Domaine Jean-Louis Chave is one of the Northern Rhone’s most important producers, along with Chapoutier and Thierry Allemand. The Chaves are also one of the world’s great winemaking dynasties, like the Antinoris in Tuscany and Hugels in Alsace. Chave produces not only excellent red Hermitage—a blend of grapes from parcels in seven different sections of that summit of Syrah—but also one of the world’s great white wines—Chave Hermitage Blanc.
The domaine’s origins go back to 1481 when the family started growing grapes in what is now the St. Joseph appellation. The current winemaker, since 1995, is Jean-Louis Chave, the sixteenth generation of the Chaves to grow grapes and make wine.
Jean-Louis didn’t start out planning to carry on the family tradition. He was originally thinking about a career on Wall Street when he got his undergraduate degree in finance from the University of Connecticut. He then spent a year at U.C. Davis, however, after which he joined his father, Gerard, in the family business in 1992.
In 2003, Jean-Louis married Erin Cannon, a St. Louis, Missouri, native who had worked for Kermit Lynch, Chave’s California importer. Erin visited Silicon Valley’s Vin Vino Wine last October for a tasting of both Domaine Chave wines and Chave’s negoçiant offerings, J.L. Chave Selection.
Erin is a wonderfully charming, articulate and engaging spokesperson for Chave. She’s also the mother of Jean-Louis’s son, Jean-Louis, a potential 17th generation winemaker. It was a treat to taste through the line up with her and to hear her perspective on the family and its long-range approach to planting vineyards and making wine. I’ve included a few video clips of Erin talking about the wines in this report.
In this tasting, we started with the negoçiant wines. Erin told us that the J.L. Chave Selection, which her husband launched in 1995, was aimed at giving people reliable, introductory level Rhone Valley wines at a good QPR level. Originally the grapes for these wines came entirely from other producers, but the negoçiant operation has now also become an outlet for younger domaine vines, since Jean-Louis’s policy is that vines for the Domaine’s wines have to be a minimum of 20 years old.
The Céleste bottling comes from a vineyard with vines close to 80 years old. It is a clos, or walled vineyard, with four hectares planted to Syrah and Roussanne in a beautiful amphiteater, according to Erin. After buying fruit for some years from this vineyard, which was owned by a family of homeopaths who never used chemicals, the Chaves ultimately purchased the vineyard itself in 2009. Jean-Louis named the wine for the goddess of the moon. With the vineyard’s old vine Roussanne plantings, Erin suggests there may be a Domaine St. Joseph Blanc coming up with the 2010 vintage or thereafter.
The Côtes du Rhône Mon Coeur is a project Jean-Louis started in 1998 at the request of a Las Vegas hotel. Erin says Jean-Louis loves the freedom of Cotes du Rhone. The Mon Coeur is Grenache and Syrah, with declassified Villages level fruit from Rasteau, Cairanne and Vinsobres. Sometimes it’s more Syrah or more Grenache. The ’09 is 60/40 Syrah/Grenache. All the Syrah comes from north facing parcels that aren’t as ripe and jammy as south facing parcels tend to be in the Southern Rhone.
The Crozes-Hermitage Silene is named after Bacchus’s drunken father-in-law. Most of Crozes is on the valley floor, on clay, but the Chave’s parcel sits on the east-facing rear flank of Hermitage, so it has more granite mixed with the clay, on a steep hillside. The parcel came from the family’s purchase of Domaine de l’Ermite in 1981. Gerard Chave purchased it for its Hermitage vineyards, but it came with this piece of Crozes that Gerard never did anything with. Jean-Louis was going through the planting rights, which expire in France after 20 years if you don’t use them. In 2002, Jean-Louis realized they were on the verge of losing their planting rights there, so Jean-Louis ripped out the oaks and terraced the hills for planting. The Crozes Silene is therefore about 70% Domaine juice and 30% purchased grapes. Erin claims this Crozes tends to be “fleshy, flashy and bright.”
