Monday, October 29, 2018

Domaine Jean-Louis Chave tasting at Digress Wines: The Saint-Joseph and Selection wines

In describing a Domaine Jean-Louis Chave wine, Master Sommelier Ian Cauble (of SOMM fame) wrote "it is impossible to tell the story of France's Rhône Valley or the Syrah grape without referencing this family's enormous contribution." In the same piece, Ian points to Jancis Robinson affirming that "... in the entire northern Rhône Valley, 'no one is more respected than Domaine Jean-Louis Chave'."

So it was a very big deal when Digress Wines recently partnered with Progress Wine Group to host a tasting of Chave wines for its customers. I have previously reported on our tasting of the Hermitage flight and now turn my attention to the St. Joseph and J-L Chave Selection wines.

Lineup of Chave wines tasted at Digress Wines event.
Photo credit: Brian Herbst

The Saint-Joseph wines are sourced from Chave-owned vineyards while the Selection wines are the fruit of a negociant business where there is a mix of owned vineyards and purchased fruit. In the cases where fruit is purchased, JL Chave either farms the land or manages the growers tightly to ensure that Chave-quality fruit makes it into the wine.

The map below is drawn from my post on the St-Joseph appellation and shows its commune-level structure. The tables immediately following show the actual climat-level sources for both the Saint-Joseph and Selection wines.

Table 1. Vineyard sources for Domaine Jean-Louis Chave Saint-Joseph wine.
Vine Age

Some of the oldest St-Joseph vines. Some date back to pre-WWI, others to the early 1980s, but most from 1992 and 1993

Granitic; some dusty loess and clay in lower reaches

Extension of the Les Olivier hill. SE exposure. Runs up to 250 m

Les Oliviers
Granitic at the bottom but much of the soil is a clay-galet stone mix

Noted for its ripening quality

Les Côtes Derrière
Firm granite
Most southerly site at Mauves; 30 ha




Lower down on the slope

Chaves family origin

Les Côtes de Pouilly (known locally as Bachasson)
Full granite
1.5 ha planted every year from 1996 - 2002
Jean-Louis resurrecting this old family vineyard. Upper flank is south-facing

Table 2. Vineyard sources for JL Chave Selection wines
LabelAppellationVariet(ies)yVineyardsVineyard Age (years)FermentationAging
CircaSt. JosephRoussanneMauves (granite)5 - 60BarrelBarriques — 14 months
Mon CoeurCôtes du RhôneSyrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre (~5%)Visan (clay-limestone); Vinsobres (clay soil rich in limestone; 900 feet elevation); Cairanne (Mediterranean climate); Rasteau (used in select vintages)20 - 60Stainless steel tanks12 14 months in a mix of old and new barrels, demi-muids, and large foudres
OfferusSt JosephSyrahMauves, Tournon, and St-Jean-de-Muzols supply 80% of blend. Owned vineyards. Remaining vineyards located around Serreirès. Farmed5 - 80 50% destemmed. Fermented in wood tonneau and stainless steel tanks.Aged in barriques and foudres for 18 months
SileneCrozes-HermitageSyrahHillside vineyards in Larnage and Gervans; 50% owned5 - 25Wood tonneau and stainless steelAged in barriques for 15 - 18 months

We were served the 2016 Circa and Mon Coeur wines during the reception. The Circa showed white flowers and green herbs. Finely etched and mineral-driven on the palate. The minerality offset a lack of acidity. The Mon Coeur was perfumed with red fruit and vinosity dominant. Light bodied  with dried herbs and spice on the palate. Drying character on the palate.

The Offerus 2015 was spicy with some florality and elegant dark/blue fruit. Structured. Light fruit on the palate but the wine still retains its structure. Nice mineral/acid finish.

The Silene 2016 was perfumed with spice and green herbs. I was unimpressed by this wine.

