Spending an evening with Jean Louis Chave to taste through 31 vintages of his Hermitage has to be one of the most memorable wine experiences of my life. Not only was it a fascinating journey through the ages, but the consistency and condition of the wines spanning 70 years was extraordinary. There were two off bottles in the entire line up and when in condition, there were maybe only two wines sub-excellent in quality. It seems impossible to believe that one wine could be so consistent over so many years, but the soundness of structure, the freshness and fleshiness of even the oldest cuvees was nothing short of incredible. Syrah grown on Hermitage seems to behold all the greatest variables for aged fine wine. It has the structural consistency of Cabernet but the beguiling aromatic and mineral appeal of Pinot Noir. Every wine tasted had fantastic individual personality and appeal.
It was also an incredibly humbling experience to realise just how scarce the wines in this line up are. Chave’s Hermitage with any significant age is very hard to come by and even for Jean-Louis himself, this was a rare and special moment. It was an evening to revisit his lifetime's work as well as his fathers and grandfathers. He explains that in the Rhône there was never the tradition, as with Bordeaux, to hold on to stock. Having excess stock only ever came from having the money to afford it (something that wasn’t the case for the farmers of Hermitage), growers not being able to sell their wine, or a large harvest. These are all rare occurrences when it comes to Hermitage.
Jean Louis is staggeringly the 16th generation of winemakers in his family. But the Chaves have "only" had vineyards on the Hermitage hill since the mid-1800s. The official Hermitage appellation was established in 1936. Jean-Louis describes his family history as simple farmers from the Ardeche who started growing grapes in the vineyards of St Joseph back in 1481. Back then it was only the aristocracy or church that had access to or ownership of the top sites of Hermitage. It wasn’t even the French Revolution that brought the Hermitage vineyards to the Chaves, but a combination of the effects of the Industrial Revolution and the outbreak of phylloxera. After the Industrial Revolution, owning land was no longer enough for the aristocratic classes to guarantee their status as the most powerful and richest people in the country. Many landowners did not keep up with the social mobility post-Revolution and many lost their fortunes and were forced to sell their land. The effects of phylloxera only piled more pressure on to struggling landowners and, where people were not willing to fight against the infestation, they sold up. It was only at this point that vineyards in Hermitage became affordable enough for the Chave family to start buying land.
These days Jean-Louis has also returned to the family’s spiritual home of St Joseph, which he believes has become a very exciting place for growing grapes in the Northern Rhône, thanks to global warming. As Hermitage always had the advantage of being south facing and low yielding, the wines historically have always reached good ripeness levels. St Joseph, being east facing, has in the past regularly produced unripe, green and bitter wines. In warmer times, the ripeness levels have greatly improved and the potential, according to Jean-Louis, is huge.
The hill of Hermitage is distinct for many reasons. Its steepness and south facing exposition are instrumental but so too are its soils. Remarkably within one hillside there is huge variation in soils: from granite to basalt limestone, loess, sand and even vineyards with huge pudding stones like Chateauneuf. Typically, vignerons have vineyards on different soils and blend the different terroirs together to produce a balanced combination of terroir effects. Having said that, each producer's style tends to be influenced by the predominant soil type of their vineyards and for Chave this is the granite soil – Chave’s Hermitage therefore has a leaner, tighter, fresher style than La Chapelle, for instance, which is distinctly fleshier.
The tasting was full of highlights, but I think the 1989, 1990 and 1991 were probably three of the greatest wines I have ever tasted side by side. The 2000, 1998, 1995, 1993, 1988, 1983 and 1971 were all utterly stunning and the final flight, including the 1967, the 1959 and 1942 (both served blind) were also beguilingly perfect wines. They were a tremendous climax to a phenomenal wine tasting event. Huge thanks to Jordi Orriols Gil for organising the event and doing an incredible job of sourcing the wines.
