Chave: Great Northern Rhone Dynasty

Richard Jennings
May 12, 2012

10/28/11 Chave tasting
CHAVE TASTING WITH ERIN CANNON CHAVE – Vin Vino Wine, Palo Alto, California (10/28/2011)

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.

10/28/11 Chave tasting

Negociant bottlings

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.
10/28/11 Chave tasting

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.

10/28/11 Chave tasting

  • 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.)

Chave Hermitage

10/28/11 Chave tasting

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

10/28/11 Chave tasting

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.)

Syrah: The Rodney Dangerfield of Wine

Rebecca Rapaszky pouring Rhones at Vin Vino Wine
Rebecca Rapaszky pouring Rhones at Vin Vino Wine

Syrah is a black grape that, unlike Pinot Noir, is relatively easy to grow and to make great wines from. Unfortunately, while it is a grape that is popular with winemakers, and there are many very well made and reasonably priced bottlings on the market, it has yet to gain much respect among U.S. consumers.

The standard joke in the wine business the past couple years has been, “What’s the difference between syphilis and Syrah? You can get rid of a case of syphilis.” I believe the lack of consumer acceptance in this country has a lot to do with the different styles of Syrah, and the fact that consumers here experienced mainly the jammy, high alcohol style before they got to try more profound, complex and savory versions. As a result, many seem to have tuned out on the grape entirely without giving other styles of Syrah-based wine a chance.

Syrah is the great grape of France’s Northern Rhone region, producing complex, powerful and long aging wines on the steep slopes of its Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Cornas appellations. It originated in this part of the world, probably centuries ago, as the result of a natural crossing between two obscure grapes—the black grape Dureza and the white grape Mondeuse Blanc.

Northern Rhones
Northern Rhones

Its success in the Northern Rhone and the fact that it is relatively easy to grow led to Syrah being widely planted in the Southern Rhone and other winegrowing regions of Southern France starting in the mid-‘70s. It has long been the most widely planted black grape in Australia, where it is known as “Shiraz.” It has also become a major black grape in Washington State, South Africa and Argentina. As a result, it is estimated that Syrah is now the world’s seventh most planted grape.

California was slow to get on the Syrah bandwagon, starting only in the early 1990s. The number of Syrah vines planted quickly skyrocketed after that, however, going from around 800 acres in 1992 to over 19,000 by 2010.

Syrah is practically Pinot Noir’s opposite. Where Pinot prefers cooler climates and is hard to grow, Syrah likes somewhat warmer conditions and is a hardy grape that is much less susceptible than Pinot to diseases and rot. Unlike Pinot’s relatively low amounts of coloring material and tannin, Syrah is full of anthocyanins, producing dark purple and tannic wines. Syrah also very much benefits from whole cluster pressing, or stem inclusion, whereas delicate Pinot fruit can often be obscured and overwhelmed by more than a little bit of stem inclusion. And while Pinot Noir is celebrated in an endless array of festivals and events, there is no event in this hemisphere solely devoted to Syrah.

Yes, Syrah grown in very warm climates and allowed to get quite ripe can produce jammy, chocolaty, blueberry and black fruit flavored, high alcohol wines. There’s a market for that, but very inexpensive Shirazes from Australia—we’re talking brands like Yellow Tail and Rosemount–have saturated the demand for that kind of wine. They’re also not at all food friendly.

Syrah grown in cooler locations–like Edna Valley, the Sonoma Coast and Mt. Veeder in California; the Margaret River and Adelaide Hills regions of Australia; and Washington State–reminds me a lot more of Syrah from the Northern Rhone. These wines show white and black pepper, savory flavors like olive and green herbs, along with tart black fruits, berries and good acidity. They also tend to age very well, eventually showing such delicious mature flavors as bacon fat and beef brisket.

I, for one, think it’s high time that Syrah got some love. Frankly, consumers would get a lot more value—wines of more interest and complexity—if they plunked down $25 or $35 for a Syrah than the average Cabernet. The wines tend to go with the same kinds of foods—grilled meats, game, beef stews, barbecue–and will satisfy those looking for big, serious, hearty wines.

