Since my trips tend to be long—upwards of two weeks—I invariably have a weekend to fill on my schedule. But I don't take time off while I'm here, so I need to fill them with work, and not play. Sundays can be tough though, as many domaines are family-run and Sundays are sort of sacred in France. So, in recent years I've often taken the opportunity to use Sunday as a time to taste through verticals of wines or horizontals of vintages, with samples provided by the domaines. I keep working, and they get me out of their hair for a day.
There are many ways to learn a wine. You can spend time in the vineyards. Or You can taste the wine during its élevage and see ensuing vintages at approximately the same point in their development from year to year. You can taste the wines when old to see how they age. But a complete vertical of more than 10 years may be the best way, as you see the wine in all its stages. And ideally, you see its terroir shine through.
On this quiet Sunday, I was particularly grateful for the opportunity to taste through 20 vintages of Hermitage from Jean-Louis Chave, a complete set from 2009 back to 1990. But a quiet Sunday turned into a family affair. For the tasting, I was joined not only by Jean-Louis Chave, but his father, Gérard, and Jean-Louis' wife, Erin, as well as Chave's cellar hands and vineyard manager. Jean-Louis admitted he had never opened 20 vintages of his wine for a single tasting before, so he wanted to share the experience with his team.
"So thank you," said Gérard, with a wink at me. "I've never see him do this before. You should come more often."
The Chave domaine totals 37 acres of vines in Hermitage producing 2,000 cases annually of red, and just 1,000 cases of white. Jean-Louis joined his father in 1992 after returning from studying at the Univerity of California at Davis, and it has been a subtle transition ever since.
"You can't say when he stopped and I took over, because the generations overlap always," said Jean-Louis.
"But today, Gérard is in the cave when he wants to be and then he goes fly fishing when he wants to," said Erin, with a smile. "Jean-Louis doesn't get to go fly fishing."
As the bottles were brought up from the cellar, opened and poured without decanting, Jean-Louis noted, "I'd rather just let them be as they are and let them evolve from cellar temperature rather than decanting them."
As we tasted through, the wines warmed slowly in the glasses, showing more of their structure.
"It's amazing to see, with 1 degree difference, how the wine changes," said Gérard. "The tannins become more aggressive and the wine is tighter, almost like a shock. But then the wine ameliorates and adjusts to the temperature and begins to open up again."
Over 20 years, there are certain to be some changes in how a wine is made, but Jean-Louis, always pensive and soft-spoken, doesn't put his finger on any one specific shift during his tenure.
"That is always the question: What have you changed?," he said. "What hasn't changed is the philosophy. The philosophy is not about the winemaking, it is about where the wine is from and trying to capture that."
"The wine is different today for sure. But that is as much a function of the contemporary taste of people as to any real changes. Our vision is different because we live in a different world now than we did 20 years ago, and when our vision is different, what we experience is different."
"But more than the winery, the work in the vineyard is different now. The expense that goes to the vineyard is far greater than in the past. In the past, finding labor was hard so you took shortcuts, such as focusing less on the hillside vineyards and just working the flatter parts. Then of course the chemicals that were used for weeds. But I can't complain about that. The vineyard would not be here at all today if it hadn't made it through that period in the '70s and '80s using shortcuts."
"Nonetheless, today we spend more on the vineyards, with 45 people working in them all the time. Doing more things by hand and not taking shortcuts. That expense and time is what the consumer does not see, which is fine, because ultimately we want them to focus on what is in the glass. The wine doesn't exist until it is drunk."
"We first used temperature-controlled fermentation in '91, and that would be the biggest change, technically. Also now the work is more efficient, when in the past you could say the wine was made in a more painful way. We have bigger tanks today to do the blend before bottling for example, for more consistency. And maybe the élevage is a little longer. But much is still done the way my father did it. Which is to say, there is no recipe. You can't obsess too much about technical details, because that's a process."
"Consistency in quality, but not uniformity in style," said Gérard, picking up on his son's sentiments. "Terroir is magnified in great vintages, and softens the difficulty of a weak year. But if you do the same sulfur every year or the same filtration every year, you standardize the wine and denude the terroir. In the nursery all the babies look alike. You don't know what they are really like until they are fully grown. They are not the same, but it takes time for them to show that. That's what wine should be too."
