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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.