Last October Jean-Louis Chave graciously received the Yapp buying team at his Mauves HQ and treated us to an extensive barrel tasting and tour of his recently renovated and extended cellars. Despite the pressures of running a world renown estate and overseeing the vinifcation of the recently harvested 2014 vintage, he took the time to give us detailed explanations of his wine-making techniques and philosophies and answer a myriad of questions - thereby proving the adage - 'if you want something done ask a busy man'.
Jean-Louis was pretty upbeat about the 2014 vintage, explaining that it suited growers like him with numerous different parcels of vines spread across diverse climats because the variable weather had made for eclectic ripening conditions and some plots, especially the more elevated ones, had fared much better than others. With the excellent 2012 vintage soon to be released (at the time of writing) and the short but promising 2013 in the pipeline, this represents something of a Golden Age for one of the Rhône's top estates.
The Chaves' Hermitage blanc comes from 4.6 hectares of Marsanne and Roussanne vines in a nominal 80/20 respective ratio. Although Jean-Louis cautions that it's difficult determining the variety of older rootstock, so they tend to put more emphasis on soil than grapes. About 80% of the white wine is fermented and raised in barrel with the remainder being cool-fermented in vat to maintain freshness and vigor. A painstaking assemblage takes place in the spring about 18 months after the harvest, although there is no hurry to release the wine thereafter as it takes time for the various components to harmonise before bottling. The finished wine drinks well on its youthful fruit but often has an awkward adolescence between around 3 and 7 years of age when it can be closed and inexpressive. Thereafter good vintages will age gracefully for 20-30+ years. Typically the white Hermitage has a bouquet of acacia flowers, apricots and honeysuckle and diverse palate of white stone fruit, nuts, minerals and glycerine. It is one of France's great gastronomic wines – classic accompaniments being chicken stuffed with truffles and veal with wild mushrooms.
The Chaves' Syrah vine holdings total 9.3 hectares spread over 7 different locations in Hermitage making them a big fish in a necessarily finite pond and giving them an enviably broad palette of fruit from which to select their final blend. Each parcel of red Hermitage is vinified separately in vat and barrel (a small percentage of which are new) to establish a strong sense of terroir before blending at about the 18 month mark and bottling 2 years after the harvest. To many oenophiles, the red Chave Hermitage is the epitome of Northern Rhône Syrah and it is renowned for its longevity, with superior vintages evolving gracefully over several decades.
Typically a red Chave Hermitage will have a bouquet of black fruit, spices and leather with diverse flavours of hedgerow berries, plums, damsons and pepper over a framework of tannins that soften and sweeten with bottle age. Roast beef and lamb are both classic accompaniments but slow-cooked dishes of venison and wild boar would also stand up well to the wine.
Our old friend Alain Graillot makes just two barrels of red Hermitage a year so we consider ourselves fortunate to receive an annual allocation. It is a relatively forward-drinking wine with bright berry and cherry scents and flavours, supple tannins and a fresh acidity. In Hermitage terms it is a relative bargain and should drink very well for 5-10+ years.
We were delighted to be offered a small parcel of red Hermitage, in the terrific 2010 vintage, by canny, Vacqueyras-based négociant Yves Cheron. It offers a very accessible introduction to this hallowed appellation, with dark berry, ground pepper and saddle leather scents and a lovely core of autumnal black fruit supported by ripe tannins, hints of spice and deftly integrated oak.