St. Joseph became an appellation in 1956. Before then there was vin de Mauves, vin de Tournon or vin de St. Epines, from the cluster of hillsides around Mauve. These vineyards all lie just across the Rhone from the hill of Hermitage. The original appellation was centered on these hillsides. The appellation was expanded in the 1970s and ‘80s, however, so that it now starts where Condrieu stops, goes down to Cornas, jumps Cornas, and keeps going south.
As Erin reports, Jean-Louis always says “St. Joseph means nothing,” because the appellation’s current boundaries are so extensive and take in such a variety of terroirs. St. Joseph from the original hillsides around Mauve, however, appears to mean a lot to Jean-Louis personally. It is where his family began growing grapes back in the 1400s. Jean-Louis has been replanting vineyards on those original hillsides and Erin predicts we will be seeing a lot of great things from the Domaine from St. Joseph over the next 10 years.
In 1995, at the request of Kermit Lynch, Jean-Louis launched Offerus, the J.L. Chave Selection St. Joseph offering. It was originally all purchased fruit, but now there’s also quite a bit of domaine fruit in it. About half of the wine comes from the hillsides of Mauves and Tournon. The wines see no or very little new oak. There is some stem inclusion in the St. Joseph, whereas the Hermitage grapes are usually entirely destemmed.
As Erin explained, Jean-Louis is always the last to harvest in the area, waiting for full ripeness, including ripening of the stems. Some fault him for this, arguing that unlike the classic Hermitage wines his father Gerard made, Jean-Louis’s seem aimed more at Robert Parker’s palate—i.e., that critic’s well-established preference for ripe, concentrated, fruit-forward wines. I think this is a bit of an exaggeration, however, as I still find a lot of elegance and minerality in the current Chave wines, although they do show more fruit than they did before Jean-Louis took over winemaking in 1995.
Erin claims that St. Joseph, “loves anything you can throw at it that’s a pig product, or anything with a little fat on it,” like steak and lamb chops. The fruit forward character, along with the minerality and acidity, seems to make that a particularly good pairing.
Here’s a video of Erin describing St. Joseph:
The Selection Hermitage bottling, Farconnet, is one of their newer offerings. The name comes from a nobleman who was prominent in Hermitage in the 1800s. The Domaine Hermitage is a blend from the family’s seven parcels on Hermitage, which varies from year to year. The remaining grapes that aren’t used for the Domaine Hermitage were, in the past, sold off in bulk. There is some great Hermitage from their parcels that doesn’t make it into the blend for that year, so they are using that for the Farconnet, as well as sourcing from a couple of other producers.
They consider this bottling an “introduction to Hermitage.” The 2007 we tasted could definitely use another three years of bottle age.
The final Selection bottling we tried was the Hermitage Blanche, named after Blanche de Castile. She was the queen who allowed the first vines to be planted on Hermitage. It is about 65% Marsanne, 35% Roussanne. Erin explained that some of the family’s white grape vines are so old it is virtually impossible at this point to distinguish whether they Marsanne or Roussanne, so the percentages are always approximate.
- 2008 J.L. Chave Sélection St. Joseph Céleste – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
Light lemon yellow color; lovely, apple, mineral, lightly floral nose; medium bodied, tight, tart apple, mineral palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
- 2009 J.L. Chave Sélection Côtes du Rhône Mon Coeur – France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Côtes du Rhône
Dark red violet color; tart berry, plum, light violet nose; a little tight, poised, tart berry, tart plum, mineral palate; approachable now and could go 4-5 years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (60/40 Syrah/Grenache; Syrah from north facing parcels) (90 pts.)
- 2009 J.L. Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage Silene – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage
Dark purple red violet color; appealing, tart berry, mineral, light violet nose; tight, tart berry, tart black fruit, minerally palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
- 2005 J.L. Chave Sélection St. Joseph Offerus – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
Very dark red violet color; berry, oak, light olive, baked berry, tart plum nose; maturing, tart plum, black fruit, tart berry, light olive, mineral palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
- 2007 J.L. Chave Sélection Hermitage Farconnet – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Very dark red violet color; appealing, tart black fruit, dried berry, oak nose; tasty, tight, roasted berry, tart black fruit, soft, meaty, mineral, roasted plum palate with roast coffee showing toward finish; needs 3 years; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
- 2007 J.L. Chave Sélection Hermitage Blanche – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Bright light yellow color; focused apple, tart pineapple, mineral, subtle peach nose; maturing, tart apple, mineral, tart peach, light almond palate; medium-plus finish (about 65% Marsanne, 35% Roussanne) (92 pts.)
