Jean-Louis Chave, 41 , is the latest family member to make the wines at the venerable Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, long famous for its reds and whites from Hermitage. He rarely leaves his domaine to travel, but will be in New York this week for Wine Spectator's 2009 Wine Experience. WineSpectator.com took this rare opportunity to host a live online chat with Wine Spectator senior editor James Molesworth and WineSpectator.com readers.
Jean-Louis Chave had big shoes to fill when he took over his family's domaine, which dates to the 15th century and owns 37 prized acres in Hermitage, spread over the appellation's different soils. Chave's father, Gérard, turned the domaine into one of the appellation's leaders during his tenure in the 1970s and '80s, and the wines are some of the most sought-after Rhône bottlings among private collectors.
Now, in addition to producing a little more than 3,000 cases annually of Hermitage, Jean-Louis is working to improve the reputation of the neighboring St.-Joseph appellation. He produces arguably the best St.-Joseph, a refined and mineral-filled Syrah that has steadily improved in recent vintages, which he'll be pouring at the Wine Experience. In addition, Jean-Louis has a burgeoning négociant line of wines, under the Jean-Louis Chave Séléction name; the négociant St.-Joseph Offerus, at about half the price of his estate St.-Joseph, has steadily improved in quality since its debut with the 1995 vintage.
You can read the full chat archive directly on Chatroll at http://chatroll.com/jl-chave-chats-with-wine-spectator/archive. And we'll be adding the transcript to this page soon.
Oct 21 2009, 4:00 PM willettewines: Most of you are very familiar with James Molesworth, Wine Spectator's Senior Editor for Argentina, Chile, the Finger Lakes region, Loire, South Africa and the Rhone. James will be moderating the 30 minute Q&A and will begin by asking Jean-Louis questions on the current vintage and the current harvest. After which, James will open up the session to questions from you!
Oct 21 2009, 4:01 PM willettewines: I encourage you to actively participate and submit your questions. This is a rare opportunity to interact directly with Jean-Louis, one of the world's most respected winemakers. Without further ado, I'm pleased to hand over the keyboard to James Molesworth.
Oct 21 2009, 4:01 PM JMolesworth: Jean-Louis, welcome to New York. I know you don’t get here often, particularly at this time of year since you’ve just finished the harvest and may be doing débourbage (racking of the must) – so thanks for taking the time.
Oct 21 2009, 4:01 PM JMolesworth: First, I’m sure folks want to hear about ’09. The buzz is good – ripe, tannic. Tell us a little about the ’09 harvest in Hermitage.
Oct 21 2009, 4:02 PM JLChave: It’s difficult to talk about the wine because it’s still fermenting. But beautiful grapes for sure. June, July, August and September all perfect – so very good grapes at the end. Everything looks so perfect – but it’s always hard for me to talk this early. My fear was the drought in August and then the rain in September. Usually we don’t like rain in September, but it really helped with the ripening after the drought. Big tannins, great color and high alcohols.
Oct 21 2009, 4:04 PM JMolesworth: Minor technical difficulty - give us a second.
Oct 21 2009, 4:05 PM JLChave: But it’s funny, because I always try to defend wines that are not too extracted, and this year they are. But they look very well balanced. Nature has been generous. The yield is low for the white, but good for the reds – between 30 and 35 hectoliters per hectare, which is big for this quality level.
Oct 21 2009, 4:05 PM JMolesworth: That September rain this year - that’s probably was separates the ’09 from another hot, dry year such as ’03, which was hot all the way through.
Oct 21 2009, 4:05 PM JLChave: Definitely, ’03 was extreme, really an extraordinary vintage that was difficult to deal with. ’09 was something we knew how to deal with. It’s really special.
Oct 21 2009, 4:05 PM JMolesworth: You often say that from year to year, one particular lieu-dit in Hermitage stands out to dominate or define the final blend for you. In powerful years maybe it’s Le Méal. In racy vintages, probably l’Ermite. If you had to pick at this early stage, what parcel do you think might be the defining one for ’09?
Oct 21 2009, 4:05 PM JLChave: This year its really a vintage for the clay more than the granite. The clay vines haven’t suffered as much from the drought. At the end of the ferment I am very grateful to have the granite, because I can already feel the tightness of the wine. It’s the softness of the clay this year for sure, but I am glad to have the tightness of the granite to balance the wine this year. Le Meal was 15.5% alcohol (clay) and Bessards was 14.5% (granite), so that helped balance it out.