Great Syrahs from around the world
Great Syrahs from around the world

The world’s greatest Syrahs—Chave’s Hermitage, Guigal’s Côte Rôtie bottlings—often run hundreds of dollars. One of the relative bargains among great Syrah from the Rhone are the complex and delicious wines made by Thierry Allemand in Cornas, which go for $60 to $80. Australia also makes some truly great Syrahs/Shirazes, such as Torbreck’s Run Rig and Penfold’s Grange, but these are hard to find and very pricey. Washington State’s best Syrahs are very much in demand in that state, with bottlings from Cayuse being sought after by collectors around the country.

For much less money, savvy shoppers can get world class Syrah from California producers. Among the best are wines from Arnot-Roberts, Bedrock, Cabot, Copain, Peay and Qupé. Syrahs from these producers range in price from $25 to $50. One of my favorites, year after year, is the great Mt. Veeder Syrah from Lagier-Meredith, which sells for less than $50.

Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith of Lagier Meredith
Steve Lagier and Carole Meredith of Lagier Meredith

If you have never tried Syrah, you owe it to yourself. If you previously gave up on Syrah/Shiraz because it was jammy and high in alcohol, try some of the producers listed above. Syrah really is a world class grape and there are lots of outstanding versions of it around.

Delicious Wine from a Challenging Year: 2008 J.L. Chave and Allemand Northern Rhones

Richard Jennings
June 17, 2011

2008 J.L. CHAVE AND ALLEMAND NORTHERN RHONES – Vin Vino Wine, Palo Alto, California (6/10/2011)

I wasn’t expecting much from 2008 Northern Rhones after reading about the heavy rains that fell there, especially in early September, and the predominantly cool and overcast weather that hung over most of the growing season. The Northern Rhone experienced its highest rainfall in 30 years in 2008. I’ve tasted enough 2008 Châteauneuf-du-Papes to know that the heavy rains led to a weaker than usual vintage there, and the advance word on Northern Rhones was that many of them were muted and showing the dilution that occurs in waterlogged years. So it was exciting to taste these 2008s from two of the best producers in the Northern Rhone, Jean-Louis Chave and Thierry Allemand, who seem to have pulled some delectable rabbits out of rain soaked hats in 2008.

Thierry Allemand is known for taking risks, and holding out for ripe fruit despite the possibility of bad weather as the season grows later. This tactic served him well in 2008, as drying winds–the mistral–showed up in mid-September and blew through until mid-October, allowing the grapes to dry out and, finally, to ripen. Jean-Louis Chave, like his father Gérard before him, likewise harvests later than most in the Northern Rhone, and his wines in this challenging vintage greatly benefited from it. It also helped that, according to Chave, the domaine declassified over a third of its grapes in 2008.

In this tasting we had two of J.L. Chave’s negociant wines (including the ’09 Silene), a Chave St. Joseph, two of Thierry Allemand’s exquisite Cornases, and both of Chave’s marvelous, blended white and red Hermitages. The last four wines, especially, were a great pleasure, although I was surprised that I preferred Allemand’s younger vine Chaillot this year, as I normally have always given the nod to his Reynard. Kudos to Chave and Allemand for making truly delicious wines despite daunting weather conditions in 2008.

For more details about the vineyards, winemaking and my tasting notes, see below.

J.L. Chave St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage

This was a good starting trio. The Céleste is 100% Marsanne from old vines, and it has the oily texture and richness that remind one of its massive sibling, the Chave Hermitage Blanc. The Silene was our only wine that wasn’t from the ’08 vintage, but it was surprisingly near ready for an ’09 Crozes-Hermitage. The St. Joseph from Chave’s own vines had an intense nose and a wonderful savory, peppery quality. At $50 to $60, I don’t think it’s a terribly good value, but it’s certainly a tasty St. Joseph.

