tasted in London, 9-10 November, 2007, organised by The Fine Wine Experience, Linden Wilkie
Things get very personal when scrutinising 30 years of a family's hand-crafted work. I can sit at a blank screen, and defer my writing for a day or two until the instinct or inspiration comes along. A vigneron cannot gainsay nature, for reasons of illness or family travail: he has to perform, while his work is there to be picked at and pored over decades later. Consequently, a 30 year review of a domaine's wines slots into the triumvirate of part peephole, part sleuthing, part festival.
The Domaine Jean-Louis Chave set up shop on the hill of Hermitage at the start of the twentieth century: Jean-Louis Chave bought a plot on the west end site of Les Bessards in 1912 for 600 Francs. The family lived across the Rhône in the village of Mauves - the craggy Ardèche, its nearest village Cornas. Their nearest vineyards were on the granite slopes of the west bank, where today the current Jean-Louis has been restoring an old family plot, now the provider of Saint-Joseph red.
Around them on the hill of Hermitage were Jaboulets, Chapoutiers and local grandees. The Chapoutiers were also Ardechois, and the first Jaboulet, Antoine, was born in Cornas in 1807. Gradually the worker, the activist, took over from the owner-employer, and much of today's Hermitage structure started to take shape. The only real earthquake in the past 50 years has been the purchase of Paul Jaboulet Aîné by the Swiss financier Jacques Frey in late 2005.
As a family whose bottles bear the neck label, "vignerons de père en fils depuis 1481", the Chaves are extremely conscious of their heritage and the consequent responsibility that entails. Gérard, born in 1935, started to work on the domaine in 1955, and took over from his father Louis in the 1970s, even though Louis lived until 1981. He is a man of instinct and passion; his winemaking simmers with those human qualities, and occasionally the counterpoints of those attributes. A 30-year review is really a rather intrusive look into his life, its surges and urges, its telling moments. Philosophy does not always need expression in books - it can be found in an exercise such as this, conducted in the dark weather of a November in London.
Gérard's son Jean-Louis started on the domaine in 1994. His father had been at pains to give him a wider education and grounding beyond merely French or Old World confines, and Jean-Louis spent much of his preparation in the United States - both at wineries, and in the classroom, including finance and oenology. Jean-Louis then became the man at the helm from the early 2000s.
A run of vintages from 1975 to 2004 therefore takes in Gérard's debut years, the days when Hermitage struggled to be sold, let alone at a respectable price. There is a mature phase, as the great man hit his sixties, and as Jean-Louis stepped into the harness. Then there is the start of the Jean-Louis era, nourished by greater outside influence than ever before on this Ardèche family. The span closes with Hermitage back in its rightful seat of greatness, recognised by drinkers around the world, and its prices in tune with that world of fast global transfer of data, view, and product.
I have absolutely no doubt that one of the first wine precepts that I learned in the early 1970s holds true, solid as a rock. It is that good domaines make good wine in the lesser vintages. My first vineyard visits in 1973 came in days when whole vintages could go missing - think of 1972 Bordeaux. Early on in my career, it was apparent that a few northern Rhône domaines were incredibly gifted in assembling a pretty, likeable wine whatever the circumstances. In those days, wine writing was more leisurely than it is today: editors and readers did not bay for the latest discovery, the fast scoop. One could get to know a domaine's work, and judge it over the perambulations of different vintages. Now, scribblers rush out favourable judgment on domaines after one easy-to-vinify year. That is not the way to detect genuine quality.
The families of Chave at Hermitage and Clape at Cornas were paragons of this virtuous rule. And years later, it stood up loud and clear from the tasting of three decades of Chave's red Hermitage. One can take the sweet, feminine 1986 or the savoury, masculine 1984. There has been coaxing and precise assembly - the mixture of instinct and judgment running with the softest hum of endeavour. These are wines that are a delight to drink - back we go to the noble days of the best Italian wines at 11°, or the Bordelais nobility before visiting toubibs (medicine men) fleshed them up and out into the busy alcoholic teens.
