Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Visit to Minnesota
When I attended the Domaine Jean-Louis Chave visit & tasting at Sunfish Cellars in August, I had no idea it would lead to something more. The lucky folks who attended enjoyed an evening with Erin Cannon Chave. Erin is married to Jean-Louis, the current head of this historic family of winegrowers from the Northern Rhone in France. Besides her many jobs at the winery, she is the US importer of their wines.
The Chave family has been making wine in the Northern Rhone in France since 1481. I was first introduced to the name when I read Kermit Lynch’s book Adventures on the Wine Route. Written in 1988, Kermit profiles the family through his time spent with Gerard, Jean-Louis’ father and the leader of the Domaine at that time. In fact, Erin was living in France, working for Kermit Lynch when she met Jean-Louis. And the rest, they say, is history.
Erin told us about the unique characteristics of Hermitage, St. Joseph, and Crozes-Hermitage. We learned about the Chave family’s very personal hands-on approach in the vineyards: “By hand or horse”. We learned about how Jean-Louis has taken on the task of re-claiming steep hillside vineyards in the St. Joseph apellation and the degree of patience required in such a task. Jean-Louis will not bottle a wine under the Domaine label unless the vines are a minimum of 20 years old. Reclaiming previously abandoned vineyards is not a task for an impatient winegrower!
Tasting – JL Chave Selections
We started the tasting by sampling wines from the Chave 2nd label, JL Chave selections. These are part of Chave’s small negocient operation, in which they purchase grapes from other winegrowers to make affordable wines which are ready to drink on release. JL Chave selections also include grapes from domaine vineyards where the vines are not yet 20 years old. Erin explained “these are the wines to drink while you are waiting for your domaine wines to mature”.
St. Joseph “Celeste” 2011 (white) ($31)
100% Rousanne, this wine was a warm lemon yellow color, and had a typical white Rhone rich mouthfeel. The granite soil the grapes are grown in lend a certain minerality in the flavor.
Côtes-du-Rhône “Mon Coeur” 2011 ($24)
CdR wines usually contain some mix of Grenache, Syrah & Mourvedre. Since they are grown over a large region, they can range from lean, fresh reds to very rich, almost raisiny. This wine comes from north facing vineyards, so it is lean and red fruit dominant. It is 60% Syrah and 40% Grenache. I thought it was almost tart, and I loved it!
Crozes-Hermitage “Silene” 2010 ($29)
Crozes-Hermitage wines can be a bit of a challenge for a wine drinker. The appellation was created with the intent of only allowing vineyards immediately adjacent to the famed Hermitage vineyards. Unfortunately, commercial interests were successful in defining “adjacent” very loosely. Instead of the steep vineyards facing the Rhone river, Crozes-Hermitage vineyards can be located in very large tracts of flat land in the general area. When you buy a CH, you don’t know whether you are getting a “baby” Hermitage grown on the steep hillsides, or a wine made from grapes in huge flat vineyards far away from the river. The JL Chave Selections Crozes-Hermitage comes only from the hillside plots, vines that are not as ideally situated as Hermitage vines, but still producing wines of character. Many of these vines are in Chave vineyards, but they are not yet 20 years old, so they stay in the JL Chave Selections label. The wines are 100% Syrah.
Tasting – Domaine Jean-Louis Chave
Next we moved to the main event, tasting the domaine labeled wines. Erin stressed that all Chave wines are intended for the table; they shine with food. To that end, Sunfish Cellars Wine & Cheese Bar provided some food to sample with our wines. Nice!
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave St. Joseph Rouge 2010 ($59)
Estate grown from hillside vineyards reclaimed from an abandoned state, these wines are made very traditionally. They are foot trodden and vinified in open barrels. They spend 2 years in cask and/or barrel. They are bottled unfiltered and fined only if necessary. This wine was dark and but still translucent in the glass and was very nice and smooth. I won some brownie points because I told Erin I thought I smelled an evergreen note. She smiled and said there is a cedar grove next to the vineyard!
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Rouge 2008 ($199)
You can tell from the price tag that the Hermitage wines are not for your typical Tuesday evening pot roast. In fact, if you don’t age them for at least a few years, you probably won’t enjoy everything they have to offer. That being said, this was a wonderful wine. The red is 100% Syrah, but it is a blend from multiple different domaine vineyards with different soils and exposure. Even though young, it had an aroma that was so intriguing, and the flavor was so nice and balanced. I’d love to taste one that had been cellared for a few years.
Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Hermitage Blanc 2010 ($229)
Chave Hermitage Blanc was one of Thomas Jefferson’s two favorite wines, based on his writings. A blend of Marsanne and Rousanne, this wine has a rich texture. Erin explained it isn’t built on acid. A very rich white wine but not oaky, this would go wonderfully with a wide variety of dishes based on a cream sauce. Erin also explained that it shouldn’t be served too cold, ditch the ice bucket!
I never expected the evening tasting to extend beyond the evening in Minnesota. To my surprise, there is a second chapter in this story. Stay tuned!
If you’d like to know more about the reclaimed vineyards in St. Joseph, Eric Asimov wrote a nice piece in the New York Times earlier this year.
Bill Ward, a writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune also attended the tasting, his blog writeup is here.
Many thanks to Sunfish Cellars for hosting and especially to Erin Cannon Chave for sharing the family story and their wonderful wines!