As of today, I've finished my annual tour of France's Rhône Valley, this time to taste the 2009 and 2008 lineups from barrel at the region's best and most exciting wineries. On my last visit of the trip I headed to Jean-Louis Chave for a rigorous walk in the vineyards. Earlier today I headed to Jean-Luc Colombo and Delas, the notes for which you can read in Part 1 of today's visits. For an overall view of these two vintages' characteristics, as well as links to all of my recent coverage of the region, check out "Tasting 2008 and 2009 Rhône Wines."
Every visit with Jean-Louis Chave includes a walk in the vineyards. But when Jean-Louis' wife, Erin, left a message for me the morning of my scheduled visit, saying to "bring a good pair of shoes," I should have known it would be a little different from normal.
Chave has been slowly rebuilding abandoned terraces and replanting old vineyard sites in the hills above the small towns of Lemps and Mauves. It's been nearly 15 years of work and the last of the terraces above Lemps will be planted this year. The vines have been planted as sections have been completed, with Chave vinifying slightly more and more wine from the site in every vintage since 2002. It's been going into Chave's négociant Offerus label with an eye on going to the estate St.-Joseph down the road. For more on Chave's wines, reference my cellar notes from March 2009, July 2008, November 2007, November 2006 and January 2005.
"It takes 10, maybe 15 years for the vines to really start delivering good fruit," said Chave, who walks and talks deliberately. "That's the craziness of this work. First you do all this," he said, gesturing at the two workmen going stone by stone along the latest terrace. "And then once that's finished, more craziness starts, because then you have to farm the vineyard."
The Lemps site features very decomposed granite: Chave picked up a large stone, and then crumbled it easily with his fingers.
"This is really old soil, fine and minerally," he said. "it's perfect for vines, of course, but we have to bring in other rock to rebuild the walls."
The vines are so tightly spaced that the vineyard will have to be worked by hand. Facing south, it has excellent exposure and is protected from the wind. The soils will dominate the profile of the wine, said Chave, delivering a wine with finesse.
Above the town of Lemps, Jean-Louis Chave has spent 15 years renovating abandoned terraces.
From there we go to the sites above Mauves. Chave's parcel here is significantly larger, and it winds around a hillside, tracing the path of a stream that cuts through below. Last year, Chave bought a tract of land that connects this parcel all the way down the hillside, to a piece of land at the southern end of the town of Mauves itself, which he calls "the clos," a walled vineyard on flat land, but featuring the same crumbled granite that is on the slopes.
"It was such an opportunity," said Chave of the purchase. "It pulled everything together. And to be able to work with such a soil on both slopes and the flats should be interesting."
The property Chave just purchased had some vines planted on it already, but he's ripping them out as he didn't like the way they were put in. With the uncleared parcels and more abandoned terraces here, Chave has a mountain of work to do, literally.
"It takes time to do things," said Chave simply. "But it's really amazing what you can do with time."
We scrambled down one side—it's particularly steep—and then worked our way across the bottom of the new hillside. We came to where Chave has begun to replant with wider spacing so that the land can be farmed by winch, instead of by hand.
"This spot is too much to do by hand. That would really have been crazy," he said.
Jean-Louis Chave contemplated the work that waits for him in his new hillside vineyard above Mauves.
The granite soils in the spot above Mauves are less decomposed than those at Lemps. It also has chunks of mica in it and, as it wraps around, from southeast to south exposure, it turns to rust-colored schist. Chave expects a fuller-bodied wine from here, with perhaps more rustic structure, as compared to the wine from Lemps. We trudged back up the other side of the site and the sun was beaming down. It's March, but the spot is downright warm, even with a brisk breeze blowing.
"This could be a little Cornas-like, while Lemps is probably more Côte-Rôtie-like," he said. "Of course, first it takes 10 to 15 years to plant the vines, then maybe another 20 to make the wine and see what it can be."
We then tour "the clos" itself, an arcing sweep of 4 hectares littered with old vines and a mélange of cherry, apricot and fig trees. Chave is planting a mix of native plant species in and around the property, replacing dead vines, removing an old wire trellis to replace it with the wooden stakes and renovating the cellars on the property, which had a host of foudres (very large oak vessels which can hold 1,500 liters or more) and old barrels filled with back vintages of wine from the previous owners.
"Some of it wasn't that bad," said Chave with a sheepish smile, though he said he sold most of it off in order to make room for his own wines. He'll run his burgeoning négoce operation out of here from now.
The workload seems enormous, even without factoring in the vines that Chave already works on the more famous hill across the river, in Hermitage.
"Hermitage is a place, it's defined and it's all together," said Chave. "But what is St.-Joseph? You have vineyards spread out, different soils, hills and flat. That's why I'll probably be making different cuvées from St.-Joseph, from the different sites. It's a way to figure out what St.-Joseph is."
