At the beginning of March I had the pleasure of hosting an evening dedicated to the wines of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave, an estate widely acknowledged as being at forefront of the Rhône valley’s wine making elite. I was at Le Café Anglais on the invitation of the chef-patron, Rowley Leigh, who is passionate about wine (and food) and had devised a sumptuous menu to accompany the wines. The evening presented a (very) rare opportunity to sample examples of the entire cannon of the Domaine’s wines including the horribly expensive ‘Cuvée Cathelin’ and fiendishly scarce ‘Vin de Paille’. Nineteen of us gathered in the private dining room (this representing just about the maximum who can comfortably taste from a single bottle) including restaurateurs, wine journalists, business folk and common or garden wine nuts.
This was to be a tasting of two halves. The first being an ‘academic’ overview of this legendary estate (de Père en Fils Depuis 1481, as proudly displayed on the neck label) featuring the white Hermitage 2005, the red Hermitage 2001, the Ermitage ‘Cuvée Cathelin’ 1998 and the sweet Vin de Paille 1990. The second phase was a more ‘hedonistic’ tasting (and let’s face it, drinking) of the Chaves wines with specially selected dishes.
Phase one passed off well. The white 2005 showed youthful promise with hints of honeysuckle on the nose and a concentrated palate of white stone fruit with hints of roasted nuts. The red 2001 is still an infant but I could happily drink it now. It has a wonderful core of dark, black, berry-fruit and attractive peppery notes. The Cuvée Cathelin is so far beyond the realms of my regular drinking that I find it hard to be objective about it. There is lots of power and concentration here and it tastes like a Vin Luxe. The Chaves insist that this isn’t a ‘special’ cuvée. That said, they’ve only ever made it in 6 vintages (1990, 1991, 1995, 1998, 2000 & 2003) and collectors certainly regard it as a trophy wine. It was first created to provide a vehicle for a distinctive red label that the late artist and Chave family friend, Bernard Cathelin, designed. I think it is an impressive wine and a fabulous expression of the Syrah grape but I just feel like it hasn’t been made for the likes of me. Perhaps it is the wine equivalent of a studio album made by a great live band. I can appreciate its quality, I just can’t relate to it in the same way that I can with the Chaves’ ‘regular’ Hermitage. Maybe in time I’ll acquire more of a taste for it – although who will fund that project remains a mystery.
In common with many great wines the Vin de Paille is understated. On first taste you wonder what all the fuss is about but every time you revisit it, it reveals another facet. It tasted more impressive two hours after opening than when we first broached it. I lack the descriptive powers to do this justice but Keats’s ‘lucent syrups tinct with cinnamon’ spring to mind.
With that hard work out of the way we then tucked into a memorably delicious meal. Scallops with sea kale were accompanied by a mineral-edged white Hermitage 1995 which proved a delightfully happy union. A gently-spiced hare pâté ‘en croute’ was served warm with the only non-Hermitage of the feast, the Chaves’ red Saint Joseph 2006. The cool, youthful, peppery wine was the perfect foil for the gamey meat – a sublime food and wine combination. I am certain that the ‘Lamb en Persillade’ that followed with a red Hermitage 1999 (that was just beginning to reveal its potential) was a grander dish but I had been so beguiled by the previous course I had yet to regain my critical faculties.
To round things off we tasted two mature vintages of red Hermitage with some perfectly à point Saint Marcellin. The 1985 was good but the 1988 was great. This was my wine of the night with evolved fruit and tannins that had softened nicely with age and I fancy some ‘beaded bubbles winking at the brim’but by then I had drunk plenty and had fully succumbed to the charms of the hill of Hermitage!