Think Swiss watches, think calm days, peaceful musings with dear friends. These are the incipient joys of the Chave wines in years such as 1976 or 1977, or the 1984 and the 1986. Even the 1993 comes forward with a pretty manner, a long 14 years after its rainswept birth. Move to the superior, but also unglamorous 1991 and 1994, and one can revel in the aromatic, textured bliss of these creations.
The next step in our sleuthing then becomes a look at the minor themes that emerge from such forensic study as this, conducted over 2 days, with 15 uneven number vintages followed by 15 even vintage years. One is the direction the wine has taken since the arrival of Jean-Louis. Jean-Louis was more precisely, more academically, trained than Gérard, and the wines since around 1995 show signs of this. Call it an increasing international influence, if you please, or greater, better balanced ripening of the crop.
The outcome is wines that are more sleek in style: the 1995 has a polish that the more fundamental 1989 lacks. The 2004, 2002 and 2000 are all fragrant wines that are not especially intense. The 2001 is a skittish wine, more a Parisian than a Lyonnais operator. Such words I wrote many years ago as Paul Jaboulet Aîné smartened up their La Chapelle in the 1980s, when the comparison lay with the robust, locally vigorous 1960s Chapelles. Tannins are certainly more polished than they used to be, and there are few hints of TCA or Brett that the laboratory detectives can unearth in previous decades. Whole bunch fermentation was abandoned in the 1980s, and cellar temperature control was installed in the early 1990s.
In texture terms, the modern Chaves are fleshy, more corpulent than they used to be, and one wonders just how long they will live. However, one of the surprises of this tasting is precisely how long these wines have lived. I look at old tasting notes and blush at my lack of confidence in their longevity: they tick along quietly, dispensing their caressing favours without abrupt closure or exacting dryness, even after 20 years.
Debate circled on the role of Jean-Louis, and questioned whether the son should be stuck with the liability of no change allowed: indeed, surely he should be allowed to evolve and to seek refreshed paths. Es verdad, capitán.
There was an undoubted period of wobble in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Witness the following: the 1978 has always been a wine of different bottle quality, a wine that I have tasted over a dozen times, with irregular returns. 1979 was rampantly corked in London. I checked it again chez Chave two weeks later, discussing this issue with Jean-Louis. The result on the spot was a much superior wine. 1980 held perhaps some TCA and was uneven. 1981 was also corked, although a little less violently than the London 1979.
Those present marvelled at the 1989, 1995 and 1999 on the first day, wanting to drink the 1991 there and then. The sheer consistency of the wines left a strong impression. The 2003 was even termed the "Anti-Christ", so different was it stylistically. "Purity and precision" were words on the go by the second day, when the even number vintages were under inspection. "You can buy this domaine every year, and enjoy it enormously" was one apposite contribution. The even vintages that left the greatest impact on Day 2 were the 1990 and the 1994 - not the 1978, on which one attendee remarked: "it's frustrating, because there is something great in the 1978, but you can get a case of the 1991 or the 1994 for 1 bottle of this."
