My wife and I celebrated our anniversary the other day and for the occasion I pulled out a special bottle, Domaine JL Chave Hermitage rouge 1994. Chave has played a special role in our relationship as on one of our very early dates, I picked a bottle of 1998 Chave Hermitage rouge off of a wine list at a restaurant. It was my first experience with Chave (and one of Marilee’s first experiences with fine wine in general) and the wine absolutely blew me away. I was stunned it was so good. It combined the finesse and complexity of the best Burgundy with power and the sultry savoriness of the best Syrah. Between the wine in my glass and the woman across the table, that has to be one of the greatest nights of my life. It was also an epiphany wine for Marilee, she was somewhat early into her wine appreciation at the time, but that wine opened her eyes to the possibilities that are out there. So, needless to say since then as our relationship and appreciation of wine has continued to grow, the Chave wines have become “our wine” and on special occasions for us as a couple, we love to pull one out. The 1994 was lovely; initially it was extremely savory with loads of smoked meat, sizzling bacon, and stony mineral notes. With air it opened to reveal lovely black cherry, dried plum, violet, forest floor, and hints of spice. The palate was fully mature, but beautifully integrated, with no signs of fatigue or lack of energy. The last glass of the night was the best suggesting that while there isn’t likely much upside to further cellaring, certainly the wine is nowhere near decline.
The Chave (pronounced Chaahv; the e is silent) family has been making wine in the Rhone valley since the 14th century. That is not a typo, yes the 14th century! Pretty wild. The current wine maker is Jean-Louis Chave who took over for his father Gerard in mid 90s. Their signature bottles are certainly their examples of Hermitage. Hermitage is arguably the most famous wine produced in the Rhone Valley and produces stunning examples of Syrah and also of Marsanne/Rousanne blends. The hill of Hermitage is a beautiful terroir, rising above the Rhone river with steep, granite hillsides in a perfect sun catching bowl. Given this, the powerful syrah grape ripens beautifully and produces what many would consider to be the benchmark examples of the grape. The Chave family owns multiple parcels on the hillside and they continue to make their wines in the traditional way which is a blend of all of their sites. Many growers are now making
“single vineyard” designates from specific plots, however Jean-Louis, like his father, believes that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts as some plots offer beautiful aromatics, while others lend tannic power. Thus, they vinify each plot separately and then after tasting through each parcel blend the different wines together. I can’t say that I have drank a ton of Hermitage (it isn’t cheap…) but certainly of the 4-5 producers I have tried, the Chave wines are thus far head and shoulders above the competition. I have been fortunate to be able to try multiple vintages at this point and I can say that the wines age beautifully, but can often be approachable and thoroughly enjoyable after only 8-10 years. When they are very young, the wines are almost too coiled and tannic to offer true pleasure. So if you have the opportunity to try what for me is the benchmark syrah of the world, don’t hesitate!
Sadly for most people, the Chave Hermitage now routinely costs $250 plus a bottle making it essentially unaffordable… Luckily for us, they also produce many other wines that are much more reasonable! The Chave family is from Mauves which is in the region of St Joseph just to the south of Hermitage and they have expanded their holdings in St Joseph. They produce a domaine bottling of St Joseph that is definitely one of the best of the region and only about 1/4 the price of the Hermitage. That is still on the expensive
side for many wine drinkers (not to mention relatively hard to find), so thankfully, there are also other options. Jean Louis runs a very good negociant side called JL Chave Selections. This includes bottlings of Cotes du Rhone, Crozes-Hermitage, St Joseph, and Hermitage for much less. I have tried all of the above and the quality of the domaine without a doubt shines through in all the wines. These start at around $20 and represent some of the best values of the region (if not the world). In particular the St Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage (generally around $25-30) are consistently excellent. They are wines that I purchase whenever I can find them and they offer the more cost conscious consumer a chance to experience great Syrah from one of the great winemakers of the area for a very reasonable tariff.
So with that said, I can’t recommend these wines highly enough and if you have a chance to try any of them, jump at it!