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Wine Legend: JL Chave, Cathelin, Ermitage 1990

JL Chave, Cathelin 1990 is a wine legend because…

For decades Gérard Chave has been regarded as the supreme exponent of the wines of Hermitage, white as well as red, with in some vintages Jaboulet’s La Chapelle level-pegging. After all, the Chave family has been farming in these parts since 1481, and bought its first parcels in Hermitage in 1865. So it came as a surprise when in the 1990 vintage he decided to release a special bottling. Chave owns parcels in different sectors of the Hermitage hill, and his skill has always been in composing the best balanced and most ageworthy blend from those blocks. Cathelin is also a blend, but the proportions differ from those in the regular Hermitage. It is named after the late Bernard Cathelin, a painter who was a friend of the family. It is not made every year. The debut vintage was 1990, followed by 1991, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2009 and 2010.

Looking back

In 1990 Gérard Chave, who was born in 1935, was in his prime. Two decades had gone by since he took over from his father. A modest man, he seems happier in his cellar than replying to the enquiries of the privileged few. Yet he responds warmly to genuine and informed enthusiasm. Gradually he passed the baton to his son Jean-Louis, who returned to the domaine in 1992 after his studies at the University of California (Davis), but in 1990 Gérard still had full control.

The vintage

The spring in the northern Rhône was mild, leading to early flowering. The summer was not as torrid as in 1989, but it was very dry, which in some areas, such as Côte-Rôtie, forced growers to wait well into the autumn before harvesting. However, some rain fell in early September in Hermitage, which speeded the maturation and did not cause much delay in harvesting. Indeed, Chave is always among the last Hermitage growers to pick. Jean-Louise Chave has explained that, despite the renown of the vintage, it was at first difficult to discern the red’s tannic structure, which prompted his father to create a different and more structured blend.

The terroir

It is difficult to speak of the terroir behind the Chave Hermitage, since the family owns 14 hectares, of which 10ha are Syrah, in seven parcels. They are located in many of the most highly regarded sectors of the hill (such as Le Méal, Les Bessards and L’Hermite) and the wines are always a blend. The 1990 Cathelin came mostly from Les Bessards and was aged in new barrels.

The wine

After harvest the grapes are partially destemmed, then fermented either in open wood vats or in concrete tanks. The wines, with each parcel kept separately, are aged in casks of different sizes, with a modest proportion of new wood, never exceeding 20%, for up to 18 months. After blending, the wines are fined with egg white and bottled without filtration. The limited-production Cathelin, however, is aged entirely in new barrels.

The reaction

Not all tasters prefer the 1990 Cathelin to the regular Hemitage. Jeff Leve, of The Wine Cellar Insider, wrote in 2009: ‘Coffee, chocolate, liquorice, black cherry and blackberry aromas. This full-bodied, concentrated wine did not seem as rich or complex as the normal Chave, which seems to express more minerality.’ But in 2002 Decanter’s John Livingstone- Learmonth was impressed: ‘Dense, warm, sappy bouquet, live fruit here… Very pretty attack, bounces out – very tasty impact. Sustained and wide through the palate – very elegant fruit and fat. Suave, but tight on finish. The regular 1990 is mild and plummy – the Cathelin has more fire and potency. Perhaps like a Hermitage of the 19th century.’ Three years later he tasted it again: ‘Big, wide, peppery bouquet with a little meatiness… A little dampness, gentle coffee, some flowers here too – a real slow-burn bouquet… The wine has a really solid heart, and a lovely, refined texture, grand vin, impressive and very young for its 15 years.’

The facts

Bottles produced 2,500
Composition 100% Syrah
Yield (hl/ha) N/A
Alcohol 13%
Release price £100 approx
Price today £3,392-£4,499

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