Nestled in the Northern Rhone Valley, the Chave family, now lead by Jean-Louis, has been making wine from Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne in the Saint Joseph and Hermitage appellations since 1481. Sixteen generations of father to son lineage has brought Chave’s domaine to its current accomplishments. Since Gerard Chave took over the domaine in 1970, the legendary domaine has been brought to worldwide success, and their wines have graced some of the world’s greatest winelists. With Gerard’s son, Jean-Louis, now at the helm since 1992, the Chave name is now not only synonymous with quality wines coming out of Hermitage, but also representing “Jean-Louis Chave Selections”, a negociant line which sources grapes from various areas in the Northern Rhone; a more accessible way for the consumer to experience the wines of this legendary family.
The Chave domaine is located in the town of Mauves. Initially growing wines on the hillside above their domaine, in what is now considered Saint Joseph, the Chaves’ vineyards fell victim to phylloxera at the turn of the 20th century, causing them to purchase land on the hill of Hermitage in an attempt to rebuild the domaine.
The Chave family did more than just rebuild their domain, they are now widely considered to be one of the greatest growers on the hill, making white and red Hermitage wines with renowned ageability.
The Region, the Vines, and the Wines
From Switzerland to the French Mediterranean coast, the Rhone Valley is speckled with vineyards that fall into two distinct appellations along the banks of the Rhone in southern France. Just south of Beaujolais and north of Avignon, the vineyards of the Northern Rhone benefit from a more continental climate than their southerly neighbors. Carved out of the granitic and schistous bedrock on a south facing hill, the terraced vineyards of Hermitage are dominated by four major producers, Jean-Louis Chave being one of them. Syrah makes a home here, full bodied, savory with signature aromas of smoke, peppercorn, violet, grilled meat and olive.
The Chave family owns 14.5 hectares of vines in Hermitage, where they produce three Northern Rhone Hermitage wines; Hermitage Blanc, Hermitage Rouge, and ‘Ermitage Cuvee Cathelin’. The red wine grapes are planted in Bessards, L’Hermite, Peleat, Meal, Beaume, Diognieres and Vercandiered vineyards, the two hectares of Bessards being the heart of the Jean Louis Chave’s Hermitage rouge. In Bessards, the terroir is made of mostly steep hillside soils ranging among granite, limestone, schists, clay and sandstone. The wines have maturity to them, as most are old vines averaging 50 years, but some are as old as 80!
The white grapes Marsanne and Roussanne that Chave uses in his Hermitage Blanc, are planted in 5 hectares that come from the vineyards of Les Rocoules, L’Hermite, Peleat, Maison Blanches and other vineyards. Les Rocoules has some of the oldest white wine vines in the Northern Rhone, some more than 80 years old.
Chave’s luxury wine, the ‘Cuvee Cathelin’, was named after the French artist, Bernard Cathelin, and is made from Syrah grapes mostly sourced from Les Bessards. It is a barrel selection just before bottling and is only produced in the top years and only if the quality of Chave’s regular cuvee is not compromised.
They also make a Hermitage Vin de Paille, a dessert wine that is made from grapes left to dry on straw mats that is rarely commercialized.
Reputation and Winemaking Style
Jean-Louis and his father Gerard have mastered the skill of blending. Although all plots are vinified separately, Chave refuses to release a cru Hermitage, as his style is philosophically traditional in nature. They assemble their vintage cuvees from an array of their vineyard holdings, each having their own distinct character, creating blends expressing the harmony and depth of their brand.
Vinification for Chave’s red wine takes place in a combination of cement vats, stainless steel, and large, open, used French oak barrels. Only 10% new oak is used. Once fermentation is complete, the wine is moved to large 228 liter oak barrels for ageing. Aged in Burgundian barrels for 18 months with varying levels of new oak (10-20%) depending on the vintage. Since Jean-Louis took over, he has been increasing the amount of new oak used, refining the tannins in the wine. It is after 18 months that the wine is blended, and left to rest 60-90 days before bottling.
Both Chave’s red and white wines are made to develop after time, emphasizing the complexity, richness and depth of his distinct style.