted? The 2017 Hermitage Blanc Les Rocoules shows more structure than the 2018, informed by greater freshness and crushed stone nuances. It’s full-bodied, loaded with power and richness and possesses layers of ripe fruit, yet it remains cool and refreshing on the long, long finish. When confronted with a wine like this, words tend to fail to convey the emotion and sensations of the moment—you have to try it for yourself.” 97-99 Joe Czerwinski of the Wine Advocate
2018 Hermitage blanc les Rocoules 

“(used 228-litre cask, malo completed) glowing, full yellow. The nose is broad, prolonged with elegance centre stage; it doesn’t breathe power, has hidden depths, pork grilling airs. Variety will come along, the nose intricate within its splendour. The palate is stylish, presents fluid gras with suave texture, silken above all. It holds a really neat nugget of compote of white fruit gras richness at its centre. The palate is close-knit, tightly woven. It will declare its inner strength gradually, not excessively. There is a touch of late glow. There were five casks this year. Harvested 4 September, 2018. 15.2°. 2043-46 Nov 2018” Five stars, John Livingstone Learmonth

“A blend of 90% Marsanne and 10% Roussanne, Sorrel‘s 2018 Hermitage Blanc Les Rocoules is a huge, honeyed, rich effort that should still be drinking well in 25 years. It’s difficult to see the structure under all of the lush melon and pineapple fruit, but it’s there, emerging on the finish to show incredible length and freshness. It’s a true legend in the making.” 96-98 Joe Czerwinski

2019 Hermitage blanc les Rocoules $199 1 bottle available
And there we have it.  After waiting more than a decade to partner with someone in storied Hermitage, I couldn’t be happier and more grateful to partner with the Sorrels, at such a pinnacle moment as this, both the changing of the generational guard as well as the two vintages that Marc refers to as the finest of his five decade long career!! The wines are just outrageously good, and I have a feeling that Guillaume will only continue to push things to greater heights, as his passion and progressive vision are special indeed.
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