2001 – Some development, earthy, tertiary character with a lovely freshness, some coolness to the fruit, a touch menthol, grilled meats and developed yet fleshy red cherry fruit and a stony minerality. Elegant fresh, weightless. Lacks the intensity of others in the flight and seems more developed. (92)
2000 – Great herbal lift, spicy aromas and incredibly juicy, fleshy palate – earthy red berry fruit, great breadth and density to the fruit with a lovely even set structure beautifully weighted. Doesn’t have the mineral tightness of others in the flight at the moment – more primary and juicy. I love the opulence and fruity richness to the wine. (97)
1999 – Fantastic nose – flinty, smoky with real focus and lift. The wine has lovely flesh to the structural mineral bones of the wine. Great weight / density with red cherry, raspberry, forest fruits. The wine is both intense, full, yet has a wonderful lightness and elegance. Terroir driven vintage with lovely earthy stony finish. (95)
1997 – Wonderful primary fruit aroma (smells much younger than the 01 for instance). Lovely fleshy, juicy, ripe fruit with very silky multi-layered tannins. With time the intensity and freshness drops away. Jean-Louis believes the tannins are below the normal quality. Started well but then falls away on the palate. (92)
1998 – Incredible nose as it opens up over time – flinty, stony mineral aromas, grilled meats, kirsch, black cherry. Amazing mid palate weight. Incredible depth and multi-layered tannins. Tremendous purity of fruit and great terroir driven minerality beneath the fruit. The wines still feels young and the tannins will further integrate. Amazing wine but will develop further with age.(98)
1995 – Incredible nose – beguiling and incredibly complex – flint, earth, spice, bloody, fiery aromas. The palate is beautifully fleshy, very fine tannins. Less plush and dense than others but full of finesse, amazing mouth-watering acidity, tobacco, granite grip. Next level! (98)
1994 – Much more developed – earthy, soy, fresh soil and more garnet in colour- first wine of the flight with any noticeable discoloration. Surprisingly elegant, fine and fresh on the palate. Fine acidity with savoury grilled meats, red fruits, multi-layered tannins and a nice energy. (93)
1993 – Initially reserved aromas but really opens in the glass, strawberry, red cherry, lovely fragrant perfume, floral and lifted, then flint and stony minerality – very complex nose. Great combination of savoury earthy flavours and cherry / raspberry confit. Fantastic acidity and a long length. (96)
1992 – Dusty, soy, flint and fresh earth aromas. Quite developed and lighter in fruit density and palate weight. Linear, earthy and nice finesse on the palate with pleasing umami flavour. Developed, tertiary but still delicious (93)
1991 – When coaxed out the glass – boom – stunning aromas – stony rocks, redcurrants, exotic spices. An incredible texture, fresh almost oily, juicy plus savoury hints of cured meats. Multi-layered tannins that are incredibly fine. Stunning length. Texturally profound. (100)
1990 – Focused, pure red cherry fruit, stony flint, fresh earth – exotic perfume. Incredibly concentrated palate - fleshy, kirsch. Plum, cherry. Multi-layered tannins, incredibly fine. Texturally profound. Very Burgundian in style. (100)
1989 – Smells incredibly youthful, ageing at a snails pace. Fleshy primary red fruits and flinty mineral aromas. Incredible freshness, breadth and textural framework. Additional subtlety of herbs and exotic spices. The wine is in incredible condition – so refreshing, so youthful and incredibly complex from primary, tertiary and mineral flavours. Perfect. (100)
1988 – Smoky, mineral, flinty, bloody. Velvet texture – grilled meats and a touch of animal (positive). A lovely herbal fragrant lift, so mineral in style yet plenty of flesh on the structural bones – mouth-watering acidity you feel the wine is going to be light but still has an almost weightless concentration - juicy and beautifully elegant. Stunning! (99)
1986 – Slightly marked aromas, very mineral in style – fiery, earthy, slight metallic edge. Forest fruits on the palate with additional smokiness. Very classic in style and structurally sound. (92)
1985 – Faulty bottle
1984 – Beautiful lifted aromas – fresh earth, smoke, flinty stone. Great freshness and more linear in style. Very elegant with red/ black forest fruits and vibrant vivid acidity. Some tertiary celery salt aromas and some candied red cherry. (96)
1983 – Juicy, fresh, vibrant with flinty spicy minerality and a slight candied (natural) nose. Tastes remarkable young, almost primary with great fruit purity. Incredible breadth to the palate, very long length. Great fleshy juiciness, fresh earth, fresh leather and a touch of rusticity (positive) (99)
1982 – Soy developed tertiary aromas – lacks fruit, bad bottle?
1981 – Flinty, fresh earth, mineral wet clay aromas. Very complex nose of earthy fruit and smoky minerality. Multi-layered tannin framework, and almost endless depth and breadth. Tannins are very very fine. Texturally brilliant. (96)
1978 – Flinty, stony, touch of iodine and ferrous. Structure slightly broken down and short on finish.
1977 – Vibrant intensity, ethereal aromas – fresh cool forest fruit and some cured meat aromas. A real terroir driven vintage – flinty, minerally linear style. (96)
1967 – Ethereal character – Stunning fragrance, fine forest fruit aromas – The freshness on this 50 year old wine is staggering! This bottle is in fantastic condition. Total wow wine! Its as if time has stood still. Plush, juicy, red cherry, forest fruit –unbelievably fresh, primary fruit. Brilliant structural finesse, vivid acidity. Fantastic! (100)
1966 – Caramel, spice, flinty minerality. Lovely lightness of texture on the palate. Wonderfully elegant, juicy. Long length. Very fine fully mature wine.
1961 – Fine fragrance – pure, lifted unbelievably fresh. Some earth, tomato confit, caramelised red fruit. Wonderful freshness, incredibly juicy. Fabulous integration of tannins and fruit density. Huge depth and length. (99)
1959 – Juicy, incredibly plush, fleshy fruit. Fantastic full body, truffles, fresh earth and terrific delineation of primary noble blackberry fruit. Astonishing freshness the wine seems suspended in time! (100)
1942 – A very mineral style with stunning herbal and floral aromatics. A very high level of fruit purity – fresh and bright. Very fine tannins and texturally superb with strong minerality to the finish. Very complex and complete wine. (100)