At the tail end of February, Tom and I were privileged to take up an invitation to visit the Chave family at their H.Q. in the village of Mauves to taste barrel samples of forthcoming vintages and catch up with developments at this historic estate that has an unbroken father to son lineage dating back to 1481. Jean-Louis Chave greeted us in person and we clambered into his authentically vineyard-distressed quatre-quatre for a tour of the family's latest acquisition - the 4 hectare walled 'Clos Florentin' Saint Joseph vineyard which lies at the southern end of the village. Jean-Louis explained that he'd had his eye on this parcel of vines for several reasons. The key attractions are the location and the soil. Although the vineyard lies on flat land below Saint Joseph's steepest slopes, it has a soil of decomposed granite washed downhill over millennia. The vineyard also lies in a sun trap being set beneath a gap between two overlooking escarpments. The former patron Dr. Émile Floretin was a Paris-based homeopath who eschewed the deployment of chemical pesticides and fertilizers so the mature rootstock has grown naturally and is untainted by interventionist farming practices. Further inducements were that the Chaves' own the painstakingly re-planted vineyard immediately above Clos Florentin and the extreme proximity to their own base. As Jean-Louis pointed out it is much closer to their winery than Hermitage.
Jean-Louis relishes a challenge and he's clearly on a mission to produce the best wine he possibly can in Saint Joseph and restore some of this much maligned appellation's prestige. We can't wait to taste the fruits of his labour.
Back at base we were issued with tasting glasses and were escorted into the murkiness of the Chaves' extensive subterranean cellars. Here we were treated to an extensive barrel tasting commencing with parcels of white Hermitage 2008, moving on to red Saint Joseph 2008 and then red Hermitage 2008 before repeating the exercise with the nascent and keenly anticipated 2009s. Time and space preclude going into details of individual climats here but we were hugely impressed by the 2008s in cask. Jean-Louis confirmed that 2008 had been a really tough vintage in the vineyard with heavy rains, at the time of blossoming, severely reducing yields. Fortunately, three weeks of sunshine prior to harvesting in September helped ripen grapes to full maturity. Jean-Louis told us that once in the cellars the 2008s have given him little cause for concern - volumes are low but they have great purity of fruit and delineation. 2009 was evidently an easier and more prolific vintage. The cask wines are still quite closed and tannic but there is a wealth of background fruit and a fine acidity that augurs well for 'Grands Vins' of great concentration and longevity. There might even be the possibility of a bottling of the rare Ermitage 'Cuvée Cathelin' which has only been produced 5 times since the inaugural 1990 vintage.
With broad smiles and blackened teeth we emerged blinking into the daylight to be greeted by Jean-Louis' charming American wife, Erin, and their lively 3 year-old son Louis, who might not appreciate it yet but has got a lot of responsibility riding on his young shoulders.