Without a doubt, the hospitality and generosity we felt by the Chaves were the highlight of the trip. I have always joked that my first hard core crush was the southern Rhone. But the beauty and wonder in the steeply terraced hills of the north were mesmerizing. I couldn’t quite get enough.
It began with a family in Tain l’Hermitage that welcomed us into their home. Bruno and Julie Bradley lived in a sensational turn-of-the-century home and was careful to respect that moment in time in its decor. They ran a one bedroom B&B called La Marronniere that will forever be impressed on my mind. Each morning began with a hearty (but heart friendly) petit dejuner, much of its contents Julie bought each morning as she rode her bicycle into town. We would take breakfast in a gorgeous, room reserved for her l’Attelier–hat shop. She was the person to see in all the Rhone if you were needing a handcrafted hat for any occasion. Each one more interesting than the next, it was quite the lift of spirit in that colorful, fanciful room each morning, with the tall door open wide unto the lawn. Serenity is a drab word to describe it. We’ll just say, Erin Chave (Jean-Louis’ wonderful wife) hooked us up!
We traveled to Chateauneuf du Pape and visited an old favorite the first day: Domaine Pegau. Unfortunately, the vigneron Lawrence was not there. In fact, even the assistant who was to meet us forgot and left for Nimes! Lawrence’s mother, who spoke about as much English as I do French, would not see us leave, though. She carefully took us to the cellar and gave us the lineup.
Every year–good or bad the vintage may be– these wines manage to astound me. To prove it, we were fortunate to try both a 2008 and 2009 of their main label CdP. Both demonstrated complexity of flavor and depth. The 2008 was just more open now–it was desiring consumption. But it by no means was a grandma. The 2008 defied the stereotypes of its vintage, unraveled one aroma after the next, and did not succumb to a weak timbre as so many have that I have tried. I never could have guess on taste/smell alone.
The 2009 was simply amazing. It had all the likely suspects that the 08 had—lavender, garrigue, raspberry, chewy anise, black tea leaves and a healthy dose of wild, bramble berries– the difference was in the feel of this wine. It wrapped around my tongue and held tight using its considerable tannin and noticeable (though not terribly high) acid. It was meant to stay quiet for a few more years at least.
The next morning we went to what my friend calls the ‘DRC of the Rhone’ a lofty title that goes to a region I quite possibly have the most trouble admiring: Condrieu. The place he admires so? Domaine Georges Vernay. The thing is, I can love Viognier when handled in a very particular way. Like a high school football star, if it isn’t careful and rests on its laurels, it very well can get a bit chubby on the mid-palate, by which I mean the acid falls and the opulence of this floral, peachy grape takes over everything. It can be a walk through the pristine gardens of Versaille one moment and just as easily as that person next to you on an international flight that manages to think her cheapest perfume is a wonderful idea to share with her fellow passengers.
Vernay is, without a doubt, the best in the land. I experienced this singular winery a coupe years ago at a Martine’s wine tasting in San Francisco. They perhaps had 2 bottles of the flagship Coteaux de Cornon for hundreds of people, so it was kept beneath the table for pestering people such as myself. Georges Vernay began this project in the 1950’s. His daughter Catherine, who is the current winemaker, has not only carried the torch, she has established her skills in Cote Rotie with reds.
Though we were not with Catherine herself, we did get a rigorous tasting through about 12 wines with their tasting room manager. She was a petite, smiling French woman who was only too eager to please with these ridiculously good pours. You can tell she rarely deals with people who do not approve.
These wines have the power to change one’s opinion about Viognier. It did for me, and it did for my fellow travelers. These often flamboyant, flabby whites are kept in tight and made to produce a strip tease of wonder. One element after the next is revealed in these wines. To explain it is insane, as each one of us experienced it in a completely different way. The only thing we agreed up that day was that it danced on our palates. It lured us to try again and attempt to decipher the complex message. Mostly, this message was terroir. But terroir is awful difficult to articulate.
