Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
June 11, 2010
The first thing I noticed about the wine was that it was missing an “H.”
That is to say, the label on the bottle said “Ermitage”, not Hermitage, as I would expect a wine from the Rhône river valley in southern France to read. The bottle itself was dense, heavy and prodigious. When my host poured the wine it flowed out, ruby red, gorgeous in the glass. When I pulled it close to my nose the first whiff told me I was in for something truly special.
J.L. Chave Hermitage is a family-owned domaine based in Mauve, France, that has been growing vines and making wines in the northern Rhône since 1481. Over those 500-plus years, responsibility for the grapes and the fine wines that are made from them has passed from father to son, from one generation to the next. The reins are now held by a brilliant winemaker named Jean-Louis Chave, who is widely regarded as the 21st century’s master of Syrah.
When I looked in the glass at the wine it was velvet, not just in color but texture. I took a healthy swig and promptly went to heaven. Every once in a while, one tastes a wine that turns the lights on. A wine that changes everything. This glass, for me, was one of those wines.
Today the Chave family owns significant acreage on and around a granite hill called Hermitage that towers over a turn in the Rhone River. Atop the hill is a small chapel or “hermitage” which is the source of the region’s name. This rock, this mountain, this natural shrine, is home to perhaps the most significant Syrah vineyards in the world, many of which are owned by the Chave family. The dark purple grapes that grow here are the foundation for wines as powerful as they are distinctive.
To be clear, I already love Syrah. I love Syrah from California’s Central Coast. I love Syrah from the Walla Walla region in Washington state and I love Syrah from Australia’s Barossa Valley, where it is called Shiraz. But never had I tasted a Syrah like this.
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It was complex, structured, fruity, leathery, smoky, spicy and rocky. There were berries, peppers, a little chocolate, a hint of vanilla. In short all of those things that make great Syrah such a pleasure to drink. The word delicious came to mind but it did not do it justice. For more than an hour I savored my glass of wine and observed subtle changes with each sip.
My generous host told me that this “Ermitage” was from the 1990 vintage. The Chave family only made the wine in vintages that they considered to be worthy. It was a very limited bottling called a “Cuvee Cathelin” and fewer than 100 cases had been made. I did not ask how much it cost, but I expected there was an extra zero attached beyond that of any previous wine I had ever tasted. A subsequent search showed a couple of bottles were in play earlier this year that ranged from $2,500 to $3,300.
While I imagined the Cuvee Cathelin to be named after a woman, perhaps one who was beautiful, strong and powerful and whose scent lingered long after she had left, prompting a young winemaker to honor her with a special bottling, I was wrong. It turns out the wine had been named for an artist and family friend named Bernard Cathelin. He had rendered the artwork for the label, which bore the image of a bottle and a cluster of grapes. But no “H”.
At this year’s Food and Wine Classic in Aspen there will be a Reserve Wine Tasting hosted by Richard Betts, (the Master Sommelier who is overseeing an extraordinary array of Reserve Tastings) called simply “The Rhône’s Singular Best: The wines of J.L. Chave.” While I doubt the wine I tasted will be one of those poured, perhaps someone there will know something of the 1990 J.L. Cuvee Cathelin.
Perhaps they can tell me why the “H” is missing.