2004 **** red with some dark plum in the colour, is a full, dark raspberry. Has a soft, rather plump, quasi international aroma - reflects pristine berry fruit with some oak smoke: "sleek" is the word. The fruit is maybe mulberry or wild berries, along with some game in the air. The palate holds broad fruit, rolled-up berries with a sustained, pretty compact appeal. Easy-toned, verging on the delicious wine now - is very elegant and its balance is good. The texture is good and clear late on. Rather a modern, pristine wine with a Burgundian nature. Is not a year for Bessards, which was tired out by the 2003 vintage - is much more on the roundness. The fruit is both supple and a little live. Maybe more new oak than usual. 2023-26
2003 ****** full, purple, sleek robe; gutsy, ample bouquet - unusual with its air of black rather than red berries notably present. Has a lithe outer air - there is plenty here, a lot of potential and heart. It is almost possible to smell the primary vinification, the must, and it keeps probing on - it is still like a lot of other 2003s. The palate carries black berries with plenty of depth in the taste, then a grilled note. Has a prune-plum aftertaste. The length is good - this ends clearly, even if there is some alcohol and heat. The black fruit is really well defined, and there is great late cut and finesse. It does not seem tannic, but it is. For the drinker, it is a wine that revolves around the style - you either like this big rendering or you don`t want your Hermitage so "large". To 2033-36
2002 ***(*) bright, pretty quite dark red (is lighter than the 2004); mulled red berries aroma, with lots of life in it - has grip. There are light earthy airs, as if a healthy ripeness was hard to achieve. The bouquet has an elegant shape - is not a big boy with its clean lines. The fruit skips a beat - is maybe just closing down, and conveys some wee green pepper. The palate is rich in the modern way; here is a red fruit, raspberry fest - all on its clean, primary fruit appeal. Holds some late white pepper lining from its tannins. Is Burgundian in style - in the making and in the tasting. The finish is peppery. 2021-24
2001 ***** still purple in the robe; has a stewed, rather reductive nose - the aroma is a little "high" and obscure - suggests fruit gums, not that noble. After 2 hours, the bouquet becomes clearer, with good grip and plenty in it - smoky and peppery, too. The palate shows reserved, spiced, mulled fruit with lots of live sinew. Red fruits emerge towards the finish - I sense a Bessards imprint late on, where there is good granite tension. This has a lot of character, and is clearly a hand-made wine of a personal domaine. Is a coiled animal, waiting to pounce just now. Has very pretty vivacity and fruit, very fulfilling freshness. Is more skittish than the 1999, and its length is good. The fruit is in a sweet spot today. Parisian rather than Lyonnais wine. Esp 2011-12 onwards for its second phase. 2026-28
2000 *** the robe is dark red, with a little purple. The bouquet leads with red fruits - raspberry - with an easy, smoked appeal about them. This has some depth, but is a little narrow, has more acidity than the 2002, and ends with some floral, orange peel airs. The palate red fruit has some life in it, but is not particularly sustained, nor very rich. It gains some roundness late in the day, but edges along at the start of the palate, then becomes peppered - ground black pepper - and mineral. The length is sound, so I would give this a chance to shape itself into a gentle, texture wine around 2011-14 especially. *** for now. From late 2009. 2022-24
1999 ***** there is the start of evolution on the robe, with the red a bit dumb, and some paleness on the rim. The bouquet works sideways as well as down; the red berries are compactly woven, and evoke quince and mulberry, with a little outer pepper. After 2 hours, has become very tight and dense, not open, but broad in form. The palate starts out roundly, with overt muscle and red fruit depth. The tannins are well woven - but there is still evidence of their quite youthful lining in the slightly hidden red fruit. Good, replete and stylish wine that is broad all through, but comes with a fine touch. Muscular wine, from Lyon rather than Paris. From 2011. 2026-29
1998 ***** sound red at the heart of the robe, with just a little lightening at the top: there is still a good, complete covering of red. The nose is very persistent, has a lot of depth in its quite crisp berry aroma - black berries with plenty of zip, life. This indeed is a broad, prolonged berry aroma, with a little earthy underlay that emerges with 90 minutes` air. This bouquet is great - most appealing, and comes in a ripe, savoury, near-Pomerol fashion. Is also still young. The palate is wonderful. Has a silken texture with real good core, and a textured, still young heart, its stone fruits melded with ripe tannins. I like the end, where the tannins carry a good, light pepper grip, as per their unbridled youth. Has done very well with time. This is very typical Chave, with great clarity of fruit. 2023-25
