Jean-Louis Chave: 16 generations of wine

The Chave family has a proud tradition of making wine going back 16 generations. One need only to look at the neck label of any of their bottles to see “Vignerons de Père en Fils depuis 1481,” which translates to “vine growers from father to son since 1481,” to get a sense of it. The family began cultivating vines at this time in the appellation known today as the St. Joseph AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), but a move in the 19th century to avoid the phylloxera plague sweeping Europe brought the viticulturists to the Hermitage AOC, where their craft truly came into its own.

Hermitage-Vue-Generale syrah

The story of Hermitage takes one back to the year 1224, when Knight Gaspard de Strérimberg returned to court wounded from the Albigensian Crusade. He was given permission by then Queen of France, Blanche of Castile, to build a small refuge in which to recover. Knight Gaspard stayed in his small home for many years, becoming a hermit and ultimately lending the region its name. It would be another 400 years before Louis XIII named the wine produced here–usually a blend of the region’s three primary varietals: Marsanne, Roussanne, and, of course, Syrah–the official wine of the court in 1642.

As a red, Hermitage tends to be earthy with notes of leather, red berries, rich soil, cocoa, and coffee. Because of high tannin levels, these reds may be cellared for upwards of 40 years, unlike other Syrahs from America and Australia. The other grapes in the region are used to blend with the Syrah grapes and also make rich, dry white wines that age beautifully–some times up to 15 years before making it to market. With such long periods of aging, wine making in the region is truly multigenerational, and the Chave family is a testament.

The Chave name is hailed throughout the region and all over the globe. The wine they produce has earned lofty praise, including being called ‘a pure expression of great terroir’ and the ‘very essence of Hermitage’. Jean-Louis is the 16th generation of winemakers in the family. He joined his father Gérard in 1992 after earning his MBA at Hartford University and studying oenology at the University of California, Davis. “You can’t say when he stopped and I took over, because the generations overlap always,” Jean-Louis told Wine Spectator. “That is always the question: What have you changed? What hasn’t changed is the philosophy. The philosophy is not about the winemaking, it is about where the wine is from and trying to capture that.”

“We first used temperature-controlled fermentation in ’91, and that would be the biggest change, technically,” continued Jean-Louis. “Also now the work is more efficient, when in the past you could say the wine was made in a more painful way. We have bigger tanks today to do the blend before bottling for example, for more consistency. And maybe the élevage is a little longer. But much is still done the way my father did it. Which is to say, there is no recipe. You can’t obsess too much about technical details, because that’s a process.”

Gérard picked up his son’s line of thought. “Consistency in quality, but not uniformity in style. Terroir is magnified in great vintages, and softens the difficulty of a weak year. But if you do the same sulfur every year or the same filtration every year, you standardize the wine and denude the terroir. In the nursery all the babies look alike. You don’t know what they are really like until they are fully grown. They are not the same, but it takes time for them to show that. That’s what wine should be too.”

At Beaujolais, we stock four wines from Domain Jean-Louis Chave: Mon Couer, a blend of Syrah and Grenache primarily from the southern Rhône; Crozes-Hermitage Silène, a blend that balances the fruit of Syrah with granitic terroir notes; Hermitage Farconnet, one of the finer expressions of the Syrah grape and Hermitage terroir; and St. Joseph Offerus, from old-vine Syrah. Talk to your server about pairing these incredible wines with our current menu, and as you sip, remember that in spite of the rich history and all the work that goes into every vintage, Jean-Louis Chave wants the focus to be on what’s in the glass. As he says, “the wine doesn’t exist until it is drunk.”