  • 2008 J.L. Chave Sélection St. Joseph Céleste – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
    Light medium lemon yellow color; vanilla, lemon gelee, lemon cream, oak nose; tasty, light oily textured, lemon gelee, tart lemon, oak palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 2009 J.L. Chave Sélection Crozes-Hermitage Silene – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Crozes-Hermitage
    Dark purple red violet color; nice pepper, graphite, tart black fruit nose; tart pepper, raspberry, graphite, tar, tart black fruit palate with medium acidity; nearly ready and should be fine in a year and go 5-7 years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
  • 2008 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave St. Joseph – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, St. Joseph
    Dark purple red violet color; intense green peppercorn, graphite, savory, roasted lamb nose; tasty, tart green pepper, mineral, tart plum, savory palate with medium acidity; needs 2 years and will go 8-plus; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)

Allemand Cornas

Thierry Allemand breaks my heart with his beautifully made, complex and pure Cornas. I love them year after year. As I mentioned above, the surprise for me was how great the Chaillot was in 2008. The vines from which Chaillot is made are under 40 years old. The produce of the older vines goes into the Reynard. The Reynard usually has the greater structure, as this ’08 does. I think it will age even longer than the Chaillot. but the intensity and complexity of the ’08 Chaillot makes it a show stopper now. Absolutely gorgeous wines, both of them.

  • 2008 Thierry Allemand Cornas Chaillot – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Cornas
    Dark purple red violet color; intense, complex, lavender, potpourri, lifted, tart plum, tart berry nose; intense, gorgeous, tart raspberry, tart berry, light pepper, lavender, dried herbs palate; needs 3-plus years and will go 15+ years; long finish (95 pts.)
  • 2008 Thierry Allemand Cornas Reynard – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Cornas
    Very dark purple red violet color; deep berry, dried berry, mineral, subtle pepper, lavender nose; dense, tasty, a little tight, tart plum, lavender, green herb, mineral palate; needs 4-plus years and will go 15-20; long finish (94 pts.)

Chave Hermitage

Domaine Jean-Louis Chave dates back to 1481, and their wines blended from their holdings in Hermitage are always among the greatest wines of the Northern Rhone. The Hermitage Blanc, in particular, is often thrilling, with its rich and oily texture, and wonderful complexity. It’s typically 80-85% Marsanne, with 15 to 20% Roussanne. It is a wine that typically shows beautifully after 15 or more years of bottle age, but this ’08 was a reminder of how gorgeous they can be on first release. Definitely my WOTT. The Hermitage rouge is no slouch either, with its very aromatic and sexy nose, but it definitely needs several years to show all that’s there, beyond the polished fruit and fine tannins showing now.

  • 2008 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
    Dark purple red violet color; sexy, very aromatic, ripe berry, black plum, subtle pepper, white pepper, vanilla nose; tasty, polished, ripe berry, plum palate with refined tannins; tasty now but needs 4-5 years and will go 15; long finish (95 pts.)
  • 2008 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage
    Light medium yellow color; focused, intense, tart quince, bitter lemon, lemon rind, pineapple, white pepper nose; rich, oily textured, pineapple, lemon cream, mineral palate; needs 5-plus years and will go 20+; long finish (96 pts.)

Top 21 Wines of 2010

1994 Quinto do Noval and Nacional Ports
I have been a very, very lucky guy this year. Out of the 4,923 wines on which I’ve recorded notes, 21 were so extraordinary I gave them scores of 97 points or higher. That’s less than half a percent of the wines I tasted this year, but what an amazing, memorable collection of wines they were. One of them, the 1994 Quinto do Noval Nacional, rated a perfect score. Another rated 99, while six merited 98 points and 13 more received 97s.

Thanks to an awesome trip to Portugal in May with the editor of the For the Love of Port Newsletter and website, Roy Hersh, ten of my top 21 this year were Ports and three were vintage Madeiras. Roy billed this trip to Portugal and Madeira, his fifth anniversary visit, “The Best of the Best,” and indeed it was. From a vertical of Quinta do Noval Nacional tasted with winemaker Antonio Agrellos at Quinta do Noval to a spectacular morning with Luis d’Oliveira sampling 17 D’Oliveiras vintage Madeiras back to 1850, there were plenty of high points during my incredible trip with Roy.

