On my eighth day in France's Northern Rhône Valley, I began at one of Hermitage's top domaines, Jean-Louis Chave. Here are my notes.
Jean-Louis Chave carries the weight of his family’s generations working the famed hill of Hermitage. He sees his role as caretaker, protector. For Chave, Hermitage is already defined—there is nothing he can do to improve or change it. He can only make sure it expresses itself in his wine, in the best way possible, with each ensuing vintage.
But across the river, at the southern end of the small town of Mauves and on the steep granite slopes behind and above the town, Chave is building, changing, evolving. Here, in the St.-Joseph appellation, he’s developing his vineyards. He’s doing what he can’t do in Hermitage—he’s creating something new.
I’ve been following Chave’s efforts since ’05, stopping here multiple times to walk the slopes that Chave is bringing back to life. It is for me, one of the single most exciting wine projects I’ve witnessed from the ground up, so to speak.
“We’re doing things the old way,” said Chave. “We’re not exactly building a vineyard from nothing. Instead, we’re bringing back vines to where they used to be, in the way they used to do it.”
On the flat parcel in Mauves, called the "clos," which Chave bought a few years ago, the progress is dramatic. Empty spaces where vines had died off have been replaced. The soil has been worked. On a warm, sunny spring morning, Chave’s workers moved through, desuckering the early growth as the vines have leapt to attention thanks to the early, beneficial weather (see the video below as Chave discusses his new plantings in this already established vineyard).
Here, Chave is using riparia rootstock, which he said enjoys a deeper, richer soil while producing a wine that emphasized the finesse and minerality he looks for in his wines.
On the slopes, the work is even more arduous. In the hills above Mauves, as well as above the towns of Lemps and Tournon, Chave has been bringing back long-abandoned terraces. It’s a painstaking process, clearing the area of overgrowth, then renovating the stone terraces to fend off erosion before eventually planting vines. Chave’s team has to find the right curvature of the slope to maximize surface area for planting, as well as the best vertical angle to allow for the winch that will then be used to plow the vines. A ground cover goes in place for the first year or two before vines are finally planted. From there, Chave feels it will be another 10 to 15 years before he will know what the vines can really produce. See another video on the home page to get an idea of the efforts.
As the hillside parcels come on line one by one (Chave has been planting since the late '90s), the juice goes into his négociant label first, Jean-Louis Chave Sélection.
If quality eventually merits it down the road, the grapes will make their way into Chave’s estate St.-Joseph, arguably the most overlooked wine from one of the region’s most respected vignerons.
Back in the cellar, Chaves is just bottling his Jean-Louis Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage White Céleste 2009, made from a majority of Roussanne with a touch of Marsanne. It’s bold, with peach and quince notes and a firm pear peel- and mineral-tinged finish.
“I need more time to understand white St.-Joseph,” said Chave. “For my white Hermitage, I have vines on limestone, clay and loess. But in St.-Joseph, the vines are on granite, which for the whites is something totally different for me.”
Moving to the Hermitage White 2009, we taste through its component parts, still resting in tank and barrel. The Maison Blanche parcel (limestone and loess) is brisk and taut with a chamomile edge while the Péleat (light clay and sand) shows bouncier quinine and citrus peel notes. The Rocoules portion, from a lower portion of the vineyard on clay, shows richer wax and brioche notes while the Rocoules portion from higher up the slope, on limestone, is much tighter, with more minerality and a salted butter edge. The most complete on its own is the L’Ermite parcel, which shows a long and graceful but dense profile, with gorgeous verbena, yellow apple and melon notes and terrific mouthfeel that should form the spine of the finished wine.
As with most vignerons I visited on this trip, Chave has a preference for the whites in 2010, versus those of 2009
“The '10s were difficult to start with, because they were so rich and the winter was cold, so the ferments were longer,” he said. “But they are really taking shape now.”
