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Few who cherish the power and perfume of classically made Hermitage would argue that the greatest red and white examples emerge from the Chave family cellars. The current generations in charge, father Gérard and son Jean-Louis, use their knowledge, experience and spread of lieux-dits to craft wines that combine all the power, longevity, nuance and refinement that the Hermitage hill is capable of.
The expertise that Gérard and Jean-Louis draw upon is not only their own, but also the accumulated wisdom of their ancestors, transmitted down through the generations since Chaves began making Hermitage in 1481, continuing a five-century dynasty of extraordinarily high quality and pure expression of great terroir that is unmatched.
As Andrew Jefford writes in The New France, “The Chave line ... could make a fair claim to be France’s winemaking royal family: in no other of France’s great terroirs is the largest individual landholder so deeply rooted in time and place, so supremely competent, and so modest a custodian of the insights and craftsmanship of the past.”
The key to the perfect balance of Chave Hermitage, whether rouge or blanc, is in Gérard and Jean-Louis’ remarkable blending skill, a process that begins anew with each vintage. Like Jamet and Clape, the Chaves assemble their vintage cuvées from their expertly farmed array of sites, each with its own character, to create singular blends of great nuance, harmony, depth and aging potential.
Traditionalists to the core, Chave has never released a cru Hermitage despite how impressive some of the individual cuvées are—the blend is all. As Gerard told Stephen Tanzer in 2000, “We create a wine that no early taster knows. Every year we start from zero in assembling the blend.”
While the components and their percentages are different every year, the one constant in the Hermitage rouge is the Syrah from Bessards which provides the cuvée’s backbone with the fruit from its steep, granite slope; as Gerard said to The Wines of the Northern Rhône author John Livingstone-Learmonth, “Bessards is our essential climat; you can’t make a Grand Hermitage without it.”
Likewise, the base for Chave’s heroic Hermitage blanc is the plot of century-old Marsanne vines in their Péléat monopole, which provides rich and intense fruit without heaviness. The usual final blend for the blanc is 80 to 85% Marsanne with 15 to 20% Roussanne.
While both colors are revered worldwide as the very essence of Hermitage, endlessly complex wines that surreally balance their richness and depth with elegance and finesse, it can come as a surprise to many that the blanc will live as long, if not longer than the rouge. In the 1980s, we tasted a Chave Blanc from the 1920s that was breathtaking.
In vintages where the Chaves feel that the surreal harmony of the rouge won’t be compromised, the heroic Cuvée Cathelin is bottled separately. It contains the same lieux-dits, made in the same way, but their percentages are different; the goal is a wine that has a bit more of all of the classique’s elements. Painfully rare, only 200 cases are produced in those vintages deemed appropriate.
In addition to their benchmark Hermitage wines, Chave has long made a beautiful, traditionally styled St. Joseph rouge from their vines in the historic center of the appellation; this is a model St. Joseph with its round black raspberry, black olive, violet and woodsmoke aromatics, firm underlying structure and fine balance.
The Chave’s methods for all of their wines are thoroughly traditional—perfectionist farming, low yields, full ripeness, minimal new oak, minimal intervention and no filtering. There are no secrets, just unmatched attention to detail and instinctive feel for growing and winemaking. Centuries in the making, this approach has one goal: a pure rendering of noble northern Rhône terroir.
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