Tasting at Quinta do Noval

1875 Angelica

Besides the 13 Ports or Madeiras, the next biggest contingent on my annual list of wines that received 97 points or more are California wines, with three, including two Cabernets. Those were a rare 1984 Diamond Creek Lake and a 1995 Bryant Family, together with a very old California Angelica bottling, dating back to 1875. The latter was the subject of a post here all by itself: The Rhône scored with two wines: a fabulous ’82 Chave Hermitage and the ’95 Pégaü Cuvée Laurence. Three remaining regions had one wine each in my top 21: Bordeaux, the Jura and Barolo. Those wines were my second greatest wine of the year, a gorgeous 1990 Ausone; an otherworldly 1955 Jean Bourdy from Jura; and the 1997 Bruno Giacosa Le Rocche del Falletto.

I can easily say that 2010 was one of the greatest years of my winetasting life. It doesn’t get much better than truly brilliant wines like these, encompassing a total of 160 years of vinous history. Oh yeah, I’m a very lucky guy alright.

Here are my detailed notes on each of these 21 great wines.

Top 21 Wines of 2010

1990 Chateau Ausone

1994 Quinta do Noval Porto Vintage Nacional – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/18/2010)
Opaque black violet color; big black fruit, berry, chocolate, chocolate mint nose; incredibly rich, berry, chocolate palate with structure and huge depth; very long finish (100 points)

1990 Château Ausone – France, Bordeaux, Libournais, St. Émilion Grand Cru (3/11/2010)
Dark red violet color with pale meniscus; regal, pencil lead, black fruit, anise, truffle nose; awesome, elegant, lithe and light footed, black fruit, poised plum, mineral, charcoal palate with exquisite balance; long finish (near perfection; seems to be in ideal drinking window, which should last for 10 years or so) (99 points)

2003 Quinta do Noval Porto Vintage Nacional – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/18/2010)
Black violet color; OMG!, rich, black fruit, tar, herbal nose; awesome, rich, ripe plum, rich berry, complex, deep and layered palate; very long finish (98 points)

1982 Chave Hermitage

1982 Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage – France, Rhône, Northern Rhône, Hermitage (4/18/2010)
Nearly opaque bricked dark red violet color with clear meniscus; lovely, cigar box, smoke, bacon fat, tobacco nose; very tasty, relatively youthful, gorgeous, bacon fat, smoky, roasted meat, tobacco palate; long finish 98+ pts. (98 points)

1875 D’Oliveiras Madeira Malvazia Reserva – Portugal, Madeira (5/21/2010)
Very dark brown color with yellow green meniscus; nutty, dry molasses, baked orange, crepe suzette, almond and walnut oil nose; buttery textured, rich ginger cake, deep toffee, tart orange honey, unctuous but with gorgeous orange acidity; very long finish 98+ pts. (98 points)

1875 D’Oliveiras Madeira Sercial Reserva – Portugal, Madeira (5/21/2010)
Medium dark amber brown color with light yellow meniscus; lemon tea, light coffee, roast coffee nose; rich, roast coffee, lemon peel, very tart orange, walnut palate with focused medium-plus lemon acidity; very long finish (98 points)

2000 Quinta do Vale Meão Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/19/2010)
Opaque black red violet color; bittersweet chocolate, tar nose with depth; deep, bittersweet chocolate, rich berry, tart blackberry, blackstrap molasses palate; long finish (98 points)

1963 Quinta do Noval Nacional

1963 Quinta do Noval Porto Vintage Nacional – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/18/2010)
Dark ruby red color with pale meniscus; rich, aromatic, berry nose; tasty, deep, gorgeous, rich, baked berry, blackberry, eucalyptus palate with refined tannins; long finish (98 points)

1970 Quinta do Noval Porto Vintage Nacional – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/18/2010)
Medium ruby red color; rich, raspberry, sassafras, black fruit nose; rich, tart black fruit, berry, chocolate, orange palate with depth; long finish (in an awesome place right now) (97 points)

1850 D’Oliveiras Madeira Verdelho Reserva – Portugal, Madeira (5/21/2010)
Medium dark brown color with brown garnet lights and light yellow meniscus; deep roast coffee, walnut, toffee nose; fabulous, tasty, elegant, orange marmalade, orange peel, walnut, tart lemon tea palate with medium acidity and a roasted quality on very long finish (97 points)