Following are my notes on the wines. The wines were tasted in vintage order from youngest to oldest, non-blind. The 1990 was tasted from magnum, as the initial 750ml bottle was slightly corked. Most impressive was the way the wine suddenly and dramatically flipped into its second phase of maturity—the first 10 vintages showed more of their vintage profile, with the ups and downs indicating warm or cool years, for example. The 10 oldest vintages, though, showed their terroir, with a very distinct profile that was remarkably consistent flavorwise, with the ups and downs coming more from sheer depth or concentration. Of particular note was the 1991, from a classic vintage in the Northern Rhȏne that has long been overshadowed by 1990.
2009 Hermitage: Shows the plush edge of the vintage, with velvety but substantial tannins, which course authoritatively underneath the core of dark plum, cassis and blackberry fruit. A fine dusting of charcoal coats the edges while a seam of tar pulls the finish together. Primal, young and poised for a long life. Best from 2015 through 2035. 97 points, non-blind.
2008 Hermitage: Shows a lightly firm plum skin edge, with a briary feel to the pomegranate, black cherry, pepper and tobacco notes. Tangy iron edge peeks through on the finish, with the briar note hanging on as well. Nice stuffing for the vintage. Though this relies more on acidity than tannins in the end. Best from 2013 through 2025. 94 points, non-blind.
2007 Hermitage: This has tightened up nicely, with damson plum, cherry pit and cassis notes now showing a taut feel, while anise, pain d'épices and charcoal notes take the lead. Solid, grippy finish is showing its muscle now, but the back-end finesse and length lurks in reserve. Should stretch out wonderfully in the cellar and may surprise with its longevity. Best from 2014 through 2030. 95 points, non-blind.
2006 Hermitage: This is all elegance, with sleek, fine-grained structure carrying red currant, black cherry and damson plum notes which in turn give way to singed mesquite, saddle leather and lilac. A Lovely sanguine edge has already appeared on the finish but the acidity is still more than fresh and the finish echos with fruit, iron and sauccison sec notes. Best from 2014 through 2030. 96 points, non-blind.
2005 Hermitage: This brick house is starting to emerge, slowly. There is still a substantial cloak of cocoa powder, brick dust and tar over the core of crushed plum, black currant and steeped cherry fruit, but it is starting to give way. The finish is hefty but super well-toned, with stunning length and cut thanks to seamless tannins. A smooth block of granite. The one for your children. Best from 2015 through 2040. 98 points, non-blind. "The '05 is a surprise for me because I was expecting it to be tighter," said Jean-Louis. "It has really started to open nicely."
2004 Hermitage: The first vintage that seems approachable now, this pumps out a very friendly core of steeped red currant, blackberry cherry and plum fruit, with exuberant acidity, mouthwatering cocoa and pain d'épices notes and a long, incense- and black tea-infused finish. Has the stuffing and balance to age further, but thoroughly delicious now. Drink now through 2030. 96 points, non-blind.
2003 Hermitage: This shows the extreme plum, blackberry and raspberry confiture notes of this very hot year, stuffed with extra blood orange, singed clove, saddle leather and freshly plowed humus. The tannins show a lightly firm cedar edge but are well-melded into the core. Will likely always be controversial because of its exotic profile but this is a wine that completely captures the essence of its vintage without losing its terroir. And isn't that what we look for? Drink now through 2030. 98 points, non-blind. "For me, the nose is a bit flat, but the energy is there in the mouth, which is good for the future development. It's extreme for sure, but I think this will last," said Jean-Louis.
2002 Hermitage: A tough row to hoe after the '03, this lighter vintage has progressed nicely, with supple plum and currant notes giving way to hints of dried cherry and plum skin. Elegant lilac and cedar notes have moved in on the finish, which is ever-so-slightly firm. Drink now through 2020. 92 points, non-blind.
2001 Hermitage: This is an elegant, sinewy vintage that is starting to hit its stride, with a strong sanguine and cedar frame to the core of dried red currant, cherry pit and red licorice notes. A racy iron edge note is now in full throat on the finish as the minerality takes over and should carry it through its second stage of life. Drink now through 2025. 95 points, non-blind.
2000 Hermitage: A sleeper vintage, this has ample flesh, with a smoldering tobacco leaf note weaving through the core of plum, blackberry and black currant fruit. Still shows broad cocoa and tar on the finish, along with nicely defined iron and incense. Has weight and cut, is thoroughly approachable now, but isn't going anywhere anytime soon. Drink now through 2025. 95 points, non-blind. "2000 reminds me of 2007," said Jean-Louis. "They are soft vintages but balanced. We fined a little before bottling 'in '00 and I felt we were losing the softness, so we stopped and bottled with high turbidity instead. Then the first few years in bottle it was a little awkward because of that but now the softness has returned."