Oct 21 2009, 4:06 PM JMolesworth: And how was the harvest across the river in St.-Joseph, another appellation that you make an estate wine from and that you’re equally passionate about, but is often overlooked by folks.
Oct 21 2009, 4:08 PM JLChave: By definition St. Joseph is not as extreme as Hermitage, which makes it a very interesting vintage for St. Joseph. The thing with St. Joseph is to get the ripeness, and this year we had great ripeness but it wasn’t as extreme as Hermitage. In some parts of the vineyard we have some high alcohol too. Hermitage is south and southwest exposure so it gets the sun late, in St. Joseph the sun disappears earlier so the vines have time to recuperate from the sun. This is what is hard for Hermitage in years like 03
Oct 21 2009, 4:09 PM JMolesworth: Let’s stay with St.-Joseph for one more minute, then we’ll open it up to folks. When I visited with you back in March, you had just bought a four-hectare (9.88 acres) parcel on the southern edge of the town of Mauves – a walled vineyard that you thought might be the only ‘clos’ in the northern Rhone. You are very excited about the purchase. Tell us more.
Oct 21 2009, 4:13 PM JLChave: I am very fortunate because I started it with a great vintage. The thing at the Clos is that the vines are so old, so the roots are very deep in the gravel, so they never suffered. We have these beautiful grapes, so we are very lucky to start with such a vintage, to make our first wines from there without frustration. It was a great start. Also because I think this is why I was very interested by this place – the wine has to do with finesse. Even in a very ripe year we already have fruit and finesse in the
Oct 21 2009, 4:13 PM JLChave: It was picked 10 days earlier than the Hermitage. Maybe in other years we will push the grapes more, but this year I thought it was better to get the wines to be perfect because I don’t know the vineyard yet well-enough to know whether I can push it or not. I didn’t have to worry about the rain or ripeness. It was almost like making wine in the new world, where you can choose when to pick. That is very rare for us, we usually have a very small window in which to pick.
Oct 21 2009, 4:13 PM JMolesworth: So you vinified the grapes from the clos separately from your other parcels obviously. What do you plan to do with it - put it in your estate St.-Joseph, or bottle it separately?
Oct 21 2009, 4:15 PM JLChave: We’ll see what happens, but we would like to make wine from the Clos just as it always has been, it was always bottled as a single vineyard. I still don’t know what the label will be or the details yet. The vineyard is 4 hectares, so for sure some parts are better than others. Not sure if I will do the two together or separately, it is too early to tell. Maybe the blend will be the right solution, maybe there will be different parts of Les Clos.
Oct 21 2009, 4:16 PM JMolesworth: Ok, let's open it up to the floor. ANy questions for JL? We'll try and get to them all and in order, so please be patient...
Oct 21 2009, 4:17 PM SEllison: Jean-Louis, thanks for taking the time today. Heather and I are traveling to the Rhone next week for wine tasting of our favorite grape (Syrah). We hail from San Francisco & often travel to our own “Rhone Region” (Paso Robles). We understand Chave isn’t often open for visits but when we saw today’s webchat, we knew we had to ask since we are staying near Mauves at Hotel Chabran. We would be thrilled if it worked!
Oct 21 2009, 4:18 PM JLChave: Thanks for your support, we are going to be in the middle of decuvage, call us when you are there and we will see what we can do.
Oct 21 2009, 4:18 PM JMolesworth: Put him to work, JL!
Oct 21 2009, 4:22 PM SEllison: Thanks Jean-Louis, will do. -Scott
Oct 21 2009, 4:18 PM willettewines: Jean-Louis, the wine from the Clos sounds fascinating. What is the approximate production?
Oct 21 2009, 4:19 PM JLChave: It all depends on what we do with the cuvee, should be 5000 bottles max. We have red and white
Oct 21 2009, 4:21 PM dnigro: You're pouring the St.-Joseph at the Wine Experience Rhone seminar Friday morning. What can you tell us about the wine?
Oct 21 2009, 4:21 PM JLChave: The 2006 is still a blend of different parts of St. Joseph, but from one vineyard, Lemps. The issue is that St. Joseph as an appellation doesn't mean much, so for the domaine for the future, the idea is to get the best places and make more 'lieu dit'.
