Entry Level to a Northern Rhône God

Today’s Story: Domaine Jean-Louis Chave

Domaine Jean-Louis Chave is one of, if not the most, highly regarded northern Rhône domains and it was established by the Chave family in 1481. Still family-owned and operated to this day, Domaine JL Chave produces arguably some of the greatest Hermitage and Saint-Joseph wines on the market. Though initially winemakers in the Saint-Joseph appellation, the Chave family started buying vineyards in the Hermitage appellation during the mid-1800s and moved there entirely by the end of the 19th century as phylloxera ravaged their vineyards in Saint-Joseph. The domain revitalized these holdings, however, during the early 1990s when 16th generation Jean-Louis joined his father Gérard and replanted the vineyards there. Today, the domain is one of the largest landowners on the Hill of Hermitage with about 14.5 hectares planted to vine, though the Saint-Joseph bottlings are nothing to snooze over.

Jean-Louis and Gérard are staunch traditionalists from the way they farm their vineyards to the way they make their wines. In the vineyards this means unyielding attention to detail, very small yields, and full ripeness. In the cellar, they typically destem the grapes before fermentation in stainless steel, cement vats, or old open-top French barrels then age the wines for around 18 months in minimal new oak. The entire process is minimally invasive and all wines are bottled unfiltered following blending.

With this in mind, however, their skill is seemingly most appreciated in the way that they blend the wines into the final Hermitage bottling. The domain never bottles single-vineyard wines, even though they own 14 different parcels across 9 vineyards and the quality of these individual vineyards or lieux dits can be immaculate. Instead, Jean-Louis and Gérard start every vintage from “scratch” and vinify every lot separately before blending them together into the final wine. Each vintage the percentage from each lot will vary, and each vintage the wines will show a unique charm. The Hermitage bottling is 100% Syrah, which is planted on about 10 hectares of the Chave family’s total 14.5. Chave also produces an Hermitage Blanc made of 80-85% Marsanne and 15-20% Roussanne, with the fruit sourced from the remaining 4.5 hectares or so. Tying into today’s post, Chave also makes a Saint-Joseph bottling from their vines in that appellation and it is 100% Syrah.

At the end of the day, when you see a bottle with the name Jean-Louis Chave on it you can expect a concentrated, elegant, finessed, and complex wine built for the ages. The Chave Hermitage typically needs 15 years to really start coming together in the bottle, though this depends on vintage and the great ones can go for 50+ years. Expect to pay around $80 for the Saint-Joseph, $250-300+ for the Hermitage Blanc, $350-400+ for the Hermitage Rouge, or $5,000-10,000+ for the ultra-rare Cuvée Cathelin which has been produced only a handful of times in miniscule quantities from the greatest vintages.

Today’s Wine: 2017 Saint-Joseph

100% Syrah; 14.5% ABV

The 2017 Saint-Joseph is opaque deep purple in color, clearly demonstrating its youth. I decanted this for two hours and drank it over the following two hours, which at this stage is quite advantageous. Aromas are of medium intensity with black plum, blackberry, blueberry, black cherry, licorice, violet, black pepper, smoke, chocolate, and cedar. Meanwhile on the palate I get medium (+) intensity with notes of blackberry, black plum, blueberry, black raspberry, anise, sweet tobacco, rocky earth, dried green herbs, black pepper, clove, charred cedar, and smoke. I am quite honestly surprised how much depth there is here at such a young age. This dry red is full-bodied with medium (+) acidity, high tannins, high alcohol, and a long finish. Given several more years to better integrate the tannins and alcohol, I think this will be a rockstar.

Price: $80. I’ve had several vintages of this wine (fortunately some older than this bottle) but the one constant that remains is that I believe this is a very solid value. Given some time to age, these become beautifully balanced wines that showcase their terroir with remarkable depth and complexity. Plus they’re a great “middle-ground” in the Chave portfolio! If you include his JL Chave Sélection négociant wines, that is…

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