Some places in this world are simply hallowed ground when it comes to winemaking. Of course every deep-rooted and honest winemaker treats his own land that way, but there are some places on earth that long ago transcended the brief attentions of mortal winemakers and instead exist in a pantheon of the world’s greatest vineyard sites.
No one knows exactly when the first vines were sunk into the impossibly steep granite hillsides in this particular elbow of the Rhone river valley, but in all likelihood there were grapes growing on the hillside now called Hermitage for more than five centuries before Jesus Christ was born. A mere 326 acres in size (smaller than some Bordeaux estates, aficionados will be pleased to remind you) the thin scrabbly soils of Hermitage’s granite hillside represent one of the worlds most singular expressions of terroir, and the apogee of what the Syrah grape is capable of, in my opinion.
Originally called “Ermitage” with an “h” tacked on later for reasons none too clear, this appellation played host to some of the most famous wines in Europe outside of Bordeaux starting as far back as the 16th century. Indeed, though no one particularly cares to remember, there were times when the top Chateaux in Bordeaux used to augment a particularly thin vintage with a little Hermitage for color and body.
If there is one family name indelibly associated with the terroir of Hermitage, it would be Chave. One only need look at the neck of one of the domaine’s wine bottles to understand why. Written there in fine print you will see the words “Vignerons de Père en Fils depuis 1481” — Wine growers from father to son since 1481.
Domaine JL Chave owns about 35 acres of this hillside and has been farming it for more than a century. The family still owns about three acres of vines in the Saint Joseph appellation, which has been passed down through the family for more than sixteen generations.
JL Chave is currently run by the soft spoken Jean-Louis Chave (the modern incarnation of the domaine was named after his grandfather who bore the same name). Chave has been gradually assumed responsibilities for the estate from his father Gerard over the past few years, after getting his MBA and oenology degree here in the United States.
I recently had the pleasure of listening to Jean-Louis talk about his wines, and more importantly, the place where they are grown during a seminar at the Aspen Food and Wine Classic. I hope he will forgive me for my somewhat patchwork reconstruction of some of his remarks, which were punctuated by the ecstatic tasting of his current release wines, as well as some older vintages.
“Yes, we have been here for 16 generations. But I don’t sell a name or a brand. What I do is explain and share the history of Hermitage. What is important is not the people that make the wine but where the wines come from. Hermitage has been here before us and will be around after us. It is more important than anything.
I think a lot of people don’t know about Hermitage. When they know about the Rhone, it is more the southern Rhone. We are the Northern Rhone, of course, but we are not the very north. We like to say North of the South. We’re not in Provence yet. We are in the region where we cook with butter, not olive oil.
It is not a warm place. It is pretty cold. We have more in common with Burgundy as a matter of climate than Chateauneuf-du-Pape as a matter of principle.
Our vineyards are on the hills because they need to look for the sun. Hermitage is Hermitage because it faces south. If there is a place that ever was supposed to be a home for grapes it is Hermitage. I thank my history and my family for finding it. We are very lucky to have these vineyards.
More than anything Hermitage is great, in the sense of Grand Vin, and quite unusually, it is great for both the white and the red wines. It is very rare to have an appellation where you can make both red and white at the same level of quality.
White grapes are nearly one fourth of the appellation, and in our case very, very old vines. Eighty to one-hundred-year-old Marsanne and Roussanne. We have both these grapes, but we don’t know how much of each. People ask me what the percentage is of our white wine, and I am being honest when I say we don’t know. When the vineyard was planted, the people who did it didn’t know they were two different kind of grapes.
The red is Syrah but we don’t ever use the word Syrah. We only say Hermitage, or Le Meal, or the various other parcels in the vineyard that give their own personality. The grape is a vector for the soil to express itself in the wine. Granite is the backbone. It gives the tightness in the spine. And then some parts of the vineyard give the flesh and the spice.
We make each parcel separately, and we keep them that way. You have to wait until the very end to see each wine express its personality, and then to finally be able to answer this question: what is Hermitage? There are different answers to that question, but as we like to say, we don’t propose more than one each year. Making wine is not our job, it is our life. So this blending every year is not something to do on the day you go into your cellar and say “I feel well, I’m going to blend today.” You think about it all the time. You blend in your mind, all the time. It is definitely emotional, and the emotional is important. But you can’t be entirely emotional about it, because it is also your livelihood. You need to be objective sometimes, too.
When you look at our bottles you see what you need to know about us. We don’t want to be Chave, we want to be Hermitage. That’s where the wine comes from. It just happens to be Chave.”
Despite making only three primary bottlings each year, the family actually makes dozens of wines, vinifying each section of the Hermitage hillside separately, as each parcel has a slightly different aspect and soil composition, and only blending after the wines are finished and aged in old oak casks or in stainless steel. Very, very little new oak is used on these wines, letting the hand-picked, gently pressed grapes do the talking.
In addition to the white and red Hermitage, the family also makes a red from their property in St. Joseph, and in some years a special red cuvee called Cuvée Cathelin, and an even rarer Vin de Paille dessert wine made from air-dried white grapes.
