Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage AOC
Philip Day discusses Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage AOC, one of the oldest names in the world of wine.
This detailed review of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage AOC includes history, viticulture and product portfolio.
Hermitage is a French wine Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) originating from the northern Rhône wine region of France, south of the city of Lyon. Hermitage was awarded its AOC status in 1937. The wine produced here is predominately red wine made from the Syrah grape; however, small quantities of white wine are also produced from Roussane and Marsanne grape varieties. The hill that dominates the area is considered by many as the spiritual home of the Syrah grape variety.
When, in the early 19th century, the French vintner, œnologue and pioneering wine writer André Jullien (1766-1832), famously surveyed the world’s vineyards he was in no doubt that the hill of Hermitage in the northern Rhône was cited together with Château Lafite in Bordeaux and Romanée-Conti in Burgundy as the three finest. However, although Hermitage is the acknowledged birthplace of the Syrah grape, currently one of the most fashionable grape varieties all over the world, it seems particularly strange that young vintages of the latter two vineyards sell for between one and several thousand pounds a bottle, while a young Hermitage rarely commands more than £100 a bottle.
The history of the area is unclear. Viticulture is known to date back to Roman times, although local folklore claims that vines may have been planted here nearly 600 years earlier.
The name ‘Hermitage’ first appeared in the 16th century, derived from a legend of the 13th century Albigensian Crusade, involving a wounded knight of Blanche of Castille named Gaspard de Stérimberg, who, weary of bloodshed, chose to take refuge from the world on the summit of this granite hill as a hermit. He was soon joined by others and the community began to plant vines…
Hermitage is the birthplace of Syrah and during the 17th century Hermitage wine was recognised as one of the finest in Europe. It was an important region in the late 18th to mid 19th century because wines from this area were used to fortify Bordeaux. In 1775, Château Lafite was blended with Hermitage and soon became to be considered as one of the greatest wines of its day. Unfortunately, in the late 19th century, Phylloxera wiped out all the vineyards.
The Chave family is considered one of the oldest names in the world of wine. They have been producing one of the world’s greatest wines for over 500 years. The label they employ on their bottles bears an inscription commemorating this achievement: “Vignerons de Père en Fils depuis 1481”.
The Chave family made the move from the vineyards of St. Joseph to Hermitage following the attack of phylloxera that struck most of Europe’s vineyards in the late 19th century. New plantings and subsequent production recommenced in Mauves, where the Chave family continues to produce their Hermitage wine today.
The stewardship of the land together with the family business of making great wines continues being passed from generation to generation. Gérard Chave took over from his father in 1970 and rapidly achieved celebrity status as a result of the extraordinary quality of his wines. Most recently ownership of the estate passed from father to son again with Gérard ceding the helm to Jean-Louis Chave, although his father continues to play an active role. A graduate of University of California Davis, Jean Louis Chave is the 16th generation of his family to manage the famous Hermitage producer. In late 2014, Jean-Louis Chave completed a major renovation and extension of their cellars.
Gérard et Jean-Louis Chave
Total: 14.5 hectares (36 acres)
Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Ermitage Chave Cuvée Cathelin
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Vin de Paille
This historic terroir is composed of granite sands covered with mica schist and gneiss, as well as deposits of round alluvial stones.Towards the western end of the hill, the soils are much more granitic, but towards the east they are more alpine-influenced glacial deposits.
Hermitage Rouge around 2,000 to 2,500 cases per vintage annually. Hermitage Blanc around 1,250 cases per year. Cuvée Cathelin around 200 cases, depending on the vintage.
|Top Vintages Produced|
1961, 1966, 1978, 1982, 1983, 1985, 1988,1989, 1990, 1991, 1995, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2015, 2016.
The estate owns some 14.5 hectares (36 acres) of land in Hermitage, making it one of the largest land owners within the appellation. The vineyards were planted and terraced when the Chave family resettled in Hermitage in the late 19th Century following the phylloxera epidemic that had devastated much of France.
Hermitage lies on the east bank of the Rhône. It benefits from a mainly Mediterranean climate. Sheltered from northerly winds, most of the hillsides are south-facing and therefore receive good exposure to the sun. The hill it is named for forms a granitic outcrop, being an extension of the Massif Central. But while granite forms the basis of the main soil type here, further analysis of the Hermitage soils proves it to be much more complicated. The soils change dramatically over small distances, so even within the designated lieux-dits, (named vineyard site) soil type is rarely uniform.
The Hermitage hill itself can be divided into three sections. Les Bessards and La Varogne the most westerly, on the left-bank of the hill, have a terroir with very uneven granite soils. This section is mainly considered to be the terroir that favours the production of the appellation’s red wines. It is also the hillside where the Hermitage is located, as well as the famous L’Hermite and La Chapelle vineyards.
The central section is split in two: the upper part, known as Le Méal, the terroir is comprised of limestone gravel and silica soil with a pebbled surface. It is from here that the appellation’s most sun-kissed wines are produced, given its south-facing outlook. At the base, known as Les Gréffieux, the soil is more fertile, resulting from erosion of hill gullies. The Les Rocoules, Maison Blanche, L’Hermite and Péléat climats (single vineyard site) are also based in this section.
