The night before the Christie’s tasting of J.L Chave pre-auction wines, the swimming briefs worn by Daniel Craig in Casino Royale went at auction for £44,000 (with 5 bidders). During the tasting, we were reminded by Anthony Hanson MW that in the past Rhone was shipped to Bordeaux to be used as bulk wine. In between these two extreme stories, sat before us the wines of J.L. Chave.
The market of fine wine, like other markets, is based on sentiment. And the murmurs amongst the claret-in-veins set is there is not as much excitement for Bordeaux as there is currently for Burgundy and Rhone. J.L. Chave sits uncomfortably in this world. It certainly is considered a “first-growth” Rhone in market-terms, but it is also one of the most authentic and true expressions of Hermitage, that mythical hill where Syrah (or, Shiraz) go to worship.
The Paul Jaboulet Aine sign in the Rhone may echo the sign in the Hollywood Hills, but there is nothing here suggesting blockbuster. No special effects, no pyrotechnics and with a small-scale, intimate narrative in each glass. In fact, the times I have tasted this wine are very much “from the cellar of distinguished gentlemen” at dinners. The only spectacular thing about them is how fast they are stashed away in private cellars. Chave aims for elegance rather than power. They are not deep in colour, and the fruit is not huge.
I had the good fortune to sit next to a young colleague who has only been in fine wine for less than a month, with no technical training, who has been thrown into the deep end in her first couple of weeks as an assistant. I think of Emile Peynaud, that often people with no training have the best palates. And at the end of the night we came upon agreement on our favourite wines. This, to me, shows how enjoyable Rhone can be and drinkable they are, and this has been confirmed many times at dinners with wine lovers (rather then experts, although they definitely stand up to the more critical frames of mind). There’s a lot of pleasure in these wines.
These vintages are not considered the blockbuster vintages. I think the definition of a great winemaker is that they can make excellent wines in vintages where others fail. Each of his wines remind me of his strong-willed children free to express each vintage and the weather of the year.
- Hermitage Rouge Jean-Louis Chave 2004 – ready to drink now
- Hermitage Rouge Jean-Louis Chave 2002 – to buy and drink over next few years
- Hermitage Blanc Jean-Louis Chave 1999 – to drink now
- Hermitage Blanc Jean-Louis Chave 1989 – kalaiediscopic perfumes – black pepper, orange peel. Made in “old style” by father, Gerard. Incredible experience. Drinking now and for next 10 years.
Hermitage rouge 2008 – 14 % alc
Cool blueberry on nose with pepper, strong and cleansing. It still has barrel influence but it is has good length and a fresh finish. Not an easy vintage, lots of rain in 2008 but the strong mistral during vintage saved the wines.
Hermitage rouge 2004 – 14% alc
Tannins refined and softened, deeper flavours on nose, good length, lovely texture. Integrated and smooth. Evolved spiciness, harmonious, ready for drinking. Black fruits, cherry, leather, spice and with tea and fresh mint. Early rains during summer, vintage success with sunshine in September. Grapes healthy when picked.
Hermitage rouge 2002 – 13% alc
More floral and pretty on nose and less weight on the palate than 04. Black tea characters on palate, crisp elegant tannins, less silky than 04. Lighter. Developing exciting medicinal character. Early days.
Hermitage rouge 1990 -13% alc
Rich bacon and syrupy but fresh and elegant. Prunes, chocolate, leather. Freshness. Ready to drink now. An exceptional year for Hermitage (a year when he produced his Cathelin, a wine not made as super luxe cuvee but as “something to amuse themselves” in a good vintage) and one of the most accessible of the 20th century. Complex aromas coming at you, meaty, then changing. Soft and silky tannins.
The emphasis is on “texture rather than aroma. Glycerol is the key word not acidity. Find balance in the wine through richness and low acidity.” – J.L Chave, as quoted by Anthony Hanson MW
In other words, none of them have a fashionable fruit sweetness. These wines are definitely about weight, texture and perfume. When they are younger, they are rich and full-bodied, become more sherry-like and then lose the baby weight with age to reveal the full extent of their genius.
Hermitage blanc 2006 – 14.5% alc
Waxy and low key, honeysuckle, rich and intense, dry finish. Not hailed as a good vintage for Rhone.
Hermitage blanc 2003 – 15% alc
Fresher than 2006 – it has hazelnut and oxidised characters. A unique wine! Tangy and crisp, rich intense but (say this incredulously, as it is from the heat-wave vintage) lighter. Most of the pickers on holiday when the heat wave happened. Chave himself was in US getting married. They couldn’t pick, but there was a massive storm and some welcome freshness. The few people who waited until September to pick did well in this vintage.
Hermitage blanc 1999 – 13% alc
A good balance of 03 and 06. Spiciest and nuttiness, rich and fresh. Intense. This is a powerful and ornate wine with good balance of fruit and weight, it would be comfortable at a state banquet. Ready to drink but will keep 5 to 10 years (15,000 bottles).
Hermitage blanc 1989
Mineral, saline, orange peel, black pepper brightness. Outstanding changes in perfume and taste, a true experience. A very “real” wine made by J.L. Chave’s father, Gerard – a brilliant, brilliant old-school Rhone. So thrilled to have tasted.
Auction at Christie’s London, King Street, 18 October 2012
Image: From Russia with Love, 1963