Heady trove from the Rhone Valley

The current thirst for Burgundy seems to have reached the point where one is likely to ask, "What, another burg?". Of late, while picking out wines for the table, I make a conscious effort to look at the regions that I have neglected in recent times, notably the Rhone Valley.

We used to have Rhone bottles on the table more often when Gerard Jaboulet of Paul Jaboulet Aine of T'Ain l'Hermitage used to visit us every year. Sadly, an untimely illness took him away in September 1997 in his prime at just 55, a huge loss to the wine world.

The Frey family (owners also of Chateau La Lagune, and with interests in Champagne Billecart Salmon) acquired the company in 2005, and the wine press reported in 2010 that the La Chapelle is at last beginning to look like its old self.

While waiting for Jaboulet's La Chapelle to be restored to its former glory under the Frey stewardship, I began looking at other sources of Hermitage. The obvious choices were Gerard Chave, the most famous producer of Hermitage apart from Gerard Jaboulet's. And Marc Sorrel.

Hermitage "La Greal" 2000, Marc Sorrel

Tasting notes: An opaque very dark brownish red, with a lush, rather heavy bouquet of ripe berry fruit, black and red; still very youthful on the palate but quite closed (particularly on first night ) - it only fully opened on the third day). A very dense, highly concentrated wine, very big and lush with a firm dense core. Not enough freshness to balance the big lush fruit.

Perhaps still too young and may need another two to three years. It's actually quite an attractive wine, but clearly not quite fully developed. A very big, broad-shouldered wine.

This domaine is now run now by Marc Sorrell who took over after the death of his father Henri in 1984. The estate owns some 4 hectares of Hermitage vineyards.

In the past, following his father's practice, the Domaine made two cuvees of Hermitage, a "classique" from 25-year-old vines in one Les Plantiers vineyard.

But since 1992, Marc Sorrel has been making only one Hermitage, the "Le Greal", a blend of older vines from the two best lieux dits of Hermitage. This cuvee ranks among the top six Hermitages produced in the Rhone Valley. ("Rhone Renaissance", Remington Norman, 1995).

Still, I wasn't quite happy with this Sorrel, so the next evening, I turned to Chave.

Hermitage 2002, Gerard Chave

Tasting notes: Still a youthful garnet red with just a light touch of brown. A light, fresh and sweet perfume of fruit and flowers, very enticing.

The bright freshness was the immediate first impression from the very first mouthful, so refreshing that it just dominated the whole tasting.

A well balanced wine, not heavy but a good medium in weight and density. Very impressive, perfect ripeness of fruit, accompanied by very good minerality, long clean finish, leaving a palate refreshed. Interestingly, the texture and weight of this Hermitage bordered on lightness and transparency. A lovely wine. More or less at peak.

The difference between the two was very striking. Without demeaning Marc Sorrel's Le Greal, this Hermitage of Chave was clearly superior.

Gerard & Jean-Louis Chave

Clearly now the greatest estate in Hermitage, it is indeed one of the greatest wine estates in France. The winery is situated in Mauves, and the exterior faces the main road running down from Tain.

A rather faded metal sign denotes the site. You ring the bell and as often as not, the small (inset) door of the great gate of the winery yard opens and a questioning face appears!

You then enter through this door into the courtyard of the winery and thence to the cellar door, descending into the maze of rooms which constitute the cellar. On our earliest visits in the late 1980s, we were received by Gerard himself, and later in the 1990s by his son Jean-Louis.

Barrel tasting in the Chave cellars is literally barrel tasting. The fruit from each different vineyard parcel of Hermitage is separately vinified and aged, only taken into the blend when deemed to be finally ready.

Barrel tasting with Gerard the father was a great learning lesson about Hermitage. It involved tasting the young wine from different vineyard plots ("climats" in French) in the great Hermitage vineyard.

Gerard would patiently explain the characteristics of each separate plot, and we would taste the wines and vainly try to remember the qualities which distinguished one plot from another. It was hard work, but fascinating and a great learning experience.

What impressed one most was that here in the cellars of one of France's greatest wine estates, the wine-grower had the patience, and the respect for his Asian guests, to explain the characteristics of the wine from the different climats of Hermitage.

It is such sincerity and dedication, experienced in some of Euope's greatest wine estates in Europe, which become indelible memories and humbles you. These are serious, honest artists in the truest and purest sense of the word.

And when one tastes and experiences their wines so far away from their cellars, one cannot but be awed by the dedication and humility of the winemakers involved.

I am honoured to have known them, and proud to call them my friends.

This article was first published on May 8, 2015. Get The Business Times for more stories.