Minnesota Visits Domaine Jean-Louis Chave – St. Joseph & Cellars

On a visit with Erin Cannon Chave, we crossed the Rhone from Tain L’Hermitage to Mauves, in the St. Joseph appellation. The difficulty of farming on the hillside (cliffside?) of St. Joseph is clear as as soon as you see the steep slopes and terraces.  Cultivated for centuries, many of these hillsides were abandoned after multiple challenges of phylloxera, world wars, and the relative ease of factory jobs.  Jean-Louis Chave started the process of reclaiming some of the abandoned vineyards on the St. Joseph hillside back in 1995.  For more information about reclaiming St. Joseph, see Eric Asimov’s NY Times article.

The St. Joseph appellation is on the other side of the Rhone

The St. Joseph appellation is on the other side of the Rhone

Stone terraces are required to even allow grapevines to be planted and managed.  Even though they seem solid, they can be damaged in heavy rains.  You can see why the Chaves employ a full time stone mason!  This effort to reclaim vineyards is a slow process and continues today.

You can see why the Chaves employ a full time stone mason!

Extensive terraces are required to grow grapes on the St. Joseph hillside

Just around the corner from the Chave hillside vineyards, you can get a good view of the nature of the soil on these hills.  With all that rock, it seems surprising that anything at all can grow here.

Granite on its way to being decomposed

Granite on its way to being decomposed – note grapevines at the base of the cliff

After a quick look at the hillside plots, Erin showed us a recent acquisition, an existing vineyard right at the bottom of the hillside.  Importantly, the soils here are very similar to the adjacent hillside.  When I asked about the unusual vine training here, Erin replied that a vine is looped over the the adjacent vine to allow additional leaves to soak up the sun.  Some plots require all the help  they can get to allow the Syrah grapes to ripen before the end of the season.

Unusual training method, but necessary to help the syrah grapes ripen.

Unusual training method, but necessary to help the syrah grapes ripen.

Our last stop was the winery and caves.  First we saw the fermentation tanks, ready for their once a year use.  The large open topped oak casks are used for fermentation and workers climb in over the top daily to foot trod the grapes.  It looked like a tight squeeze between tank top and the ceiling.

Oak fermentation tanks, open top to allow foot trodding the grapes.

Oak fermentation tanks, open top to allow foot trodding the grapes.

At this point Jean-Louis joined us for a tour of the caves. The caves are quite a different view from the modern fermentation area of the winery.  As we descended, the age of the caves quickly became clear.  As you can seen, wines are aged in a combination of barrel and cask.

(side note: Whenever possible, I prefer to use natural light and avoid flash for my photos.  With a modern digital SLR, I can assure you that the cellar was significantly darker than what you can see in the photos!)

Down into the cellars

Down into the cellars

In this particular corner of the caves, Erin told us that some of their most valuable wines were hidden from the Nazis in World War II.  They piled up winery equipment in front of this tunnel and just allowed a few more cobwebs to form at the entrance.  I can imagine it didn’t look much different than this behind that wall of equipment.

Some of their oldest cellars, hidden from the Nazis in World War II

Some of their oldest cellars, hidden from the Nazis in World War II

We hadn’t expected to taste, since Erin had guided us through the Chave lineup back in Minnesota, but Jean-Louis decided to open a couple of bottles.  My notes are pretty cryptic, since it was dark and I was juggling camera and notepad and also trying to listen!  First, we tasted the 2011 St. Joseph.  It was young, fresh, earthy and very nice.  Then, to our surprise, Jean-Louis opened a 1992 Hermitage Rouge, explaining this is the vintage they are recommending their restaurant customers serve now, at its peak.  What a wonderful wine!  It was still fresh, but it had clearly moved into a mature state, so lively and smooth at the same time.  This was a moment we will remember for a very long time.

Now this is a tasting room!

Now this is a tasting room!

Our heartfelt thanks to  Jean-Louis and Erin Chave for an amazing visit. You were wonderful hosts.  We enjoyed seeing the places where the grapes grow, and we especially enjoyed meeting the people at the heart of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave.

Jean-Louis and Erin Cannon Chave

Jean-Louis and Erin Cannon Chave

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3 Responses to “Minnesota Visits Domaine Jean-Louis Chave – St. Joseph & Cellars”
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  1. […] will show you things you will never learn from a book or an article.  After our morning visit at Jean-Louis Chave, we had a little time to explore before we caught the train back to […]

  2. […] visit to J.L.Chave at Hermitage, the cellars at J.L Chave, and our quick visit to Tain […]

  3. […] Minnesota Visits Domaine Jean-Louis Chave – St. Joseph & Cellars […]



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