Finally, the eastern section that includes the climats of Les Murets, L’Homme, La Croix, Les Diognières and Torras et les Garennes feature more alpine-influenced glacial deposits that are covered in a clay-based soil on a much steeper incline. The east is known as a good terroir for producing white wine.
With some 345 acres (140 hectares) of vines, the Hermitage Appellation produces around 730,000 bottles of mostly red wines, annually.
Crucially the Hermitage holding the Chave family owns is spread across nine of the eighteen climats on the hill (including: Les Bessards, Le Méal, Les Rocoules, Beaume, Maison Blanche, Les Diognières and the two prime climats, L’Hermite and Péléat).
The key to the beauty and complexity found in Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage comes from their mastery of blending. While for the red wines, the only grape used is Syrah, the wine is produced from a mélange of grapes sourced from some of the best plots in the entire Hermitage appellation. This means that they can produce a blend which reflects the separate, distinctive terroirs of the climats and produces a perfect balance between aromatic complexity, power and finesse.
The two hectares of vines on Les Bessards in particular are considered by many people to be the heart and soul of the Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage wines. Les Bessards has a terroir that is composed mostly of steep granite hillside soils. The average age of the vines is 50 years. However, the oldest vines on Les Bessards are more than 80 years of age. The climats on Les Rocoules and Péléat have some of the oldest vines, at over 80 years of age.
The Marsanne and Roussanne white wine grapes used for the production of Hermitage Blanc and are permitted to be added to the blend of the Hermitage red wines, if required, are planted in 5 hectares of vines that come from Les Rocoules, L’Hermite, Péléat, Maison Blanche and other vineyards. Les Rocoules has some of the oldest white wine grapes vines in the Northern Rhône, at more than 80 years old.
Viticulture in Hermitage is quite distinctive. Planting is very close: in the steeply sloped plots, it’s at a density of 1m x 1m (10 000 plants per hectare), but this can stretch to 1.3 m x 1 m on flatter plots. The vines are pruned as bush vines (FR: gobelet) with three spurs, three buds per spur. Just two of these buds are kept, and the vines are then trained on single stakes.
The grapes from each single vineyard site (climat) are brought to the winery and vinified separately, to give the winemakers more control over the blending process. Grapes are usually partially de-stemmed and depending on the vintage of the red wines, malolactic fermentation takes place in a combination of cement vats, stainless steel and old, open, French oak barrels before being matured in a combination of large 228 litre oak barrels (foudres) and small wooden casks (a small proportion of which will be new) for ageing, usually around 18 months. The wine is then blended after 18 months in barrel, however, Jean Louis Chave waits for 60-90 days after blending before bottling takes place. All Jean-Louis Chave wines are then bottled unfiltered.
The production of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage rouge ranges from 2,000 to 2,500 cases per vintage.
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave produces Northern Rhône, Hermitage wines: Two red wines: Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage and the hard to find and very expensive, luxury wine, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Ermitage Chave Cuvée Cathelin (named after the French artist and close friend, Bernard Cathelin) and Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc from a blend of 80-85% Marsanne and 15-20% Roussanne grapes.
Hermitage reds are powerfully concentrated, with a rich, deep colour and firm tannins. They tend toward being very earthy, with aromas of leather, red berries, complex minerality and cocoa/coffee. They possess a finesse that few other wines offer. Because of the high levels of tannin they are usually aged longer than American or Australian Syrahs and as a consequence are often cellared with the potential to age for many decades.
Their de luxe offering, Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Ermitage Chave Cuvée Cathelin made its début with the 1990 vintage. The wine is produced from a different blend of the same fruit that is used for Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage rouge. The grapes used for this wine originate mostly from Les Bessards. The wine, when produced, as it’s not made in every vintage, is intended to concentrate the tastes and finesse to become the epitome of the Hermitage appellation. When production of Cuvée Cathelin occurs the result is usually close to 200 cases. Given the tiny production of Cuvée Cathelin, the wine affords a massive premium on the open market.
Rich, dry white wines are also produced as Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc from a blend of Marsanne and Roussanne grapes, a third of which are vinified in French oak casks and the remaining two-thirds in stainless steel tanks.
Once malolactic fermentation is complete, the wine is racked off its fine lees and then aged in a combination of mostly new and used, French oak barrels, although a small portion is also aged in stainless steel tanks, for up to 24 months prior to bottling. The average production of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc is around 1,250 cases per year, depending on the vintage. These wines are also usually left to age, typically for up to 15 years.
Jean-Louis Chave also produces a minuscule amount of Vin de Paille, as Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Vin de Paille, a dessert wine made from grapes left to dry on straw mats for some weeks. The grapes used are mainly Marsanne, with a small amount of Roussanne, from L’Hermite. Once the drying process is complete, the grapes are pressed and fermented in oak over a period of 24 months. The resultant wine is bottled after a maturation period of around 5-6 years.
Address: Domaine Jean-Louis Chave
37 Avenue du Saint-Joseph,
Telephone: +33 (0)4 75 08 24 63
- Johnson H & Robinson J (2013) The World Atlas of Wine 7th Edition, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London.
- Johnson H, (2014) Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, 2015, Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., London