Europe

Tain-l’Hermitage

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Thomas Jefferson might have had better weather in the 1780s when he came to the Hermitage Mountain here and declared this vista of the Rhône River valley the most beautiful in all of France. The trip from the Colonial Ambassador’s residence in Paris—564km by modern roads—would have taken him weeks in the official buggy. But Jefferson made several such trips around the country, all in search of the finest French wines for his spectacular collection back in Virginia.

This small granite mountain has been producing some of the finest red wines ever since 1224, when the returning crusader Sir Gaspard de Stérimberg was given the Queen’s permission to retire here. The Syrah grape was born on these slopes, from which it has sallied forth to conquer the fashionable world. But in the 20th century, the mountain started to fall behind its principal competitors, Château Lafite of Bordeaux and Romanée-Conti of Bourgogne. Mainly it was a matter of economics—at $100 for a high-end bottle, the 300 local growers are still hard pressed to make a profit on land that fetches more than $1 million per hectare. And as long as the wine world is ruled by equal parts taste, snobbery, and foolishness, the prices will stay where they are.

But that at least prevented the mountain from providing grist for the greatest scandal in the history of the wine world. In 1985, a German trickster named Meinhard Görke (but going by the goofy name of Hardy Rodenstock) started selling bottles of Bordeaux once owned by Jefferson and supposedly unearthed in a long-hidden Parisian cellar. For more than a decade, Rodenstock obtained world-record auction prices for ancient bottles he had in fact refilled with ho-hum modern vintages. Eventually the fraud was unmasked (by the political Koch Brother Bill, no less), but not before Rodenstock had made utter fools of the wine world’s upper crusts.

You can read all about it in The Billionaire’s Vinegar, a book by Benjamin Wallace. Or wait for the HBO movie—which you can watch with a little French bread, a little French cheese, and a large glass of the finest Hermitage.

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