1999 Hermitage: Now starting to hit its second phase, this has perfumy singed balsam, dried currant and blood orange fruit and orange rooibos tea notes all gliding on a fine-grained finish where sanguine and white pepper notes flicker through. Still has an ample core of plum and red currant fruit though, with a nice tug of earth for grip too. Drink now through 2025. 95 points, non-blind.
1998 Hermitage: Very enticing floral, dried currant, cherry and blood orange notes, with twinges of cedar, mesquite and clove. Lots of perfumy spice but not edges, just supple and polished. Fully mature, but with the balance and freshness to hold here a while. Drink now through 2025. 93 points, non-blind.
1997 Hermitage: This is fully mature in flavor, with dried currant, rose petal, brick dust and singed balsam wood notes all woven together, but it also has a still-taut, sinewy edge to its structure, picking up saucisson sec and dried rosemary notes on the finish. Both lilting and austere at the same time. Drink now through 2020. 93 points, non-blind.
1996 Hermitage: This has mouthwatering cut from the start, with white pepper, tobacco, iron and dried currant notes rippling along, still-vivacious acidity underneath and a long mesquite- and cedar-filled finish that has excellent drive. This is a high-acid vintage and stands a bit apart from the flight stylistically. Drink now through 2020. 93 points, non-blind.
1995 Hermitage: This has a surprising amount of flesh still, with lively plum skin, dried cherry, macerated red currant and blood orange notes still draped around the structure, rather than giving way to it. Singed cedar flashes through the finish along with a rooibos tea note again, but this is supple and suave. Beautiful. Drink now through 2020. 95 points, non-blind. "1995 was the first dry vintage we had in a while and after '92, '93 and '94, it was the first vintage with sound grapes," said Jean-Louis. "But because of the drought it showed that tightness when young and shut down quickly. It tasted skinny for a long time and so it was overlooked. But it has really aged nicely."
1994 Hermitage: This is mature but mouthwatering, as the acidity leads the way, pulling the cherry pit, red currant, flora, roasted mesquite, rosemary and white pepper notes along. Long finish lets a bergamot note simmer beautifully while still flashing some serious cut. Drink now through 2015. 93 points, non-blind.
1993 Hermitage: This is frankly angular, with a dusting of finely ground white pepper over the dried currant, damson plum and cherry pit notes. Clove and singed cedar hold sway on the rather firm finish. Drink now. 88 points, non-blind. "The '93 is probably not a wine we would bottle today, if we had that kind of vintage," said Jean-Louis. "It's surprising we even made wine in a year that started with hail in late August and then rained all September. We tried to pick grapes when it was raining less. I wouldn't bottle this kind of vintage today. We have to be better than just OK."
1992 Hermitage: This is tender, with gentle structure now faded into the elegant dried cherry, clove and blood orange notes. Lingering earl grey tea note on the finish. A testament to the terroir that this lesser vintage has aged so gracefully. I could see the '02 hanging on like this. Drink now. 90 points, non-blind.
1991 Hermitage: So suave and seamless, with a perfectly melded core of date, dried cherry and raspberry, bergamot and blood orange notes framed by supple mesquite and rooibos tea hints. Very, very long, with mouthwatering acidity acting like a perfect set of backup singers, staying buried deep on the finish to augment and push the flavors and aromas gently. Sublime and absolutely gorgeous. Drink now through 2020. 99 points, non-blind.
1990 Hermitage: This is still very rich and alluring, with a core of dark roasted plum, black currant and blackberry fruit that still has an unctuous feel. There are additional floral and black tea notes, flashes of bergamot and clove and a lingering tarry edge that supports the finish. Still throws a long shadow thanks to its power. Going in, I would have picked this the wine to beat from the older vintages, but it's topped by the '91's overall grace. And besides, sometimes it's fun to split hairs. Drink now through 2020. 98 points, non-blind.
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Ryan Pease — Paso Robles, CA — July 9, 2012 11:54am ET
David A Zajac — Akron, OH — July 9, 2012 2:33pm ET
Michael Haley — Eugene, OR — July 10, 2012 12:44am ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — July 10, 2012 7:43am ET
Marc Robillard — Montreal,Canada — July 10, 2012 10:28am ET
Dave — Idaho — July 10, 2012 5:07pm ET
James Molesworth — Senior Editor, Wine Spectator — July 11, 2012 10:14am ET
Tone Kelly — Webster NY — July 19, 2012 10:35am ET
Peter Carter — warwick,uk — September 17, 2012 11:50am ET
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