The Chaves and the Molitors

Jean-Louis & Erin Chave

We are delighted to announce the arrival of the 2015 Domaine Chave L’Hermitage (rouge et blanc) and the 2015  Domaine Chave St Joseph. Also just in is the 2016 JL Chave Selection Cotes du Rhone Mon Coeur.

Chave L'Hermitage is one of the greatest wines of the appellation, and in the eyes of many I have no doubt that it is seen as the top wine. The family firm has been passed from father to son since its establishment in 1481, through numerous generations, and currently it is under the direction of University of California Davis graduate Jean Louis Chave, although his father Gerard is still on the scene.
 
The Chave family are based in Mauves, a small village not far from Cornas, on the right bank of the Rhone. The heart of the operation, however, is across the river, on the hill of Hermitage. Here Chave owns vines in nine of the eighteen vineyards that cover the hill, the most significant of which is a 2 ha plot in Les Bessards, the large vineyard on the granite slopes at the western end. Jean Louis Chave and his father believe that the rich variety of terroirs to be found on the hill are vital in blending a wine which has all of the features they desire, including finesse, structure and complexity. Those plots which do not meet the Chave requirements simply aren't used. One such plot is in Les Vercandières, a thin strip of vineyard at the base of Les Bessards, which they use as a vegetable patch!
 
Chave produces both a red and white Hermitage, as well as a red St Joseph. The white Hermitage is 85% Marsanne and 15% Roussanne, made from the fruit of four vineyards: Les Roucoles: a mid-slope site of clay and limestone, dominated by white grapes, as reds sourced from this site are often troubled by coarse tannins. L'Hermite: a monopole - this site is owned entirely by the Chave family, following its purchase in 1984. Situated at the top of the slope, directly to the north is Crozes-Hermitage. Peléat: another monopole, of stony, sandy soils, which lies adjacent to Rocoules.  Maison Blanche: a fairly large vineyard which lies above Rocoules, higher up the slope.
 
The grapes are harvested by hand, before a gentle bladder-pressing and temperature-controlled fermentation in a mix of casks and stainless steel. Afterwards the wine receives minimal racking and a careful application if other treatments - fining, sulphur - if required. The wine than goes into old oak or even stainless steel - oak is not a strong flavour component of Chave Hermitage. The end result is a fabulous wine which has both elegance and power, with the ability to age although they are also approachable young.
 
The red Hermitage is just as superb. The appellation regulations permit the inclusion of up to 15% of white grapes in the final blend, although those producers use less than this, if any at all. Chave have some white grapevines planted alongside their red in L'Hermite. The following vineyards provide the fruit:
 Les Bessards: the backbone of the wine. Les Bessards is one of the greatest vineyards on the hill, a large site on granite soils at the western end.
 Le Méal: another large site, next to Les Bessards, but with more chalky soils.
 L'Hermite: a monopole, discussed above. There are 15% white grapevines planted with the red in this vineyard.
 Les Roucoles: despite this site being favoured for white grapes, a small amount of red from this vineyard provides some tannic structure to the final blend.
 Peléat: discussed above, another monopole.
 
The grapes are largely destemmed, depending on the vintage, before the produce of each vineyard is vinified in separate aliquots. This reflects Chave's belief in the importance of terroir, and that each vineyard has a separate role to play in the blend. As mentioned, Les Roucoles provides tannin, whereas Les Bessards provides colour and intensity, Le Méal provides aromatic interest, L'Hermite a supple edge and Peléat more colour, tannin and characterful flavour. Chave blends the final wine following fermentation in both stainless steel and open wooden vats, allowing the temperature to rise a little to encourage extraction, and punching down the cap by foot. The wine sees some wood, but very little is new (if any at all) and some of the wine goes into 1300 l capacity casks.
 
There are a couple of other wines in the portfolio which deserve a mention. There is Cuvée Cathelin, named after the artist Bernard Cathelin, a friend of the Chave family who designed the label for this wine which was first released in 1990. This wine has a limited production, just over 100 cases in fact, and is essentially a super micro-cuvée. Chave is quick to explain, however, that it is Hermitage in a different style, rather than a wine that should detract from the main cuvée. A vin de paille has also been the subject of critical acclaim. Whatever the style, however, Jean Louis Chave is clearly keeping quality paramount. This remains a source of superb Hermitage, both red and white.

The expertise that Gérard and Jean-Louis Chave draw upon is not only their own, but also the accumulated wisdom of their ancestors, transmitted down through the generations since Chaves began making Hermitage in 1481, continuing a five-century dynasty of extraordinarily high quality and pure expression of great terroir that is unmatched.

As Andrew Jefford writes in The New France,  “The Chave line … could make a fair claim to be France’s winemaking royal family: in no other of France’s great terroirs is the largest individual landholder so deeply rooted in time and place, so supremely competent, and so modest a custodian of the insights and craftsmanship of the past.”

The key to the perfect balance of Chave L'Hermitage, whether rouge or blanc, is in Gérard and Jean-Louis’ remarkable blending skill, a process that begins anew with each vintage.  Like Jamet and Clape, the Chaves assemble their vintage cuvées from their expertly farmed array of sites, each with its own character, to create singular blends of great nuance, harmony, depth and aging potential.

  • Country: France