In my last installment of my Rhône road trip, I went on a tour of the Hermitage Hill with winemaker Jean-Louis Chave, and afterward sampled through his stellar white wines. Now, it was time to get down to business with the reds.
We started with a quick journey to Saint-Joseph as a gateway into the reds. If you have a chance to buy any Chaves from this appellation, do yourself a favor and do it. They are not expensive, but they are excellent, affordable drinking wines. The work Chave is doing in St.-Joseph is no small task, either. Jean-Louis calls it “a generation of work,” meaning it is one of his life’s projects to find great terroirs, replant the vineyards and make a true domaine wine, as opposed to the negociant bottlings he releases currently. We tasted one of these more special terroirs, and I could see the difference in intensity and quality. Jean-Louis said he’s getting close to releasing a domaine wine from St.-J, but is quite not there yet. Keep your eye on Chave in St. Joseph!
Heading for the [Hermitage] Hill
Back to the hill, we moved on to the 2016 barrel tasting of seven different Hermitage vineyards. The importance of the Le Meal terroir as a foundation for the blend was immediately evident. This is the broad-shouldered workhorse, and one of Hermitage’s most important vineyards for many producers. The Beaumes was sheer decadence, quite hedonistic and saucy, very rich and delicious. L’Ermite was more serious, more intellectual—a stimulating sample that again amped up the backside admirably with its intense structure. The most important part of the blend, though, was from the Bessards plot—the backbone of Hermitage, and the most complex of them all. I imagined a bottling of this on its own, but quickly realized that without the Bessards, there would no other Hermitage. Jean-Louis mused about how the art of the blend of these vineyards was challenging, given all the decisions and possible combinations. He doesn’t always use all the fruit he gets from the vineyard if it doesn’t work with the final blend, in which case, he sells off the rest of the fruit in bulk. I need to find out where that wine goes!
I mentioned the 2003 that we had in November in New York at the Reboule du Rhône, and how, despite the huge rating it had, I just didn’t “get it.” It was too sweet, not as complicated as usual, etc. Jean-Louis immediately went to get a 2003 Chave Hermitage Rouge. Of all the vintages I could have tried, that was probably the last one I would have asked for, but when in Rhône… while I did like the bottle fresh from the cellar a touch more than the one I had in November (when would a bottle from his cellar not be better?), I still found it a touch Zinfandel-like with its sweet, jammy fruit, and it lacked the acidity that his wines normally possess. It was a very good, but not a truly great, wine. There are just so many other vintages of his wine that I would prefer to drink. (91)
’Rich like a Billionaire’
Mentioning the 2003, however, proved to be quite fortuitous, as out came a 2003 Chave Ermitage Cuvee Cathelin. It was amazing and one of the most concentrated wines that I have ever tasted. Somehow it didn’t feel heavy or cloying despite me wanting to see if I could stand a spoon in it. Chunky, chocolaty and oily, the 2003 was rich like a billionaire. And, while it had excellent sweetness to its fruit, it was in no way too sweet for me. I was stunned; this was a 100-year wine, for sure. Its palate was as black as night and the party was definitely in my mouth with each sip. I vacillated between 98+ and 99 points, only worried that it would never mature enough for me to see secondary development over the next 40 years. I hope to find out. This was a freak of nature that was 100% natural. (98+)
It was now that I learned what Cuvee Cathelin was all about. I assumed that it was always a barrel selection—some super juice bottled on its own in exceptional vintages. However, it’s a wine made when Jean-Louis feels the vintage has something more to say. It is a different wine, a different expression—a sibling rather than a best selection—and a wine made only when he feels it will not take away from the normal blend. He said the 2003 Cathelin would get lost in the 2003 regular Hermitage and not add more to it, but it had so much to say on its own. I understood his point right away. Chave’s Cuvee Cathelins are the true work of a genius/artist who has given his heart and soul to the hill of Hermitage.
I mentioned the 1991 Cuvee Cathelin I had in December and another bottle came out next. Could this be the 1991, I wondered? It would be consistent, since I did mention the 2003 before and out came the 2003 (next time I’m talking about the ‘40s!). I definitely saw some of that wine in whatever he just opened. The black olives jumped out of its nose immediately, along with a lot of underbrush, dried leaves and tangy fruit. There was a great citrus edge to its gamier and more animalistic expressions of fruit. Jean-Louis gave us a hint: 1991 would be too young a guess. I next settled on 1982, which I thought was a very good guess, and he hinted though I was getting close, to keep moving in the same direction. There was only one place to go, the 1978 Chave Hermitage Rouge. Wow! I loved the fleshy and tangy character of this complicated wine: mushrooms, sous bois and boullion joined the party, as did white pepper and smoked bacon. Jean-Louis agreed that he saw the line between the 1978 and the 1991. What a magnificent, maturing expression of Hermitage and what a treat to have in the cellars—merci beaucoup! (97)
It was time for lunch and Jean-Louis grabbed one more bottle. We went to a local restaurant in town, where it was very clear our host could easily run for mayor. (Stick to the wine, please, Jean-Louis! We need your Hermitage!) My 1991 guess earlier would prove to be fortuitous again, as he brought a 1991 Chave Ermitage Cuvee Cathelin. While by no means mature, the additional nuances and style of the 1991 Cathelin obviously showed more development than the 2003, but it still felt like a very young wine. What amazed me about the 1991 was its silky personality. This was not a fruit bomb like the 2003, and I could see even more Jean-Louis’ insistence that Cathelin was a different wine and expression of a given vintage. Again, its fruit was on the black side, with more purple and light ink edges. I thought “smoked meats and fireplace crackles of the God of War mixed with violets and wildflowers from the Goddess of Love.” It had a long, sensual finish, unfurling slowly, surely and sexily. It was creamy but not heavy; there was a grace and elegance to the 1991, and it danced like a ballerina on my palate. It also was dripping with diamonds, sparkling in every which (and rich) way. I totally forgot about this wine in my Top Wines of the Year article, but I won’t forget it again. (99)
Unfortunately, it was time to go, as dinner awaited us in five hours in London. I couldn’t feel my feet for half the day, thanks to the freezing weather, but the wines of Jean-Louis Chave warmed my soul. The day I spent with him is one I will never forget: It was a master class in Hermitage given by the master himself. I can’t believe it took me this long to visit, but I know it won’t take me that long to come back.