In his seminal 'Wines of the Northern Rhône' (University of California Press, 2005) John Livingstone-Learmonth stated: "The Full Up sign applies to the Hermitage vineyards. The figure of 131 hectares reflects the hectare and a half rooted out and planted during the 1990s by Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet around La Chapelle." Fifteen years later and such is the value of the viticultural real estate that a further 6 hectares have been reclaimed by clearing boulders and scrub bringing the total area under vine to 137 hectares. Just over ten percent of the vineyard is owned by Jean-Louis Chave and his family who have 9.3 hectares of Syrah vines and 4.6 hectares of Marsanne and Roussanne. Their vine holdings are divided into 11 different parcels on 9 separate climats giving an enviably broad palette of fruit to blend from. Chez Chave, blending is key: it is all about the assemblage.
The 'Domaine J-L Chave' Hermitage blanc is vinified and raised in vat and barrel for at least 18 months prior to blending and bottling. Any wine which is deemed unrepresentative of the house style, within the context of the vintage, is ruthlessly discarded and sold en vrac. It drinks well on its youthful fruit but then tightens up between 3 and 7 years of age where after it reveals its full complexity. Typically, it exhibits diverse aromas of honeysuckle, acacia flowers and apricots and a multi-faceted palate of white stone fruit, nuts, and minerals underscored by glycerine. Like any fine white wine it merits decanting and shouldn't be served too cold; circa 12 degrees C. is optimum. Classic food accompaniments include chicken stuffed with mushrooms and lobster with cream sauce.
The Chaves' Hermitage rouge has a similar élevage to the white and a small proportion is raised in vat to retain vigour. It is carefully blended circa 18 months from harvest and then bottled at around 2 years of age. This stupendous Syrah has a beguiling bouquet of dark fruit, leather and spices plus diverse flavours of hedgerow berries, plums, damsons and crushed black pepper supported by a rugged framework of tannins that sweeten and soften with age. Fine vintages can age well for 3 decades or more and it makes a marvellous foil for meat or mushroom dishes. Jean-Louis Chave recommends woodcock as the ideal partner for a mature wine.
Recent additions to this list are the Chaves' négociant bottlings made, in part, from brought-in grapes and bottled under their 'J-L Chave Sélection' label. They make a remarkably accessible entry to the appellation. The white, called 'Blanche', has a lovely bouquet of conference pears and wild flowers and a persistent orchard fruit palate with an elegant finish. Its red sibling 'Farconnet' is equally approachable, with a wealth of black cherry and berry scents and flavours supported by fine-grained tannins.