Chave St. Joseph
Moving to the Domaine wines, we started with the Domaine St. Joseph bottling.
According to Erin, Jean-Louis is on a crusade to make St. Joseph from the original sites of that appellation, and the family has about five hectares of vineyards spread across four communes. The oldest vines are on the Touron hillside. Since 1995, Jean-Louis has been replanting a steeply terraced vineyard near where the family originally started in the 15th century around Lemps. The two hectare vineyard is called Bachasson, and its planting took 15 years. Its vines are too young yet to go into the Domaine’s St. Joseph, but Erin told us to look for it to come on line by 2015 or thereafter.
- 2008 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave St. Joseph – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
Very dark red violet color; lovely, lifted, pepper, minerally, tart black fruit nose; vibrant, pepper, tart black fruit, mineral palate; nice now but could use 2-plus years and go 10+; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
We then proceeded to a five-vintage vertical of red Hermitage, from the current ’08 release back to Jean-Louis’s first vintage as solo winemaker, the ’95. My favorites were the ’08 and ’07.
The Chave family purchased its first Hermitage vineyards in the late 1800s, leaving their home vineyards in St. Joseph after phylloxera hit.
Here’s a video clip of Erin describing Hermitage and its vineyards:
Hermitage has a multitude of different soils. The Chaves have a total of 10 hectares of Syrah in Hermitage in seven parcels on different soils. The furthest west and largest parcel is Bessards, which is on granite. This is the backbone for their Hermitage, giving it tannins and minerality. They have a parcel in Méal, with its river stones and riper, jammy fruit. Baume is based on puddingstones—pebbles that were crushed, to the point they look like concrete—that Erin claims gives a velvety texture to the wine. Below Baume is their monopole, Péléat, on clay and sand, which Erin says brings a lot of finesse to the wine. Behind Péléat is L’Hermite, their second largest parcel, which consists of granite, rolled river stones, clay and loess. Erin claims it brings a lot of spice to the wine. The remaining parcels are in Diognières and Vercandières.
Erin stressed the family motto that when you drink a Chave Hermitage, you’re not drinking “Chave,” you’re drinking Hermitage. They see Hermitage as a whole hill, with different parcels and soils contributing different aspects to the wine. So their Hermitage is always a blend of the parcels—unlike the single vineyard Hermitages that some produce.
As to the vintages, Erin described 2008 as a beautiful vintage that reminds her very much of ’91. She let us in on a secret of her marriage, explaining that the ’91 is the “doghouse wine,” the one Jean-Louis pours for her to make up for something he regretted doing or saying, since he knows it’s her favorite.
She claimed that Hermitage vintages are either based on the sun, like 1990, or the soil, like ’91. The 2008 has the purity and classical lines of the ’91, while 2007, which experienced an Indian summer, is more lush and concentrated, like ’90. Erin quoted a common saying in the area that the month of August makes the grape, while the month of September makes the wine. September 2007 was beautifully warm in Hermitage. Erin doesn’t expect the ’07 to shut down, since it has so much flesh and fruit. The 1995, by contrast, was a vintage of tight tannins that did shut down for some years.
Erin explained that the nature of the vintage also depends on some degree on the flower set in Spring. In 2008 they had a very small flower set because it was very windy at the time. There were also three days of rain at the beginning of September, followed by three weeks of sun.
2006 also experienced an Indian summer, but the wines have more acidity than ’07.
2002 was a difficult vintage, with lots of rain in September. 1992 had been similar, but Erin reports it’s showing very well now. The 2002 seems like it needs much more bottle age.