I joke with Chave that maybe the small town of Mauves could use a wine bar if he needed another project to take on.
"No way," he said with a half laugh. "What you've seen today—that's the rest of my life."
Back at the main cellar in Mauves, we taste through the 2008 and 2009, which are still in their component parts. For the 2008 Hermitage White, the Peléat portion is crystal pure with heather and orange blossom notes, while the Maison Blanche portion is taut, with bitter almond and peach skin notes.
Since the vintage produced acidity in the white grapes—grapes that normally have little acidity to begin with—I asked Chave if he massaged the vintage at all to offset its jangly profile. "Nothing different," he said after a short pause. "In this vintage, if you follow logic, the wine should be better [than usual] because it has more acidity. It was perfect really, since we harvested the white at 14 [percent alcohol]."
From Roucoules, the wine shows lovely floral and quince notes with great persistence. The portion from l'Ermite is a laser beam of minerality and very, very long.
The four tanks (just 15 hectoliters each) represent the sum total of the 2008 Hermitage White, set to be blended in July and bottled in September.
No more hopping over the wall. Chave now has the keys to his "clos" vineyard in the town of Mauves.
The 2009 Hermitage White is still in barrel and the malolactic fermentation has finished, but the wine has not been sulphured yet. The Roucoules portion is fat and juicy while l'Ermite is zingy with blazing white peach. The Méal portion (Chave has just four barrels in '09) is loaded with melon and citrus notes that show great definition already. As we tasted through, I noticed Chave has now numbered his barrels, part of an ongoing process to monitor the quality and sanitary conditions in every wood vessel the wine comes into contact with.
"Old oak or new oak is less important than good oak," said Chave. "All the details are important."
From the reds, the 2008 St.-Joseph has been blended and sits in foudre ready to be bottled. It offers tasty red currant, lilac and red licorice notes that are tangy but elegant as well. Chave noted the malo took a long time to finish in '08, typical for the vintage.
"But that was good because we were able to keep the wine on its lees a lot longer then, which means we could avoid sulphuring longer," he said.
Nearing harvest in '08, Chave admitted he wondered if there would be any wine to make, as ripening was way behind and the cool, gray and wet weather was a major obstacle. But after the warm, dry September saved the vintage, Chave never hesitated to produce his top wine.
"There is no reason for me not to make Hermitage in '08, because I'm not in a 'brand' system. The wine is meant to be drunk and it doesn't exist until it's drunk. It's my responsibility to make the best wine I can every year," he said. "Besides, '08 is better than '02, '93, '87, '84. It's a good wine and I think too many people have forgotten that good wine is just meant to be drunk."
The 2008 Hermitage is still in parts, somewhat, as Chave has begun to blend some components a little earlier than usual.
"I wanted to get things together sooner to protect the freshness of the vintage," he said. "The key to '08 was new oak. The vintage didn't fit with new oak. New oak is a catastrophe for '08," he said.
The Beaumes and Peléat portion have been blended together though, showing good sappy kirsch fruit and nice energy. The Méal is reduced but has good cut and a broad feel. The Bessards and l'Ermite portions are together, showing lots of plum, cherry and mineral notes, and Chave said that portion will likely be about 80 percent of the final blend.
"In '08 I did four passes through the vineyard to drop fruit and select the best bunches. In the end, I don't have much wine, but I am pretty confident with what I do have."
For the 2009 St.-Joseph, Chave vinified the new 'clos' property for the first time. It's juicy, with lots of red berry and plum fruit and good racy licorice and graphite notes. It's likely to be bottled on its own, under the estate name and with a different label. The other sites are also kept separate through the vinification and blending. The portion from Mauves is dark and rich as Chave figured it would be, showing nice grip and drive, while the wine from Lemps is more sanguine, with cherry, pepper and tobacco hints.
"We're not there yet," said Chave, who will put these two portions into the négociant's Offerus bottling. "But it is starting to get interesting."
Despite being at such a young stage of its evolution, the 2009 Hermitage looks to be yet another classic-quality wine here. The Peléat portion is already jumping from the glass, with cassis, incense and shiso leaf notes, while the Beaumes portion is dark and inviting, with lush blueberry and fig fruit. The Méal is silky but loaded with raspberry fruit, while the l'Ermite is a touch reduced and is set to be racked soon. Nonetheless, it's dense and velvety, with plum fig and cocoa notes that just sail on. The Bessards portion has completed its malo and is set to be racked; it shows brooding fig, chestnut and tobacco notes. There's lots of power in the various lots and as the wine puts on weight during its élevage (between fermentation and bottling), this could turn out to be one of the larger-scaled efforts of the vintage.
And after visiting over 30 domaines in a 10-day stretch, it was a fitting end to the trip.
[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]
Mark Reinman — NJ — March 30, 2010 4:11pm ET
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