1997 **(*) the red robe comes with some ruby, especially near the top. Has a pointed bouquet, exhales a cone shape. The outer is live and peppery, the interior is smoky and charcoaled, with traces of black fruit at its heart. The fruit content is neither very secure nor prominent. Has live, on its toes palate fruit, with a late pebbly, live tannic burst. The length is OK. There are earthy tones in this, and it lacks clarity towards the finish. There is dart of fruit late on, as if it emerges into the clear after being in a tunnel. Has tightened up since last tried, but can persist, since the fruit is very bright, especially as the air works on it. The wrong time to bump into this wine - it is at a crossroads, and needs to wear off its acidity. Revert in 2009. Sunday lunch - roast lamb, for instance, a good idea. 2019-22 Nov 2007
1996 *** matt hue to the red which is a bit dull. You can detect the acidity of the vintage on the top note of the bouquet, but there exists a good little couch of red berry at first (with air it turns to black berry), and jam under it, and even good old English Marmite (beef-yeast paste, good on toast or with lettuce or in many expatriate situations): Marmite has a deep, tangy air, and fits in with the smoky, live, peppered airs here. The palate is gracious, even if it becomes rather wiry later on. Pepper - green or red - towards the finish. This is a wine on the go, one that cannot stand still. The finish is live, where there are red fruits delivered with a crisp, white pepper flourish. Sound overall, but is a little brittle, and I am not sure it is that well-knit. Will need careful cellaring, not lots of auction room action. It is good to drink all in the round, where one overlooks some of the individual faults. 2019-21
1995 ****(*) has a pretty red at the heart of the robe, with a lighter top. The bouquet bears white pepper and sealed red fruits with definite tannic traces from this vintage. There is still plenty here, and some floral traces soften it. There is some baked fruit, too; has a beau, cool-aired aroma. This is a peppery, lithe, upright wine with a brisk red fruit heart. The length is good, live, active. There is a pepper thread through it, with good underlying richness of a refined nature. Still peppery on the end. Is very vintage marked. Especially drink this with game dishes, notably feather - bird. Is a Bordelais Hermitage; the 2001 is rounder, but has some similarity in its cut. This may just be starting to settle. 2023-25
1994 **** plum red at the heart of the robe, which has a subdued tone. The bouquet is at a very harmonious, complete stage - has a brewed, almost Bovril (beef stock, good for stews) style, with trails of mature raspberry late on. Reflects Hermitage correctly, has local feel, and a little floral content. The same applies for the palate - it is in the right place at the right time now. Is a sort of shadow of the 1991 - comes in that vein - with a very appealing, deftly silken texture. Flows well, has beautiful red fruit of great elegance. This is bonny, the fruit compact and the balance good. 2021-23
1993 ** garnet in the robe, although that is clear and bright. The bouquet carries soft, raisin tart and prune aromas with a sprinkle of pepper - is pretty wide and elegant, too. Pretty aroma, in an understated way. The palate is soft, as if chaptalised: has a floral start, and a curl of roundness, with a red stone fruit tinge to the taste. Is drinking well now - as a pretty, aromatic, low scale wine. The palate will become just a little dry around 2011, I suspect. Is very good for its vintage, and has surpassed my early expectations about its longevity. 2016-17
1992 *** brick colour in the robe - this is the first wine of an even number year since 2004 to break ranks and show its age. Has a tea, ground coffee aroma, with some southern sweetness underneath, revealing baked fruits: very much runs along the lines of Earl Grey tea (china tea with bergamot), with the sweetness of chaptalisation, also bacon fat here. Has a probing, caramel, date, a little red berry flavour. There are no big skies here: it drinks well in its restricted panorama, and holds simple appeal. The red fruits are nicely present until the finish. Is savoury, but without great persistence. 2015-20
1991 ***** this is a real darling, much loved by Gérard. Red, pretty robe that carries its quiet maturity well - has a little top ruby, soft orange. Round, baked fruits lead the nose, with a persistent smoky heart, and a very good, still intense core. There is mulled red fruit at the heart of the bouquet, with some pepper and smoke attached - great variety, and bundles of elegance, great charm and finesse. Becomes more earthy, but also floral with air. Great harmony on the palate, with a very belle live red fruit presence and a silken tendency in the texture. Is lovely drinking now, a real little bébé. Comes more from the Burgundian, Pinoté mould, with its very bonny red fruits and beguiling charm. Very live in its nature. 2019-21
1990 ****** full, dark red core to the robe, which has a real thorough tone, given its age. There is a wide shape to the bouquet - red berries, with a rich, coulis nature; there is a little aromatic sweet tea, and also a live, slightly acidic afternote, with biscuit and dried raisins as it evolves. The palate sets off with a keen thrust of acidity in its red fruits - really darts along. The red fruit has an angular nature, and is not as spherical or rounded as I recall. The wine settles with some air, bearing the house definition and clear late expression. Is very primary in its way: on this showing, revert in 2009. Its red berry fruit is long, lasting, crisp. It is very young now, indeed a lot younger than it seems, and has more to offer. Rich, but passing through a bit of a transition. 2026-30
