A Vertical of Chave Hermitage: from Modernity to Tradition with Surprises Along the Way (Eucalyptus!)

Having been drinking Chave Hermitage for more than twenty years, and having made a pilgrimage to the source, where there was an extensive tasting of barrel samples, I thought I had a pretty good bead on Chave Hermitage both old and young, but I was surprised by the wines between the current era and the very oldest at a vertical extending back to 1978.

The first flight showed striking variations of style, reflecting extreme vintage variation. The 2005 was decidedly a modern wine, all youthful power of spice and black fruits waiting to subside, but the potential for future development along classic lines was revealed by a faintly animal note to the nose. The 2004 started with vegetal notes, clearing in the glass to a more traditional fruit spectrum, but somehow never quite coming to life. Not much in the way of great wine came out of the south of France in 2002, the year of the floods, but the 2002 showed nice restraint, more red fruits than black, in a style admittedly much lighter than usual.

The next flight was frankly a puzzle, as all the wines were characterized by eucalyptus and menthol, in varying strengths from a medicinal wintergreen on 2001, although lightening in the glass, to faint notes in the background of the lighter 2000, to a more subtle impression of high toned aromatics on 1999. All developed faint notes of tobacco on the finish.

This theme continued with variations through the third flight, with 1998 faintly perfumed, floral, and phenolic, and mentholated notes rising a bit obviously above the somewhat monotonic fruits; it was more subtle the last time I had it, a few years back, so age has restricted rather than broadened it. 1997 was a classic nose with leather and perfume, and that slight touch of menthol, but at this point the most subtle wine of the nineties; and 1992 was frankly overwhelmed by eucalyptus.

Going back further, we returned to familiar ground. The 1990 was the knockout of the tasting, perfect balance, fragrant with mature fruits well past primary, but less animal than it has been previously, and not yet tertiary. The 1988 would have showed a somewhat similar style but was slightly corked. The 1978 was a much older version of the 1990, fragrant like old Bordeaux, quite delicate.

The old vintage of Chave with which I’m most familiar is 1985, as I’ve been finishing off a case, and taking that as my benchmark, the 1990 seems like a decade younger version, and the 1978 like a decade older. But I can see a clear lineage here, from the modern 2005 to the traditional 1978, with 1990 and 1985 fitting in along the way and showing appropriate development. I’m frankly puzzled by the wines between 2004 and 1992, where the varying strength of eucalyptus seems to cloud assessment.

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