St.-Joseph is considered one of the "lesser" appellations in France's Northern Rhône Valley, a poor cousin to Hermitage, its neighbor across the river. Jean-Louis Chave is working to change that.
As we drive high above the Rhône River, up the narrow winding road from the small town of Lemps, Chave points out abandoned terraces on the steep slopes, hidden within the heavy woods that have grown up around them. He even points to the occasional grape vine stump, perhaps planted more than a century ago, still clinging to a tumble of rocks, fighting a daily battle against erosion.
Jean-Louis, 37, is the latest family member to make the wines at Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, long famous for its red and white wines from Hermitage. He is also a student of history--both his family's, which dates back to the 15th century, and that of the Rhône Valley, which has been his family's home during that entire time. For Chave, time is counted in vintages and generations.
It is in these hills, around the small towns of Lemps, Mauves, St.-Jean-de-Muzols and Tournon that the past of St.-Joseph lives, each overgrown terrace a reminder of how widespread vines were here before the ravages of phylloxera in the 19th century. Chave believes the future of St.-Joseph is also in these hills. They share the same granite soils as Hermitage, to which they were once connected before the Rhône River cut the areas apart, and have similar south to southeast exposures.
But the present situation in St.-Joseph is altogether different. The appellation is large for the region, comprising more than 2,400 acres of vines from the river to the hillsides and up on to the plateau above. (The slopes of Hermitage have little more than 300 acres of vines.) Many of the vineyards have a more easterly exposure, receiving less sun than those on the hillsides, along with a colder wind, resulting in grapes of an entirely different quality.
"I am very interested in St.-Joseph," Chave says, "but the problem as it stands now is that St.-Joseph means nothing as an appellation. An appellation is something coherent."
|Chave's Bachasson parcel: The foreground shows abandoned terraces before replanting, rear.|
Halfway up the slope, Chave pulls over, and we get out to walk a path along a reconstructed terrace in his Bachasson parcel. You can look down along the south-flowing Rhône and the vineyards that run alongside it.
"That is St.-Joseph," he says, pointing at vineyards in the distance. "And so is this," he continues, gesturing to his own plantings. "Are they the same?"
But Chave isn't part of the growing chorus that says France's appellation system is antiquated. He isn't asking for his own vineyards to be elevated in status above others, or for the boundaries of St.-Joseph to be redrawn. He isn't asking for the right to print "Syrah" on the label so that St.-Joseph can compete on retail shelves with so-called user-friendly New World wines. Chave isn't interested in any of this. He doesn't want to tear down the appellation system--he wants to help define it, to make it stronger.
"For now, I don't say much," says Chave. "I keep my little world quiet, because when people think of Chave, they think of Hermitage, not St.-Joseph. The Chave name doesn't have as much importance for St.-Joseph."
That's likely to change though. The Jean-Louis Chave St.-Joseph 2003 (92, $45) is small in production, but has become one of the best wines in the appellation. In addition, his négociant Jean-Louis Chave Sélection St.-Joseph Offerus, at about half the price, has steadily improved in quality since its debut with the 1995 vintage (the 2003 scored 89 points). The wines show vivid purple and black fruit flavors along with piercing aromas of violets and bright minerality. They are exactly what you would expect from a Syrah grown in the Northern Rhône on a steep granite slope with prime exposure.
Chave has produced his domaine's St.-Joseph for years, though it has always been in the shadow of his Hermitage. The Bachasson parcel more than doubles the domaine's existing St.-Joseph vines, but it has taken considerable time. Chave began renovating the terraces in Bachasson and planting new vines in 1996, and now he finally has enough fruit to vinify it as a separate parcel. It has taken 10 years to plant a little more than 3 acres because of Institut National des Appellations d'Origine regulations over new plantings, as well as the labor needed to clear the hillsides and renovate the old stone terraces.
But Chave is unruffled at the prospect of spending so much time on such a small area. "It takes 10 or 20 years to know what these vineyards can do," he says. And 10 or 20 years is not long at all for someone who thinks in terms of generations.
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