1989 ***** more red in its robe than the 1991, with a little pale-pink on the top rim. The bouquet is gaining a sweet nature, a sort of earthy, above all stewed fruit aroma that is broad and also pretty live. Has a little late burst of peppery tannin, a rigour that is appealing. Is a wide and fundamental bouquet, with a hint of the fungal about it. Has a good and round palate, similar to the 1999 - red fruits to the fore, maybe plums most of all. Has a lot of length and life, and a fragrant rose-hip quality on the palate, and great delicacy towards the finish. Beau, live wine that is round and gummy late on, faults and all, since it is less "clean" than the 1995, say, and comes more from the old school of winemaking. Shows great length when drunk with lamb. Some bottles may be better than this one. 2019-23
1988 ***** very good, full plum red robe, and still very deep. The aroma is led by mulled berries with a little "high" note in them, followed by a tinkle of pepper: is very gourmand, with a touch of the earthy, farmyard in it - is most pleasant pour moi. This is a texture wine - bingo! The stone red fruits are laced with spice, menthol and coffee, and proceed with a silken flow. This is showing very well now. It also holds good late acidity in its finish. There may be a trace of Brett in this, but that does not deter me. Others can go back to the laboratory if they wish. 2022-24
1987 **(*) red-ruby robe, with a soft tone to it and a clear hue. Rather reductive, red fruits aroma, the fruits are baked red berries with a sweet side to them. Has a sultry, rather earthy air, a touch of the fundamental about it. The palate is round of shape, with an agreeable red fruit heart; carries its roundness well, and consecutively along the palate. Has a quiet, brewed red fruit lining, sound length. Is without great horizon, but is OK. Lots of contrast between the nose and the palate early on - a bit lactic. 2015-17
1986 *** pretty, quite delicate red, with a little more depth than the 1984. The berry jam aroma is a little "high", with some game here - black-red berries come with a smoky tilt and have a lot of dance in them, with some biscuity airs as it ages. The bouquet is very prolonged, given its age. Has a harmonious, open and rather fleshy start, and drinks very well now. There is a good mix of fruit and acidity, and it lengthens well. Has come together pleasingly. Shows affinity with the 1991 and 1994. Late on, a bit of Bovril (beef stock) and compact red fruit comes through. Is long, and true. A wine that is mature now, traces of caramel on the palate as witness. 2018-20
1985 **** garnet tone to the robe, with red wisps at its core. Has a high, animal-game nose, though possesses a rich, ripe core. The outer aroma is putting-off, but there is a real depth here, and inside resides jam with a little ground coffee. After three hours of air, there is more mineral and definition in the bouquet. The palate charts a similar course to the nose - has a rather sultry, down-home flavour, but the texture is rich, round. The length is good. There is a tinkle of late tannin - just a little grip there, with some pepper. The flavour suggests dark plums, pepper. This finishes cleanly. Because of its stinkiness, triple decant this, and hope. Can be drunk till 2017-20 because of its intrinsic richness.
1984 **(*) mild, genuine ruby robe; the bouquet is just a bit reduced, has coffee mint liqueur notes within the black berries, and some bacon, high game swirls here, too. The attack is a bit narrow, has a grainy texture, a pebbly nature. The length is OK - this keeps going. Has plenty of life, and is more aromatic than the 1984 La Chapelle as I recall. A wee drop of late red fruit, with marzipan comes along: its texture is well sealed, so can live still. 2017-18
1983 ****(*) subdued ruby, then red, with some see-through on the top rim. The nose is quite firm, and still complete - shows a mix of baked red fruit tart and flowers, and pursues very well. There is plenty in this very bonny and ample bouquet. The palate is peppery, but is now at a rounded, evolved stage without its initial anxiety. The only moment of real vintage imprint now is an airy, pebbly finish. This is now good to drink with game birds. Has the southern red fruits restraint, a dabble of warmth late in the day that is very Rhodanien. The texture is soft, smooth, and there is a nice, clear and a bit salty finale. Some animal-game emerges on the aftertaste, but this is a wine of great delicacy now. 2017-19
1982 ***(*) mature, but still bright ruby colour; the bouquet is broadly shaped, with a quiet sweet heart, and a late prickle of pepper, with red fruits: some mushroom, floral-violet and smoky airs circulate as well. The palate is at a tight crossroads. Has a black fruit heart, and has taken on extra kick as it has evolved. Persists with a clean, clear run. Is still right there, but has lost its earlier sweet core. Its tannins are ripe, and sustain it, even though they are a bit dry towards the finale. 2017-19
1981 A Magnum: disaster - it is corked. The robe is a mild ruby, with garnet. Cork apart, this holds a filigree and interesting red fruit. Has an upright appeal, with still a quite rich core, though its fringes are dry.
