Jean-Louis Chave is a reference-point estate for the Northern Rhône Valley's Hermitage appellation, and I've been lucky to visit this estate regularly for over 16 years now. A lot has changed. I've seen Jean-Louis' children grow. Marley has replaced Ulysses as the house dog. And the steep slopes of St.-Joseph from Lemps down to Mauves have a few more vines, thanks to the herculean efforts of Jean-Louis and his staff.
The long process of establishing those hillside vines was no surprise to Chave, who always takes the long view. He knew it would take 20 years to plant, and another 20 years to learn the wine—he's entering that second phase now. He says it would take another 20 years on top of that to see how the wines develop. We've got time.
In the vines above the town of Mauves, Chave is nearing completion of his main task, rebuilding the "clos," the estate at the southern end of Mauves that he purchased in 2009. The weathered granite from the slope has been washed down over the years, deposited in a walled vineyard that Chave has brought back to life, gardens and all. By "connecting" the vineyard below with its progenitor on the slope, Chave feels he has returned it to its former state. And by "former state," he means Roman times. The wine from the clos has been bottled for the first time in the 2015 vintage, though it hasn't been released yet. It's a wonderful flow of violet and cherry notes, with a long, refined minerality. It doesn't seem as if he'll need the full 20 years to learn how to make it. And that's a good thing, because his vineyard-rebuilding plan has gone into overtime. Chave turns 50 this year, a point at which he promised his wife, Erin, that he would stop the planting process (it's a bit of a time-suck).
"But I think I have another three or four [years] to go," he says with the conciliatory tone of a schoolboy running late to class.
In the cellar we taste through the two latest vintages, which give the Rhône a serious quality run to back up the prodigious 2015s. The 2016 white is still in tank, in its pre-blend stage. It's later than usual, as there is markedly less wine in 2016 due to a spring hail.
"The crop is one-third for the whites," says Chave, without any sense of disappointment or frustration—he's that sanguine. "With Roucoules we usually have 16 barrels, this year five. When you have less wine, you have less options, and so the blending process is actually harder. That's why it's taken longer." In each tank there is a bit of fruit from each of the parcels, but in differing proportions.
The first 2016 Hermitage White sample is mostly Roucoules along with Méal and Péleat, showing the heather, honey and bitter almond notes that form the rich, pleasantly bitter-edged structure of the wine. A second tank, from the shallower part of Roucoules, where the vines are able to reach limestone more easily, shows the bright starfruit and honeysuckle notes that give the wine its treble. A third tank that includes a bigger proportion of L'Ermite is the soul of the wine, with a sparkle of honeysuckle and chamomile around a core of melon and yellow apple notes.
For the 2017 Hermitage White, the wine takes on a larger volume, even at this early stage. "I really liked 2017 from the start," says Chave. "The season went well. Some complained about the heat, how it was hotter than '15. But the vines fared better in '17 than in '15, because of the lower crop load. The vines never shut down and the ripening was long and easy."
The results are component pieces that show awesome richness and depth right now. A sample of the Péleat on clay and limestone is intense, with creamed peach and pear flavors. From the Roucoules on clay at the bottom of the slope, the wine is all heather and honey. From hillside Roucoules, it turns juicier, with honeysuckle and pear notes bouncing through. From Roucoules and L'Ermite, near the top of the hill, a fresh quince note joins the party. The resulting blend will be rich for sure, but balanced. White Hermitage (and white Rhônnes in general) is a wine Chave feels should embrace its fatness, as it is low in acidity to begin with.
"And in 2017, when there was basically no malic acid, there was no need to block malolactic to save freshness because it wasn't going to change the wine anyway. The balance comes from the minerality and the bitterness," he says.
Moving to the reds, we taste the 2017 Hermitage, spread over barrels as it ages. The Beaumes lieu-dit is slow-moving, broad and fleshy, while the Péleat bursts with energetic red fruit. The L'Ermite has a note of cherry preserve that is so pure it's like the clearest cherry eau de vie you've ever smelled. The Méal is more saturated in feel, with a cherry paste note, and the Bessards is waves of plum cake, currant paste and fig fruit.
"In 2017, the fruit is a bit more exotic," says Chave. "Unlike '16, the vines did stop ripening a bit along the way, and so the harvest ran very late."
For the 2016 Hermitage, yields are down about half, less drastic than the whites. A barrel of Péleat is intense in its display of cherry fruit, with a light mineral edge for balance. The Beaumes is rich and warm in feel, while the Méal is more focused, longer and offering more range of red and black fruits. The L'Ermite is supertight and focused, with a racy iron streak through the middle of its cherry preserve core. The Bessards brings the bass again, with warm currant, anise, alder and smoke notes on a fleshy frame.
Two very different vintages preceded the heat of 2015, the cool and rainy '14 and the very erratic '13 growing seasons. I ask Chave if he'd seen more weather patterns in the past five vintages than in the 15 previous and he immediately nods yes. "But that's the beauty of it. We don't know what's coming. So you have to think about everything twice before you decide what to do. It's not easy, but it is very interesting," he says.
I told you the man was sanguine. It's an approach that comes with time.