The wines are nothing short of spectacular, and without question, some of the best in the world. I am particularly fond of the Hermitage Blanc, which I have had occasion to taste only three or four times in my life, but each time I continue to be astonished by what is most definitely one of the world’s greatest white wines.
Chave wines are made in minuscule quantities each year, and then only a portion of that production makes its way to the U.S.
2007 J.L. Chave Hermitage Blanc, Rhone Valley, France
Pale gold in the glass, this wine has an unbelievable nose of sweet cream and honey, lemon curd and jasmine aromas. One of the things I love about this wine is that it really smells like nothing else in the world. In the mouth, the wine has an incredibly sexy texture of liquid glass with a satin polish. Flavors of honeysuckle, beeswax, lemon curd, yellow melon, and a myriad of other fantastic floral flavors swirl and dance on the knife edge of balance that this wine seems to walk. An incredibly long finish rounds out the package. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $169. Click to buy.
2003 J.L. Chave Hermitage Blanc, Rhone Valley, France
Light yellow gold in the glass, this wine smells incredibly like a combination of piney aromas, honey, bee pollen, and beautiful floral notes. In the mouth, the wine has the usual gorgeous silky texture with flavors of bee pollen, honeysuckle, jasmine, and a fantastic smooth, granitic minerality and length. Impeccably poised and at once both delicate and powerful, the wine demands to be drunk. Fantastic. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $199. Click to buy.
2000 J.L. Chave Hermitage Blanc, Rhone Valley, France
Light yellow gold in the glass with a hint of green, despite being ten years old, this wine looks like it was just bottled, and may have even gotten lighter in color as it has aged. From even a foot away, this wine has a nose of incredible savory, even salty, bee pollen, lemon curd, and honeysuckle. In the mouth it is simply perfect. No other word suffices, and no string of expletives could possibly capture the unique combination of flavors and aromas. An impeccably balanced mouthful of liquid sex that smells like the spiritual essence of golden delicious apples mating with honeysuckle on a nuptial bed of slick wet granite. Flavors of lemon curd and yellow melon swirl through the mouth as the wine lingers for minutes in the finish. This is one of those of utterly fantastic, smack-yourself-over-the-head-with-the-wine-bottle wines. Fucking beautiful. Score: a perfect 10. Cost: $110. Click to buy.
2007 J.L. Chave Saint Joseph Rouge, Rhone Valley, France
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of bright mulberries, cherries, and delicate, mouthwatering spices. In the mouth the wine attacks with a bright burst of spicy cassis and plum flavors that bounce and swirl with an agility brought on by fantastic acidity. Strong violet flavors emerge on the long finish along with faint tannins. Almost irresistible in its mouthwateringness, having tasted it at this age, I would be hard pressed to keep myself from drinking it, even knowing it would improve for 15 years. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $60. Click to buy.
2006 J.L. Chave Saint Joseph Rouge, Rhone Valley, France
Dark garnet in the glass, this wine smells of ripe plums, black cherry, and dried cherry fruit. In the mouth, velvety tannins that are lightly tacky in texture and almost playful in the way they tuck into corners of the mouth surround wonderful flavors of black plum and cassis. As the wine moves across the palate, hints of leather and bits of chocolate mixed with wet earth emerge. A beautiful and distinctive wine. Score: between 9 and 9.5. Cost: $48. Click to buy.
2007 J. L. Chave Hermitage Rouge, Rhone Valley, France
Dark garnet in the glass has a nose of absolutely incredible purity. Cassis, violets, licorice and a deep woody spice explode out of the glass even at arms length. In the mouth, the wine proves impossible not to swallow. Fantastic flavors of cassis, violets, hints of anise, woodsmoke, and a deep stony minerality are all welded into a seamless, sexy whole. Fantastically balanced, with near-perfect acidity and fine grained, muscular tannins that bring to mind the blue-black rippling beneath the hide of a prize bull. Utterly pure wet stone and violet scents suffuse the minutes long finish. Score: between 9.5 and 10. Cost: $169. Click to buy.
2004 J. L. Chave Hermitage Rouge, Rhone Valley, France
Medium to dark ruby in the glass, with a hint of brick at the rim and faint sediment, this wine smells of faintly smoked meats and granite in the rain. This aromatic image of a slab of mountainside drenched from the sky lingers even as gorgeous leathery flavors of dried apples, cherry, and aromatic cedar run across the palate. Gorgeously powdery tannins swirl and play tag with the bright notes driven by great acidity. The finish is long and delicate. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $159. Click to buy.
2001 J. L. Chave Hermitage Rouge, Rhone Valley, France
Medium ruby in the glass, with a hint of brick at the rim, this wine smells of sandalwood, incense, leather and smoked meats. Some wines, after you smell them you just pray for them to taste exactly as they smell. This is one of those wines. If I could drink those aromas… But in the mouth, the wine is differently delicious, giving me two reasons to love it. Wonderful balanced flavors of leather and cedar and dried apples begin the song that is this wine, followed by and incredible long refrain of cocoa powder and wet wood powdered by lush tannins. Outstanding. Score: around 9.5. Cost: $185 . Click to buy.