1980 *(*) ruby, brick top to the robe, with good heart. Has a nicely "creamy", lateral aroma of red plum - is not quite clear, and there is a definite mushroom element, along with some raisin. Is quite rich, but not quite right. There is a round little bubble of red fruit at the start of the palate, then it straightens, and keeps its clarity all through. Is a down-home, not that clean wine, with softness in its nature. Shows dry touches as the air gets to it. A good bottle of this (ie better than this) can live to 2015-16
1979 No Rating - severe cork . So I tried a bottle chez Chave 2 weeks later: *** gentle robe, red and ruby. Very good, pretty red fruit aroma with a clear tone, links together rose and mineral, and has a touch of coffee bean. There is red fruit on the palate, with at first a lactic side that could be from the stems. This lactic effect burns off fast, and we get through to red fruits on their own, with some late acidity and tannin. The air brings out a crispness in the red fruits, and lengthens the wine. Its grip is refined. 2019-21 "It comes from a time of stalks being used, and also imprecise harvest dates," J-L.C. 30 Nov 2007, chez Chave
1978 ****** the robe is tawny, has a Madeira tone with a lot of heart - looks like a Rancio, a Banyuls with youth, as it were. Holds a wide, silken, evolved aroma, led by plum jam, with ground coffee beans and toffee, also some fungal, not especially clean, notes. The palate is sealed, with red stone fruits, plum, nuts and dates present. It persists really well, the texture is indeed woven and compact all through. Its richness is delivered with a tender touch - this is a very "sensible", orderly wine. Some animal shows up late on - not excessive. Is a bit fundamental and reduced, a wine of some muscle and shoulders still. At first, there is a fungal manner, then it becomes more round and rich on the finish as it airs. From the old school of winemaking, truth rather than cellar artifice handed out to the drinker. Not for the squeaky clean brigade. 2023-26
1977 **(*) ruby-tile robe; the bouquet bears coffee, and has a sweet nature, and straight after opening out come flowers and some quite profound menthol-charcoal airs. Gains roundness with air, and rolls nicely then. There is nice gras on the palate attack, and surprising richness for its age - the flavour centres on black jam with some licorice and spice. The texture is round all the way through, and there is a very good sweetness on the finale. This can do well with Asian cuisine, and its sweet southern appeal is still remarkable. To 2013 or so, but is really there in its maturity now.
1976 *** has a very clear robe - a good, mild red, mature plum. Holds a toffee, caramel aroma, even Garibaldi raisin cakes or tarts, with a persistent air. The caramel seems to reflect the hot summer. This is good for its age. The start to the palate is surprisingly rich, and bears a coffee, pepper content, with this theme of fair richness lasting all through. Exudes a very bonny sweet, tea and dates (the fruit, not a thé dansant), appeal. Is right there now, with some very good freshness. Very good with tuna. 2014-16
1975 *(*) the colour is a little brittle - delicate ruby. The bouquet works across the glass, but is a bit limited - shows some coffee and plum, has a pointed shape, is peppery and airy. The pointed nature continues on the palate - this is a live acidity wine by nature. Has a brisk, clean finish. Its character is rather lean, and it lacks follow-through. To 2014 - what a laugh - see my previous note on its longevity. Off to the bar, then, Livingstone.