It was finally time for our rendezvous at Chaves–a night I have looked forward to for months since it was planned. We walked up to a humble unmarked door, unsure it was the right one. We saw in small print ‘Gerard Chave’ on the bell and gave it a go. Sure enough, a polite Frenchwoman opened the door and let us in to his winery. A small line of goosebumps crawled up my spine. I didn’t need to know one thing about this historic, important winery to feel the centuries pass through me in a flash of a moment. A smiley, blonde-haired American comes out to greet us. Forget handshakes, I was getting a large hug. Chave’s wife, Erin, was the picture of American-girl-next-door perfection. She had on a black tank top, some jeans and trusty flip-slops–sandals that I swear are never to be seen on French people. I learned quickly she was a girl from Missouri, worked for Kermit Lynch, met Chave… and the rest was one massive, 17th generation history.
They now have two kiddos: Louise and Emma. The first, a well-mannered and spoken young man at the age of 6 (?). He took his role as big brother (and next heir) quite seriously. When my colleague said to him, “How does it feel to be king of this land”, as we stood atop the vineyards looking out at the Rhone, he simply answered, “It is a very nice view.” Emma, on the hand, is a force to be reckoned with, I’m calling it now! This strong-headed, hard-working farm girl of the large age of 3 1/2 was taking me around, introducing me to plants, fish, noting problems in the garden, and bringing my attention to small details I may have never seen. I observed in her an innate connection to the soil already– the evidence of Chave DNA manifested in her every movement. She was a vineyard manager in birth. A firecracker, one might describe, I could see she was a handful–but her parents lit up when they talked about her.
We got a tour of the old cellars while we tasted several samples still in barrel and learned that it wasn’t always here that his family made wine. In fact, their famed Hermitage was a purchase in the 1860’s, when land was available and not yet devastated by phylloxera. His ancestors saw an opportunity and thankfully went for it. As he generously tried us on a 1994 Hermitage Blanc, a wine that is showing very promising and marked development, though I would have wished to hang out with it a bit longer to see its evolution, he described the general history of winemaking he was able to learn through old reports and journals about his family’s estate. He had a very real sympathy for phylloxera, as the words his ancestors wrote described the horror in tangible detail. It was as though I were hearing this nightmare of a story for the first time, his execution was so genuine. No one in Europe knew what was happening for years. They just observed a decline in production, unable to understand the cause felt ‘round the country. He then showed us an old room with bottles from the 1920’s-40’s. His family hid them from the Nazis. It was a powerful sight to behold.
Finally he grabbed an unmarked bottle, gave it a rub, and we headed to the vineyards for a final tour of his St. Joseph vines. He timed it perfectly. The sun began to soften the color cast on the vines. I could see for miles the endless bumps of terraced vineyards in the region. I don’t even want to attempt to explain. It was an aesthetic height I have rarely ever reached.
We followed him to his house then, as he paved the way in Erin’s old Land Rover, trudging up the steep hills. Finally, at the top we pulled into his driveway. A tire swing hung on the tree. A garden was flourishing with tomatoes, squash and strawberries. And the sun was setting behind the Alps, which formed the backdrop for the Rhone river and valley below. We all took a walk through these Hermitage vineyards that lay in his backyard. I could see why it was so varied and complex when we were shown the vast differences in soil plots left in a patchwork fashion by glaciers and deposits. Some soils had fine loess, others decomposed granite, and still other cailloux river pebbles–like small galets one sees in Chateauneuf.
As we returned to the house, I noted it was quite modern inside yet encased in an old, preserved shell which was the outside. I loved the juxtaposition. We enjoyed an evening of excellent food, good stories, laughter and, of course, real fine wine, including the unmarked bottle of 1999 Hermitage Rouge. These moments I feel like the luckiest person in the world. And so, thank you Jean-Louise and Erin for accenting my life’s portrait with a colorful streak of fortune and felicity.