France’s 50 best winemakers: Jean-Louis Chave of Domaine Jean-Louis Chave

Winemaker of the storied family-run estate: “Passion isn’t something you can pass down”.

Our next interview in Le Figaro Vin’s series finds us in the Northern Rhône, where we meet Jean-Louis Chave, who stands at #8 in the rankings, a winemaker perpetuating not only his family’s legacy but that of an entire region.

The sixteenth generation in a long line of winemakers, Jean-Louis Chave has proven to be a worthy successor. His wines, known for their precision and purity, express all the character of the Hermitage terroir. During the 1990s, the Rhône winemaker set himself a new goal: to reinvest in the Bachasson hillside, located in Saint-Joseph, the very place where the family’s ancestors began their viticultural journey. From the start of his career, Jean-Louis Chave turned to practices of days past to tend to his vineyard. Long before receiving the certification it holds today, the estate was already employing organic methods. However, the winemaker does not want to rest on the laurels of his success, in France and around the world, but remains on a relentless quest for perfection. Through this interview, we meet with a man of remarkable humility.

Le Figaro Vin: How does it feel to be crowned a winemaking champion?

Jean-Louis Chave – This achievement is thanks to the terroirs that we represent, and we strive to live up to their standards. The winemaker is entirely reliant on the terroir – there is no great winemaker without great terroir.

Have you been training for long?

For us, it’s a family affair, as I’m a sixteenth-generation winemaker. This makes me think about the question of transmission, which I’ve often thought about and continue to think about now I have children.

What are we passing down?

You can pass down a profession, and all its ways of working, but passion isn’t something you can pass down. I started working in the vines in 1992 or 1993, it’s been 30 years now. This is a long-term commitment, the practice of winemaking. An athlete will try to repeat an achievement or try to improve on it in a short amount of time, but us winemakers, we need to wait a cycle, an entire year, to express ourselves again. Rather than speaking of training, I prefer to think of it in terms of interpreting the terroir. To really achieve this, you must understand it, and this takes time.

Who is your mentor?

My father, definitely. But also, the wine enthusiasts who follow our approach, to whom we have a sense of responsibility, a duty of excellence.

Is wine a team sport?

Yes, especially in our region, where the vineyards are planted on steep slopes, and are cultivated the same way my ancestors cultivated them, without any machinery. We think of ourselves as “gardener-winemakers”. You need one and a half people per hectare of vines, whereas, in other regions, one person can easily cover 12 to 15 hectares.

What is the key to making a good wine? The terroir or the team?

What counts is the terroir. The winemaker is just an interpreter. They mustn’t damage what Nature has given them; they are there to accompany the terroir to its fullest expression, which is the wine they will make from it.

To what do you owe your success?

To our good fortune in having certain terroirs that have been in our family for a very long time. We also owe it to our philosophy of a job well done, and to our craftsmanship that has developed over the years, always driven by the idea of continuous improvement.

Is your father proud of you? And your children?

With my father, I think the pride goes both ways, the satisfaction of seeing the story continue to unfold. As for my children, I don’t want to force them to be part of our story, of our profession. It needs to come from them. That’s another philosophy we’ve always embraced: that our story, no matter how long, can end, or transform itself. The Hermitage was here before us, and whatever happens, it will be here long after us.

Who has been your biggest sponsor throughout your career?

The world of wine enthusiasts, the people who encourage us in our work. Wine exists when it is enjoyed, when it conveys an emotion, a reaction. These emotions, these reactions, they encourage us to keep telling our story. Restaurateurs also play a very important role because they give life to our wines.

Your favourite colour?

The gradient of greens you find in the natural world, and the blue of the sky. As for wines, you can’t separate what you drink from what you eat, so the colour is going to depend on the dish. Ideally, you would pick a wine and adapt the dish to it. Unfortunately, we are living in a time where chefs receive a lot of media attention, which means wine often plays second fiddle.
Your favourite variety?

Our form of expression is Syrah for the reds, Marsanne and Rousanne for the whites. I can’t say I prefer Syrah to Marsanne, it’s like being asked to pick your favourite child. The variety matters little, what really matters is the terroir. The variety is the prism through which the terroir is expressed.

Your favourite cuvée?

Historically, at the estate, our favourite cuvées have been Hermitage wines. It’s my generation’s mission to give a certain importance to another appellation which is hard to define, but very captivating: Saint-Joseph. We are trying to raise the bar.

Your three favourite vintages?

I would say 1991, a vintage that has fully matured, and that embodies what a great wine of Hermitage should be.

If your wine was a person, who would it be?

I would want it to be someone who resembles the terroir it hails from. When you make a wine, you think of its hills, of its landscapes. What I want is for people, when they taste our wine, to recognise a piece of its birthplace. For those who don’t know our terroirs, I hope they find the harmony, the softness, the strength, and the colours that characterise the great wines of Hermitage.

What’s the best way to enjoy it?

The best way to discover our wine is always with food, whether it’s at a restaurant, or sitting around a table at home.

Have you ever thought about chemically enhancing your estate?

What is chemical enhancement? Adding a bit of sugar, a bit of tartaric acid, the tannins brought by oak? What counts, is remaining true to yourself, and true to the wine. Wine must be natural, not in the sense that it’s free from additives, but in the sense that it must be true, sincere. It takes work, despite all this, to ensure wine is its truest expression, in relation to its origins and to what it should be. You can’t take a hands-off, laissez-faire approach, because without any intervention, wine would be vinegar! It’s a fine line: you must stay close to the purest of truths, but that isn’t going to happen automatically. At the estate, everything is organised so we can do as little as possible, but we sometimes need to accompany the wine so it can express itself fully.

For what price would you be prepared to sell your estate?

Everything is meant for the estate to remain in the family, but should that not be the case, we will probably sell, and this sale will be its own kind of transmission. It won’t be a question of price, because the most important question is knowing who will be taking on the estate and turning a new leaf in its story.

What is your greatest achievement?

The vine-covered slopes of Saint-Joseph, including one that belonged to my family from 1481 until the phylloxera epidemic in 1880. My ancestors worked on those steep slopes for almost 400 years and were forced to abandon them without really understanding what was happening. I’m proud of having been able to replant them, over 100 years later. They are located close to a town called Bachasson, next to a place known as Chave. I started this long-term project in 1995, and the last vines were replanted in 2007.

What has been your most innovative strategy in the vineyard and in the cellar?

My most innovative strategy has been working just as they did back in the day. When I first started, people would tell me: “You work like they did in the olden days.” At the time, what was groundbreaking was knowing all the names of the chemical molecules, or working with chemistry, whereas now, if you’re working with chemistry you’re stuck in the olden days! I’ve been interested in biodynamics for 15 years. I had counterparts and friends in other regions that followed biodynamic principles – Aubert de Villaine (previously co-manager of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, ed.) for example. I can’t explain why, but I feel like this method works.

Who would be your ideal successor on the podium?

There is no hierarchy: it could be a young, passionate winemaker who does their job right, with a bright future. Every winemaker who does their job right deserves all the recognition they get.

France’s 50 best winemakers: Nicolas Audebert of Vignobles Chanel
France’s 50 best winemakers: Perrine Fenal and Bertrand de Villaine of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

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