1995 expresses the granite part of the soil, according to Erin, with very tight but not dry tannins. It has a beautiful “tram, “ or dart-like precision, to it. It has good definition. While lacking flesh, the essentials are there. Erin indicated that it has really been opening up starting this past year.
- 2008 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Dark red violet color; tart berry, mineral, violet nose with a sense of herbs; tight, tart berry, tart plum, light pepper, mineral, savory palate; needs 4-5 years; long finish (94 pts.)
- 2007 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Very dark red violet color; appealing, tart berry, herbs, mineral, charcoal nose; tight, tasty, tart berry, tart black fruit, violet palate, luscious but restrained; needs 4 years; long finish 93+ points (93 pts.)
- 2006 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Dark purple red violet color; toast, tart currant, mineral, tart plum nose; tasty, tight, tart currant, smoky, very tart plum, mineral palate with incipient bacon fat; needs 3 years; long finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
- 2002 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Dark red violet color; reticent, tart berry, tart plum, charcoal nose; a little tight, tart berry, mineral, tart black fruit, tart currant palate; needs 4-5 years; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
- 1995 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Dark purple red violet color; nice green peppercorn, green olive, mineral nose; tasty, maturing, roasted fruit, olive, green peppercorn, roasted olive, mineral, bacon fat palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
Chave Hermitage Blanc
We concluded with two vintages of Hermitage Blanc. The Domaine has five hectares of white grapes planted in Hermitage, in four parcels. They make a total of 12,000 bottles of Hermitage Blanc.
Erin reminded us that, for Thomas Jefferson, the greatest wines in the world were Chateau d’Yquem and Hermitage Blanc. He wrote a whole chapter about the wines from this hill, ending with the line, “and they make red wine too.”
Hermitage Blanc is often misunderstood these days because unlike other great white wines, which are known for their acidity, Hermitage Blanc is all about glycerol, mouthfeel and texture. Erin claims that it goes well with rich food–based on cream, butter, truffles, or sweetbreads, for example–thanks to its minerality.
The most important of their four white parcels is Rocoules, which usually makes up about 50% of the blend.
Erin recommends not serving Hermitage Blanc as cold as other whites. If too cold, it loses some of its opulence and can seem shut down.
We tasted the 2007, a ripe vintage, that has concentration and will likely have a honeyed note when it is mature. Right now it is wonderfully rich and complex, showing subtle spices. The 1996 definitely shows the honey, along with hazelnut, nutmeg and poached pear. A truly gorgeous wine and mouth feel experience. Erin reports the ’95 is also drinking very well now. 1952 is a favorite vintage for her.
Erin explained that Hermitage Blanc is beautiful when young, but that it then goes through a sullen, adolescent phase, so that it really shouldn’t be touched when it is five to 10 years of age. It then reopens, with complexity and expressiveness, 10 to 15 years from the vintage. It then shows hazelnuts, almond, wax and honey. They just bottled ’08, so ’07 is still quite young. The ‘05s and ‘04s are now shutting down. It can age for many, many years, thanks to its glycerol. Erin has tasted old vintages at the domaine, from bottles that were hidden from the Nazis by Jean-Louis’s grandfather. She reports that wines from the 1860s are still going strong, with lots of minerality.
When they replant, the Chaves don’t use clones—everything is field selected massalle. They take a cutting from the vineyard that needs replanting, raise it in their nursery, and plant it back into that parcel. In other words, Bessards goes back to Bessards, and Méal to Méal.
Here’s a last clip of Erin talking about Hermitage Blanc:
- 2007 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Light golden yellow color; baked apple, pear, poached pear, mineral, nutmeg nose; tasty, rich, creamy textured, medium bodied, baked apple, subtle spice, nutmeg, poached pear palate; long finish (94 pts.)
- 1996 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
Light medium golden yellow color; rich, poached pear, yeasty, almond, apple nose; tasty, rich, baked apple, mineral, hazelnut, honeyed, poached pear, nutmeg palate; long finish 95+ points (95 pts.)