1997 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto di Serralunga d’Alba – Italy, Piedmont, Langhe, Barolo (9/19/2010)
Bricking medium dark red color with pale meniscus; lovely, roses, milk chocolate, leather, incense nose; delicious, gorgeous, poised, velvety, roses, spice box, tar, resin palate; medium-plus finish (97 points)

1955 Jean Bourdy

1955 Jean Bourdy Côtes du Jura Rouge – France, Jura, Côtes du Jura (7/18/2010)
Light medium bricked orange color with clear meniscus; exotic, curry, cardamon, roast rabbit, gunflint, evocative nose; tasty, velvety textured, cardamom, tart cranberry, green tea, smoke palate with a touch of tobacco and grip; long finish (old-vine blend of Pinot Noir, Poulsard and Trousseau planted in the late 1890s; the proportion of Trousseau was higher than usual in ’55) (97 points)

1952 Dalva Porto Golden White Colheita – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/26/2010)
Medium translucent orange red color with ruby lights and pale meniscus; VA, sultana raisin, walnut skin, tangerine marmalade, baked cherries and apricots nose; tangy, tasty, rich but layered and complex, mellow but still fruity, apricot orange peel, tangerine and orange marmalade palate with roundness, depth and good acidity, but also a little spirity; long finish 97+ pts. (97 points)

1995 Bryant Family Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Proprietor Grown – USA, California, Napa Valley (3/11/2010)
Opaque dark red violet color; rich berry, boysenberry, black plum, berry, mulberry nose; tasty, rich, youthful, concentrated, black plum, mulberry, tart blackberry palate; long finish (needs 5+ more years) (97 points)

1984 Diamond Creek Lake
1984 Diamond Creek Cabernet Sauvignon Lake – USA, California, Napa Valley, Diamond Mountain (1/3/2010)
Medium, bricking, dark red violet color with pale meniscus; pretty, lavender, cassis, berry nose; lovely, maturing, tart cassis, tart plum, cedar, tart blackberry palate; medium-plus finish (97 points)

1995 Domaine du Pégaü Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvée Laurence – France, Rhône, Southern Rhône, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (6/28/2010)
Bricking medium dark red violet color; lovely garrigue, herbal, dried cherry, lavender nose; tasty, au point, herbal, garrigue, dried cherry, tobacco palate with depth; medium-plus finish (group’s WOTF) (97 points)

2007 Quinta do Vale Meão Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/19/2010)
From magnum – opaque black red violet color; tart black fruit, rich berry, blackberry nose with depth; rich, sexy, luscious, surprisingly approachable, berry, blackberry, black fruit palate with good structure and sweet tannins; long finish 97+ pts. (40% Touriga Nacional, 35% Touriga Franca, 25% other varieties) (97 points)

2000 Quinta do Noval Porto Vintage Nacional – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/18/2010)
Opaque black red violet color; black fruit, herbal, green herb nose; tasty, rich, blackberry palate with sweet tannins; super long finish (97 points)

1963 Graham Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto (5/17/2010)
Bricking medium red color with pale meniscus; earthy, spice box, sweet meat nose; lovely, hedonistic but poised, dried cherry, raspberry, chocolate palate with sweet tannins and serious grip; very long finish 97+ pts. (decanted for nearly 4 hours) (97 points)

1875 Cucamonga Vineyard Angelica Wine Isaias W. Hellman Private Stock – USA, California, South Coast, Cucamonga Valley (1/27/2010)
Bricked medium cranberry red color with clear meniscus; fascinating, VA, coffee liqueur, chocolate, raisinette nose; tasty, rich, chocolate, orange, raspberry, coffee liqueur, raspberry syrup palate with good acidity; long finish (bottled from wood in 1921; reminiscent of both a mature Port, but with greater color — no doubt due to the 46 years in wood before bottling — and a mid-1800s vintage Madeira Bastardo, i.e., vintage Madeira from a red grape, with the acidity of a Terrantez or Verdelho) (97 points)

2007 Fonseca Porto Vintage – Portugal, Douro, Porto (1/23/2010)
Opaque, very dark red violet color; rich, complex, berry, blackberry, faintly herbal, black fruit, tar nose; rich, powerful but poised, berry, black fruit, blackberry, vanilla, black cherry palate; long finish (97 points)