Domaine Jean-Louis Chave is unquestionably one of the great wine estates of France and, as the label says quite modestly, can trace its origins back to 1481. The family comes from the Ardèche, in particular the village of Lemps. This is still the spiritual home of the family, who own a large house there, and also the location of Chave's first vineyards, on land which today is part of the Saint-Joseph appellation.
Of course the renown of Chave rests with the wines of Hermitage on the other side of the river, but acquisition came much later when the ravages of the phylloxera epidemic and the Great War made land suddenly available and at quite good prices. Today they own 15ha of vineyard, all scattered across Hermitage and reflecting the great geological diversity of the hill. It makes Chave the fourth-biggest landowner there (after Chapoutier, the Tain Co-operative and Jaboulet).
What makes the Chaves special, quite apart from their prodigious talents and attention to detail, is the respect they have for tradition and for the appellation itself. Their interpretation of Hermitage exists as a blend of different terroirs, from the granites of les Bessards to the rich clay and limestone of Méal. They make outstanding wines in both red and white Hermitage and in some years even a tiny amount of vin de paille.
The Wine Society has known two generations of Chaves. There was Gérard, learned epicurean with a passion for duck shooting, who made some of the greatest Hermitage ever, notably the 1978 and 1990. Then came his son Jean-Louis, introspective and perfectionist with his American wife and accent.
Jean-Louis gradually took over during the 1990s, helped no doubt by the run of less favourable vintages in 1992, 93 and 94 - it is always better to start with difficult vintages: if you can cope with these you can cope with anything! There is a restless energy about Jean-Louis and with it a realisation that making great Hermitage was not enough of a challenge. Accordingly, he founded a very successful négoce house, which produces a very fine Côtes-du-Rhône and Saint-Joseph.
Over the generations, the cellars in Chave's headquarters at Mauve have expanded and today occupy three separate sites. First there are ancient cobwebbed cellars beneath Gérard's house, where Hermitage is made. The négoce part of the enterprise is just round the corner in more functional surroundings. Finally, the Chaves bought the estate that was owned by their friends, the Florentin family. This included the legendary Clos de l'Arbelestrier which Jean-Louis is busy replanting and sorting out.
The big project chez Chave is their Saint-Joseph vineyards. The ancestral site in Lemps on very steep granite was never replanted after phylloxera: in those days there was neither the money nor the manpower to undertake such work and the price for Saint-Joseph wine was far less than Hermitage. Understandably, all their efforts went into the latter and it is only in the last 10 years or so that they have begun to look at Saint-Joseph afresh. The task has been enormous: clearing the land of trees and shrubs, ploughing, rebuilding miles of dry stone walls and, only then, replanting. But there is real belief here that these ancient soils will one day produce great wine again.
The Society's Exhibition Hermitage
The Chaves are owners in many of the best plots on Hermitage. Each vineyard is harvested and vinified separately before being raised in Burgundian barrels. Jean-Louis Chave starts making up his blends after these elements have spent a year or so in barrel and, inevitably, some of become surplus to requirements. It is these parcels that form the basis of The Society’s Exhibition Hermitage.
The holdings on Hermitage
There are 9.3ha of reds and 4.6ha of whites
The principal vineyards are as follows
L'Hermite: 3.45 ha. Syrah and roussanne
Rocoules: 3.45 ha. Syrah and marsanne
Bessards: 2.05ha. 80-year-old syrah and the key ingredient in the red
Péléat: 1.51ha. Mostly syrah but there is a plot of 100-year-old marsanne
Le Méal: 1.02ha. 60-year-old syrah vines
Diognières: 0.58ha. 50-year-old syrah vines
Beaumes: 0.31ha. 60-year-old syrah vines
Vercandieres: 0.46 ha. Syrah on granite at the bottom of Bessards
Maison Blanche: 0.33ha. Marsanne
Winemaking is along classical lines except that the fruit is cooled down before fermentation begins. Historically, red Hermitage was always destemmed, and still is today, to about 80% in order to avoid astringent tannins. Maceration and cap management is done by punching down, sometimes very traditionally by foot.
All of the reds and most of the whites are aged in barrel for about 18 months with the amount of new wood dependent on the style of the vintage. Wines are bottled unfiltered and invariably develop a considerable crust or sediment.