The 500+ years of recorded history of the Chave family – since 1481 – is actually not the history of the Hermitage Hill; no, in the early days the family were Ardèche fruit farmers and vine growers. In Lemps, a couple of kilometres west of the Rhône, there is still evidence of their origins in a tiny hamlet aptly named ‘Chave’. Intriguingly the story has come full circle; Lemps is St Joseph, which is where Jean-Louis has chosen to focus so much of his intellectual energy. Near Lemps, the steep north bank of the Tuilière – a tributary of the Rhône – faces due south and basks in the sun but the land is poor and punishing to work on. After the dual crises of phyloxera and urbanisation such terraces were all but abandoned, both here and the other historic sites for St Joseph. The Chave family thrived thanks to some canny buying of land in Hermitage in the nineteenth century but their Ardèche roots have remained in the genetic memory of the family and come to the fore in the latest generation.
Jean-Louis Chave is redefining St Joseph
The work involved in re-landscaping these slopes is almost unimaginable. Whole vertiginous inclines have been resurrected back to pristine terraced vineyards, banked by ribbons of perfectly dressed granite-block walls. Jean-Louis’ time at the helm will cover less than 5% of its recorded history but he has left a legacy for future generations of the Chave family which is really quite staggering. If St Joseph is Jean-Louis’ legacy to the family, it could be argued that the formidable reputation of the family’s Hermitage is Gérard’s achievement. Beaume, Péléat, Méal, Bessards, L’Hermite, Rocoules, Diognières, Vercandières, Maison Blanche; the component vineyards of Chave’s Hermitage trip off the tongue like arcane poetry. Each year Jean-Louis and his father, whose first vintage after taking over from his own father was 1970, start blending their world-famous Hermitage from scratch. They have 15 hectares spread across the hill, bought mostly after the destruction of Phyloxera and the devastation of WW1 – a true representation of the appellation.
The blending sessions go on for days; blends are assembled and discarded and assembled again
JL Chave Sélection was born when Jean-Louis discovered that some of his Hermitage ‘off-cuts’ – those that didn’t make the final exact Domaine blend and were sold-off in bulk – weren’t being blended as instructed but were being bottled individually and sold by négociants as some sort of ‘Deuxieme Chave’ label. It was highly irritating to JL that others would profit from both the Chave name and vineyard work so, with his wife Erin, he created a separate entity. This allows him the option to buy in parcels of fruit – when and where they think the quality is outstanding – but, more significantly, to make use of young vines and barrels of excess finished wine which JL doesn’t think ‘fit’ into the regal Domaine wines.
JL Chave Sélection are wholly domaine wines and the quality clearly shows
The range is very compact – reflecting the Domaine’s vineyard holdings and immediate surroundings – and is made with huge care and attention by Jean-Louis himself; “my idea was to create a collection of wines which could be authentic examples of the local appellations, but which could be opened at any event, on any day of the week, wines that are very good value for money. The two Hermitages, St Josephs and Crozes all come from the same hillsides I make my Domaine wines from, with a little fruit from friends nearby who I know very well and who share my passion for these appellations. The Côtes du Rhône is sourced from a small number of trusted organic growers in Visan, Vinsobres and Cairanne but unlike most Côtes du Rhône, I always use 60% Syrah to give the wine freshness”. A magnificent range from the sensational Mon Coeur (quality and price!), to the stand out 2015 Offerus (like Mon Coeur, available in magnums too), through to two very high-quality Hermitage, both domaine fruit and yes, those prices are correct!