The Domaine St-Joseph 2014 was aromatic with sawdust, animal, and bacon on the nose. Bacon and dark fruit on the palate. Could have been brighter. The 2012 showed bacon, blood, and herbs on the nose and palate. Saline character and pleasant red fruit on the palate. The 2009 showed spice, black fruit, and meat on the nose. Medium-bodied with blackfruit, blackpepper, and meat on the palate. Pleasing. The 2008 had a similar character to the 2009 except distinctly more blood and minerality.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Thursday, October 25, 2018

St-Joseph (Northern Rhône): The physical environment

St-Joseph, according to John Livingston-Learmonth (The Wines of the Northern Rhône),
... is a country cousin wine which can rise to the occasion, but which above all expresses a very important Syrah style for anyone wanting to check out this grape's credential. Syrah and granite is a good pairing ... Its grandiose at Hermitage, voluptuous at Côte-Rôtie off the Côte Blonde, grave at Cornas and here (ed: St-Joseph) -- well, its lively, unleashed, and often delicious.
The wines from this Northern Rhone appellation "... can capture and convey the elemental aromas, flavors, and emotions of these wines, but in a more open, easier-going manner" and does not require the aging (5 - 7 years) associated with Cornas (8 - 12 years), Hermitage (15 - 20 years) or Côte-Rôtie (15 - 20 years).

St-Joseph is a tale of two appellations, both temporally and spatially. The initial appellation designation occurred in June 1956 and gave protection to the fruit and wines from 6 communes stretching over a distance of 6 miles. This initial appellation was expanded to 25 communes, and 40 miles, in 1969, effectively shifting the gravitational center of the appellation to the north and resulting in distinctive northern and southern zones.

The history and current structure of the appellation is shown in the figure below.

The expansion of the appellation did not immediately benefit the reputation of the region's wine. According to Livingston-Learmonth:
The immediate implication is this: large amounts of young vines now grow on sites that cannot be all good -- and if their fruit is handled by novice vignerons, there is little certainty that good wine will be the outcome.
Well more than a decade has gone by since John uttered these words so the vines have become older and the vignerons more expert. There are, however, no solutions for bad sites.

All six of the original appellation communes are located in the southern zone of the expanded appellation (See figure below).

Granite is the overarching theme of the appellation but a limestone seam can be found between Chateaubourg and Guilherand in the extreme south. While dominant, the granite is not uniform in composition or effect. According to Jean Gonon, the granite found in St-Jean-de-Muzols and Tournon differ in that:
The St-Jean-de-Muzols granite is composed of very small particles and is not as rich as the Tournon soil. The Tournon granite contains some mica and has larger grains as well a some clay -- it is less degraded. The Syrah from the sunnier, full south St-Jean soils is marked by brambly, often black fruits and is intrinsically pretty generous -- there is little sense of the northern zones toughness or taut texture from the core areas of St-Joseph.
The most significant communes of the northern zone are shown in the figure below.

As mentioned earlier, granite is the theme running through the St-Joseph appellation and this granite imparts an order and structure to the tannins of the region's wines. According to Livingston-Learmonth:
It places a frame around the wines that keep them tidy, subtle, and ready for an evolution that turns fulsome youth into complex middle age. The tannins give the wines a slightly pesky side, the fruit is grainy,a little taut at times, but always the aroma is vibrant and layered, never monotone.
That being said, there are demonstrable differences between the wines from the northern and southern zones of the appellation and these are characterized in the table below.

Northern Zone Wines
Southern Zone Wines
Upright, peppered wines
Wines that are warmer and more “embracing”
More instantly open
Richness less intense
Richness apparent

Blackstrap, tarry notes

Tannins riper and mellower
Wines are younger and from more modern clones

Green pepper aspect to the wines of Chavanay
Much less evident at Tournon

With this description of the physical aspects of St-Joseph completed, I will next turn to the tasting of the Chave St-Joseph wines at Digress.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Friday, October 19, 2018

Further exploration of the wines of Tor Kenward: A tasting at The Vineyard (Orlando, FL)

Tor Kenward arrived in Napa at one of the most consequential times in the history of American -- nay New World -- wines: a group of unheralded Napa Valley winemakers had just bested some of the greatest Burgundy and Bordeaux wines in the now-famous Judgment of Paris.

And at that time, and for some time thereafter, giants roamed the Valley: André Tchelistcheff (the Father of California wine); Robert Mondavi (led the way in the sales, distribution, and promotion of American wine while focusing on quality improvements); Mike Grgich (known for his world-beating Chardonnays out of Chateau Montelena; and Warren Winiarski (exceptional Cabernet Sauvignon's and wine as a culture) among others. And Tor walked among these giants, and supped with them, and learned the origin of their strengths, and applied those learnings first to his efforts at Beringer and then in his own enterprise.

Tor started out at Beringer Vineyards and, over the next 27 years, helped to build a wine company "known to collectors for its single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays." Over those 27 years Tor developed a deep knowledge of Napa and European terroirs and winemaking practices. And it was this reservoir of knowledge that he tapped into when he retired from Beringer in 2001 to launch, along with his wife Susan, his own venture: TOR Kenward Family Wines.