The Hermitage White 2010 is also still in its component parts and at a much more raw stage of evolution than the more opulent ’09. The wine from the Péleat lieu-dit is a touch reduced, with apricot and brioche notes—it’s more texture than aroma though. The Rocoules from the limestone portion is all bracing peach pit and blanched almond while the L’Ermite parcel is a laser of quinine and fleur de sel.
The Hermitage White 2008, bottled, shows just how delicious the vintage is for whites (though it’s much more difficult for the reds). It’s fresh and invigorating, with lots of sleek quinine and yellow apple notes, along with fuller brioche and almond hints and a very polished, lengthy finish.
“The yields were so low in ’08,” said Chave. “There was coulure to start and then mildew on the flowering, which I had never seen before. If you didn’t get that cleaned off quickly, you were done for.”
The result is a compelling wine, though there are just 666 cases produced, down from the typical 1,333 cases.
As usual, the reds here are given a long, slow élevage and so they are still in their component parts. For additional background on the wines, you can reference my blog notes from my March 2010 visit, with links therein to additional coverage from earlier years.
Moving to the red, we taste through the parcels of St.-Joseph 2009 first. From the Les Oliviers parcel the wine is pure violet and iron, with a refined, sanguine note on the finish. From the parcel planted in Lemps in ’96, the wine is lighter and more floral.
“We’re getting there,” said Chave, who notes it’s probably destined for the Sélection label, rather than the estate label. “But we’re not quite there yet. You really need 15 years for a vineyard to give you what the terroir has. Before then, you just get fruit.”
An old vine parcel in Mauves is dark and dense, with a persistent bitter cherry edge on the finish. Another sample from Les Oliviers is brisk and tight.
“It’s more bone than flesh,” said Chave. “But you need some of that to balance the ’09.”
The juice from the “clos” vineyard that Chave bought in ’09 is dark and ripe, but classy, with a long, mineral-filled finish.
“That’s more than I was expecting from the vineyard since we just started to work it that year,” said Chave, with just the faintest glint of pride.
For the St.-Joseph 2010, we start with the same “clos,” as the malolactic is finished and the wine’s bright violet and exuberant cassis fruit is showing well. From Lemps, the wine is plumper, with more spice cake and blueberry notes and Chave notes that “you see more and more every year from the Lemps parcel.”
The Hermitage 2010 is still in pieces—no lots have been blended nor has any wine been racked or sulphured in over six months.
“The wine really doesn’t exist yet,” said Chave, echoing the refrain I often hear from Christine Vernay in Condrieu.
From Péleat, the young-vine juice is inky, with lots of cassis, while the old vines from the same parcel are totally different in profile—all iron and bracing salinity, with a brisk cherry pit edge on the finish. The Les Beaumes parcel shows Campari and graphite notes while the Le Méal portion is meaty and fleshy, with muscular black currant fruit. The Bessards juice is the densest of all, with sappy, intense cherry compote fruit and a super long finish.
The handling of the Hermitage 2009 has been almost as minimal as the that of the 2010—the lots have only been racked and sulphured once so far.
“It’s odd, because with Syrah we always fight reduction,” said Chave. “Except they didn’t need it at all in ’09 they are so rich. I feel like I’m not working enough though,” he added sheepishly.
The Péleat is enticing, with kirsch, pepper and spice while the Beaumes is all flesh, with plum sauce and coffee notes. The Méal is racy, with red currant and red licorice offset by a dusty edge while the L’Ermite is gorgeous, with racy red and black currant fruit and plush, but superbly focused structure. The Bessards has terrifically defined muscles, with cocoa, mulled spice and loam notes. It’s a thrilling range of terroirs for Chave to eventually assemble the final blend, so good in fact that he’s mulling his first Cathelin bottling since the 2003.
“Maybe,” he said flatly when I ask him about the small production cuvée. “But this is not the time to think about that.”
Fair enough. I guess he’s got other things on his plate right now …
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