Oct 21 2009, 4:21 PM Whitney123: Jean-Louis, so excited to have you in New York. Can you tell us a little about the Les Clos White. How was it making a white wine from St Joseph?
Oct 21 2009, 4:23 PM JLChave: Whitney123: White in St. Joseph is totally new for us because its white on granite which we don't have in Hermitage (that is white on limestone). We have an idea for sure what they should be like which is tighter with more minerality and acidity, as opposed to the fleshy texture we get in the Hermitage.
Oct 21 2009, 4:23 PM JMolesworth: What's the percentage of white and red coming from the CLos?
Oct 21 2009, 4:24 PM JLChave: JMolesworth: The white is 25% and its mainly Rousanne, whereas in Hermitage its mainly Marsanne.
Oct 21 2009, 4:26 PM JMolesworth: Your first vintage making the wines at the domaine was 1992, but your father is still working with you, right?
Oct 21 2009, 4:26 PM JLChave: It was never by myself, that's the thing with two generations overlapping. Its impossible to say when you start and when you really take over. The first vintage was really 1992, then it became more and more each year. My father is not involved in the process anymore, he's really just there now for the end result. It never happened that he just gave me the key to the cellar and said 'now its your turn'. It was the same with my dad and my grandfather
Oct 21 2009, 4:27 PM JMolesworth: So you’ve quietly put together a résumé of almost 20 vintages. What are you doing differently now than when you started? Do you rotate in new barrels more frequently now than you did 15 years ago, for example?
Oct 21 2009, 4:28 PM JLChave: JMolesworth: I will say its more like little things we do differently. Its still the same approach, same philosophy. A generation is lucky to have the money to make 'le grand vin'. Even with my dad in the 1950's had to take shortcuts, they made do with what they had and never complained. Now we are fortunate to do things right before we can, but in the future, who knows, history sometimes repeats itself, so who knows. No matter what, we will always have to make wine!
Oct 21 2009, 4:30 PM JLChave: This time it took us a month to harvest. In the past we never had that. Now we have to be picky. Some days it was only in the morning, sometimes we didn't pick at all. In the past we couldn't say that to people who were taking a vacation from their job to come help pick, you couldn't say to your neighbor who came to help that you weren't picking that day. The truth is in the old bottles though!
Oct 21 2009, 4:29 PM wineinterested: Jean-Louis, I'm curious about your St. Joseph project. What was your inspiration and how do you choose your sites?
Oct 21 2009, 4:32 PM JLChave: wineinterested: My inspiration is that this is where we are from. We are from Hermitage but also we are from St. Joseph. We have this granite in our blood. I am lucky that my ancestors crossed the Rhone, went to Hermitage and made Hermitage. If I come back to St. Joseph its because we have Hermitage. Its crazy to replant vineyards on the steep slopes of St. Joseph, it took me 14 years to plant 2 hc of vines, but was driven by my passion of the vineyard
Oct 21 2009, 4:32 PM JMolesworth: Granite in your blood! No wonder you folks from the Ardeche are so tough But I'd guess you'd have to be to have the dedication to spend 14 years planting 2 hectares of vines...
Oct 21 2009, 4:33 PM JLChave: There are things I don't like about this idea of 'grand vin', because maybe you aren't even in the truth of the wine anymore, because the 'grand vin' takes over. I want to keep Hermitage true, but I can still get my inspiration and keep the right direction in Hermitage thanks to St. Joseph.
Oct 21 2009, 4:33 PM JMolesworth: I know you feel like the 'truth' in a wine comes from drinking it as well. You always say the wine doesn't exist until it is drunk - I love that expressions of yours. It's a mantra to enjoy wine, not collect it...
Oct 21 2009, 4:34 PM JMolesworth: We're pretty much out of time - last chance for a question from the floor before JL has to leave...
Oct 21 2009, 4:34 PM SEllison: And by the way Jean-Louis, JM was joking but if you need two hardworking American wine lovers to scrub your floors next week, we'll be up to the task : )
Oct 21 2009, 4:35 PM JLChave: JMolesworth: Thank you for your time, James (and Liz!)
Oct 21 2009, 4:35 PM JMolesworth: Thanks to Jean-Louis for taking the time to chat with us. Ok, until next time, cheers! And we hope to see you at the NY Wine Experience this weekend.
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