According to Tor, the plan was simple:
Our wines would come from only the best blocks in great vineyard sites I knew and revered. All of our wines are hand-made in every sense and in very small quantities ... Our winemaking is driven by what I heard and learned making small experimental lots of wine at Beringer. Great vineyards deserve respect and experience has taught me that in winemaking, less is more.
The population of great sites from which Tor sources the grapes for his wines are shown below.

TOR's grape sources (Source:TOR)
During the early part of 2017, Tor had arranged for the to walk the Beckstoffer to Kalon Vineyard with Andy Beckstoffer after which we repaired to Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen to taste some of his wines from that terroir.

A tasting at the Vineyard in Orlando presented me with the opportunity to extend the range of my knowledge of TOR wines by tasting the other single-vineyard Oakville wines (Terra Rioja), one of the Howell Mountain sites (Herb Lamb Vineyard), and the Vine Hill Ranch Vineyard (also in Oakville but the source of grapes for blends). We were led in the tasting by Matt Deller MW, COO of TOR.

The figure below shows the vineyards that are the source of the wines which will be explored in this post.

Compiled from TOR material
Matt began the tasting by giving a little bit of the history of Tor. He pointed out that Tor had begun making his own wine in 1983 while still at Beringer (at this time the company would have been owned by Nestlé). when Tor left Beringer in 2001 and launched his own enterprise, he brought inJeff Ames as the winemaker. Jeff is still there to this day.

Matt came to Tor from NZ after 20 years of making, importing, and judging wines.

As it relates to winemaking, they harvest when the seeds attain a walnut color. and a brix of between 25 and 26. They are seeking freshness and perfection of fruit. The grapes are fermented in stainless steel tanks via native yeasts and are macerated for a total of 15 days post-fermentation. The juice is then racked over to 100% new, 3-year-seasoned, medium-toast French oak for malolactic fermentation and aging. The wines are aged between 18 and 22 months and are bottled without fining or filtration.

The wines on offer

Vineyard GM and Matt at the tasting

The TOR Terra Rioja 2015 was rich and creamy on the nose with vanilla, dark fruit, chocolate, herbs, blue fruit, bouillon soup and dried herbs. Bright and intense on the palate. Creamy and rich with a certain spiciness. Long. mineral finish.

The 2015 Oakville Hillside was more restrained on the nose than was the case for the Terra Rioja. Dark/blue fruit, baking sppices, vanilla. More structured than the Terra Rioja. Rich and spicy.

The 2015 Herb Lamb showed beef tea, herbs, dried leather, and a savory broth on the nose. Tea, dried herbs, and barrel effects on the palate. Beautiful, elegant, balanced.

The 2015 Proprietary Red is a blend of 43% Cabernet Franc, 14% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 43% Petiti Verdot. This wine was restrained on the nose. Red fruits, spices, barrel spices, licorice, and vanilla. Not as mouthfilling as the wines tasted previously. Cigar and wet tobacco on the palate. Elegant. Long, creamy finish.

These are all extremely high-quality wines made by a team that is focused on bringing the best, small-batch wines they can to the market. And they are succeeding. While I do not wax enthusiastic about many Napa wines, TOR ranks among the four or so that I drink with pride.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme

Sunday, October 14, 2018

L'Hermitage flight: An evening at Digress (Orlando FL) with the wines of Jean-Louis Chave

Jay Smith, for what seems like eons, stocked and ran Cavanaugh's Fine Wines (College Park, Orlando) in a staid, conservative manner; and the vibe and customer base reflected his orientation. Recently, Jay decided that the time had come to hang up his green apron and he passed ownership to a group led by Augustan/Premier ADST/Breakthrough alums Rob Chase and Brian Kearney. They have renamed the shop Digress but it could have just as easily been called Diverge, or Polar Opposites, because that is exactly what has happened.

Not only have these guys changed the physical look and feel of the establishment -- making it much more esthetically pleasing and welcoming. They have also changed the wines on offer from stodgy European fare to bright and buzzy wines from all over the world. And, best of all, they have begun hosting killer wine events.

One such recent event -- a collaboration with Progress Wine Group -- was titled an Evening with the Wines of Jean-Louis Chave. For anyone remotely familiar with this producer and its wines, this was a can't-miss affair. I will report on the evening beginning with this post on the Hermitage wines tasted.

