Thursday, August 25, 2011

Jean Louis Chave Hermitage

One of the greatest mountains I have to climb is giving a brief explanation of what makes Chave so special. "Scoreboard!" Is neither respectful, nor accurate. I've bought or sold Chave practically my entire wine career. I've tasted the wines countless times. I've probably tasted every vintage for the last 20 years, not to mention a respectable smattering of 60's, 70's and 80's bottlings. Yet, even after all of these years, I am just now beginning to be able to articulate what makes these wines quite unlike anything else the world of wine has ever produced.

Let's get this one out of the way first. Chave has been passed down father to son since 1481. 500+ years. To put this in perspective, They were old when Galileo was born. When they first planted Syrah in this family at this site, Columbus had not yet left for the New World. That's pretty old, and they've been an elite producer as far back as the books go. 16 generations. Although, if you speak to people in Hermitage (a scant 326 acres), you'll learn that Syrah has been grown here since about 500 B.C.

"More than anything Hermitage is great, in the sense of Grand Vin, and quite unusually, it is great for both the white and the red wines. It is very rare to have an appellation where you can make both red and white at the same level of quality." -JL Chave

In my (probably controversial) opinion, you can make a claim that Syrah is France's one true Nobel red grape. Pinot Noir is a close second, however, Pinot Noir is a little too fickle in tough vintages. It's many things, and not to downgrade Pinot by any measure, but it just doesn't quite compare to the upside of Syrah. These wines are tremendous in off vintages and age beautifully. It is a varietal that grows well seemingly everywhere, but nowhere else does it become what it is in Hermitage. There is no mono-varietal wine in the world that reaches the heights of Hermitage. The whites on the other hand are remarkable in how they elevate 2 grapes that cannot stand alone, but together, make what many believe to be be the greatest white wine in the world. Roussanne and Marsanne are difficult and unruly. They can get out of whack very easily. When they are done right, it's like suspended animation, these wines don't age, they slowly accelerate. They live seemingly forever without even turning color.

"When you look at our bottles you see what you need to know about us. We don't want to be Chave, we want to be Hermitage. That's where the wine comes from. It just happens to be Chave. Our vineyards are on the hills because they need to look for the sun. Hermitage is Hermitage because it faces south. If there is a place that ever was supposed to be a home for grapes it is Hermitage. I thank my history and my family for finding it. We are very lucky to have these vineyards." -JL Chave

Jean Louis Chave and Hermitage are synonymous. Chave will go to great lengths to keep the conversation about Hermitage rather than about Chave. It is these 326 special acres that is so unique, and Chave is fortunate to own about 10% of the AC including parcels of 9 of the 18 vineyards in Hermitage. Granite hillsides and a very cool climate encourage minerality and slow development. 75% is planted to red 25% is a field blend of Roussanne and Marsanne. The vines are very old, many over 100 years. So old that when they were planted, they didn't realize that Marsanne and Roussanne were different grapes. Chave does not know the percent of the white varietals only the percentages from each of the vineyards.

Grand Vin
What can be said that hasn't already been said? The critics have always (rightfully) fawned over both the red and the white. The red can show: black raspberries, creme de cassis, camphor, acacia flowers, tobacco, truffle, cocoa, braised fig, warm black currant, crushed plum, black cherry, incense, iron and black olive. all with a balanced acidity and silky tannin structure. The white, is something altogether different: Aromas of white flowers, quince, and honeyed citrus, zesty acidity, truffles, white peaches, honeysuckle, marmalade, and crushed rocks. The white is a clinic in both weight and acidity.

It's obviously sacrilegious to even use that term when the wine gods have given you something as rare and special as Hermitage. Manipulation is not only out of the question, it is unnecessary. Hermitage gives a bounty every year, only the great vignerons can find that bounty.
"We make each parcel separately, and we keep them that way. You have to wait until the very end to see each wine express its personality, and then to finally be able to answer this question: what is Hermitage? There are different answers to that question, but as we like to say, we don't propose more than one each year. Making wine is not our job, it is our life. So this blending every year is not something to do on the day you go into your cellar and say "I feel well, I'm going to blend today." You think about it all the time. You blend in your mind, all the time. It is definitely emotional, and the emotional is important. But you can't be entirely emotional about it, because it is also your livelihood. You need to be objective sometimes, too."
While this may be a decidedly hand's off winemaking (perhaps elevage-ing?) approach, it is not a task that is taken lightly. The composition of the art is dependent on the color palate each vintage. Chave is blessed by having more to choose from than anyone. 500 years of intertwined DNA between the vines of Hermitage and the Chave family has brought both wisdom and humility with one pursuit: to showcase the very best that Hermitage can be, every single year.


  1. The J.L. Chave "Mon Coeur" 2007 Cotes du Rhone was EXQUISITE -- my wine of the year so far. And the price (better sit down): less than $20 per bottle. Unbelievably good. Here's my review of it:

    We tried the 2009 and it wasn't nearly as extraordinary. But the 07 I would buy cases of in a heartbeat.

  2. I recently opened up my 2006 Chave Hermitage blanc. It may have been the most complex wine I've ever encountered.