Interview with Jean Louis Chave
- Tuesday 27 April 2004
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave is the embodiment of tradition. Arguably one of France’s finest estates, this family-owned producer of red and white Hermitage hangs its hat on the continuity and beliefs of successive generations – in an open-minded, pragmatic way.
It only takes a look at the neck-label on bottles of Chave Hermitage to understand the conduit and philosophy of the domaine. ‘Vignerons de Père en Fils depuis 1481’ (vine growers from father to son since 1481) is clearly inscribed for all to see. ‘Our role is to ensure the story continues, to act as a relay and in so doing not make any radical changes,’ explains Jean-Louis Chave in a quiet, modest way.
Jean-Louis’ father Gérard Chave took over the domaine in the early 1970s. He forged the international reputation of Chave Hermitage and has expanded the estate in piecemeal fashion to the present 14.5ha (hectares). The Chaves are now the largest landowners on the hill outside négociants Chapoutier and Paul Jaboulet Aîné, and the Cave de Tain l’Hermitage. They also own a further 1.5ha in St-Joseph.
It was in the appellation now known as St-Joseph that the Chave family first cultivated the vine on hillslopes in the Ardèche commune of Lemps, back in the 15th century.
When phylloxera hit in the 19th century they were obliged to move down to the Rhône valley to diversify into fruit farming, basing themselves in the village of Mauves where the cellars are today. It was at this time that a particularly clairvoyant ancestor decided to cross the Rhône river and lay claim to parcels of land on the hill of Hermitage.
This heritage spurred Jean-Louis Chave to join his father in 1992, having studied in the US, first obtaining an MBA in business and finance at Hartford University then following a course in oenology at the University of California, Davis. ‘The experience helped me appreciate what I have and to recognise the domaine as a great tradition that must continue to live and evolve,’ he says.
The work in the terraced vineyards and quality of grapes at the domaine are keys to the excellence of the wines. Until recently the Chaves fell in with the association of producers that jointly uses a helicopter to spray for diseases such as oidium and mildew. Now about two thirds of the vineyard is treated by hand (parcels of vines are so embedded within those of neighbours it’s impossible to achieve 100%). ‘The helicopter was great in the 1980s when there was a dirth of labour and economies of scale had to be strictly imposed but we now have the ability to treat independently which I consider more efficient and closer to our organic convictions,’ says Jean-Louis Chave.
The average age of the vines is quite advanced – 60 years for the Marsanne and Roussanne and 35 for the Syrah. The parcels of vines are located in eight different sites, or climats, on the hill of Hermitage, each with a different aspect and soil type, giving varying nuances to the wine. ‘Blending grapes from these different sites is part of the history of Hermitage,’ says Jean-Louis.
Of the principal climats where the Chave family has vines, the granite soils of Les Bessards provide power, intensity and structure for the long-ageing red Hermitage; the stony moraine of Le Méal an exuberant fruit and spice fragrance; the silty loess of L’Hermite vivacity; and pudding stone-covered Beaume a tight but fine tannic frame. The white Hermitage is produced from Roussanne and Marsanne planted in L’Hermite, Rocoule, Maison Blanche and Péléat, where the mainly loess or clay-limestone soils give balance.
In Mauves, behind a metal door and faded ‘J-L Chave’ sign lie the cellars. The cuverie is revamped. Underground, a network of Burgundian-like cellars dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries (with a more recent addition in 1989) are used for barrel ageing and bottle storage.
Grapes from each climat are vinified separately, the wine then run off into 228-litre Burgundian oak pièces for ageing. Blending is an art at which the Chaves excel, and is a major reason for the complexity and depth in their wines. ‘Every year we ask the same question: “What should Hermitage be like given the conditions of that particular year?”’ says Jean-Louis.
The Chaves are not especially in favour of special cuvées. Hence there is a marked awkwardness as they explain why, in 1990, they introduced the red Cuvée Cathelin, named after Bernard Cathelin, the artist and friend who designed the label. ‘It’s more a question of seeing an alternative blend we liked in a given year rather than selecting the crème de la crème in top years,’ explains Chave. So far the wine has been produced in 1990, 1991, 1995, 1998 and 2000.
Jean-Louis Chave’s personal contribution to the Chave legend has recently taken two separate directions. He is currently reconstituting and planting the terraced hillslopes in St-Joseph that were the original Chave fief in Lemps. ‘It’s my little adventure and one that excites me. It’s like restoring an ancient monument. Down the line there’s almost a certitude of producing very good wine,’ he says.
The other project concerns a small négociant business, J-L Chave Sélection, which is run from separate premises. So far, two wines have been produced (first vintage 1995) from bought-in grapes and wine, the red St-Joseph Offerus and generic red Côtes du Rhône Mon Coeur. Originally produced for the US market, they are now available in the UK, Scandinavia and Japan. ‘The goal is not to make great wine but provide a good example of each appellation,’ he confirms.
The great wine remains the Hermitage and with Jean-Louis’ sensibility and pragmatism matching his father’s, everything seems in good hands. ‘When two generations reach a compromise it’s because both put the terroir and appellation before individual name. The aim is to progress.’
James Lawther MW is a
contributing editor to Decanter and specialises in Franc