Brian Kearney kicked off the tasting with a welcome to attendees and an introduction of Proal Perry (Progress Wine Group) who would be leading us on the journey through the wines (See here, here, here, and here for perspectives on Proal.).

Brian setting the stage for Proal Perry of Progress Wine Group

Proal Perry of Progress Wine Group (from the archives)

According to Proal, the Chave family history stretches back to 1465. The current patriarch is Gerard Chave who began working at the domaine in 1935 and took managing control in the late 1970s. His son, Jean-Louis, was born in 1966 and began working at the estate in the 1990s.

The domaine got its start in the St. Joseph appellation and did not acquire vineyards on the hill of Hermitage until 1865. The Hill, as I have shown in a prior post, is divided into a number of climats and the Chaves contend that the best way to bring out the structure and expression of the appellation is through the blending of said climats. Towards that end, the domaine owns 9.3 ha of Syrah vines spread over 7 climats and 4.6 ha of Marsanne and Roussanne spread over 4 climats. The table immediately below identifies the climats while the figures immediately following identify their locations and characteristics (Additional details on the Les Bressards, L'Hermite, and Le Méal climats can be found here).

Table 1. Climat sources for L'Hermitage and L'Hermitage blanc

Syrah Marsanne/Rousanne
Les Bessards Largest contributor to L’Hermitage

L'Hermite Second biggest contributor to blend 20% of blend. Marsanne gives rich wine with a buttery feel and a clear grip on finish. Roussanne restrained when young with acidity and tight texture
Péleat Third most important 25% of blend; 100-yr-old vines that have never been replanted; provides an excellent rich middle
Le Méal X

Beaume X

Diognières X

Vercandières X


50% contribution to Hermitage Blanc
Maison Blanche

5%. Marsanne. Riper, fatter fruit than Rocoules
Source of data: Wines of Northern Rhone.

The average age of the Chave Syrah vines is 40 years while the Marsanne/Roussanne vines are, on average, 50 years old. The Hermitage Blanc is generally comprised of 80 - 85% Marsanne and 15 - 20% Rousanne.

As regards winemaking, the grapes are harvested and placed into small collection boxes. The Syrah grapes are destemmed and placed into stainless steel tanks for fermentation. The wines from varying climats are kept separately duirng the 18 months of cask-aging. The wines are blended in July and left in vat until September when they are egg-white-fined prior to bottling.

The whites are 80 - 90% fermented and aged in up to 1/3 new casks with the remainder fermented in stainless steel. The oak and steel components are blended in the spring, 18 months after harvest. The whites are fined with bentonite.

In discussing blending in The Wines of Northern Rhone, Jean-Louis Chave states:
 "... blending remains the quintessential cellar challenge. Here the task is to meld together the wines of different soils, from different ages ... Its much more difficult to blend the white wines than the reds. Reds have tannin, color, and their texture is softer and tighter. With the whites you have to balance things out with some freshness at the end -- white is a continuing challenge. Blending whites you get one shot and no second chance. With the reds you can come back to them.
We began the tasting with the negociant and St. Joseph wines but I will cover those in a future post.

Photo credit: Brian Herbst

The Hermitage wines tasted were the 2014 red and white and 2004 white.

The 2014 growing season in Northern Rhone, according to Jancis Robinson, was
A challenging growing season for reds in which grapes struggled to reach full maturity and particularly vigilant sorting was required thanks to the Drosophila Suzuki fruit fly. A successful flowering resulted in a decent crop, swollen in many cases by rain during the summer and red wine harvest. Whites fared better and benefited from a late rush to maturity but retained good acid levels. Reds likely to be for relatively early drinking.
The 2014 Chave Hermitage Blanc was aromatic with floral notes, yellow apple, stone fruits, and honey. Waxy. Unctuous on the palate. Power with balance. Lengthy finish. The 2014 Hermitage Rouge was floral with dark fruit, minerality, smoke, meat, spice, and herbs. Medium-bodied, textured, and structured. Lengthy finish.

The 2004 vintage, again as described by Jancis Robinson, was a welcome return to normal vintage conditions (post the 2003 heat-wave vintage) but it "was not generous and the wines have developed fast." The 2004 Chave Hermittage Blanc showed stone fruit, honey, hay, wax, baking spices, and orange peel on the nose. Thick and rich on the palate. Waxy with apricot notes. Lengthy finish.

©Wine -- Mise en abyme