French Wines: J. L. Chave Selection Crozes-Hermitage Silène 2010
As a single woman and an enthusiast of French wines, I have often found wine terminology extremely useful when describing my so-called dating life to my friends. For example, my most recent date was like a New World cabernet: fruit forward, borderline aggressive, and would benefit greatly with a few more years of maturation. Another gentleman was a quaffable if boring bistro wine: pleasant, but a bit dull, leaving one to wonder if the relationship would ever develop into anything more complex (it didn’t). And with both wine and men, appearances can lead to misperceptions; a baggy sweater may hide abs as chiseled as Michelangelo’s David, and a wine’s label may lead one to believe that what’s inside is better or worse than it actually is.
Such was the case with this month’s wine. Just as we can carry baggage from past relationships that have disappointed us, so can we carry baggage after having suffered from a wine region’s watery whites or overoaked reds. For me, it was a first encounter with Crozes-Hermitage in my early days of discovering French wines that left me (wrongly) swearing off wines from that northernmost village in the Rhône Valley.
Crozes-Hermitage is the largest appellation in the northern Rhône, mainly known for its red wines, of which syrah is the only red grape allowed. Perhaps because of its size—its vineyards account for half of the total in the northern Rhône—its wines are not as highly regarded as those from its neighboring appellations, such as Cornas, Côte-Rôtie and its most famous neighbor, Hermitage.
My first encounter with Crozes-Hermitage left an indelible impression of harsh tannins. I remember neither the producer nor the vintage, only that I felt as though I had just swallowed sawdust. Kissed a frog, I thought. No more Crozes-Hermitage for me. And yet here was my mistake: having tried and disliked only one bottle of Crozes-Hermitage, I swore off the entire appellation, rather like saying one wouldn’t again date a blond or a brunette after one bad experience. Until now. When I spotted this month’s wine, the J. L. Chave Selection Crozes-Hermitage Silène 2010, I knew it was time to unload my wine baggage. Certainly the name of the producer, J. L. Chave, convinced me that if any bottle was going to help me break the Crozes-Hermitage curse, this would be it. Would this frog turn out to be a prince?
Domaine Jean-Louis (J. L.) Chave was founded in 1481 in the northern Rhône Valley. The first Chaves farmed grapes in what is now the Saint-Joseph appellation but moved to Hermitage in the last century when the vine pest phylloxera decimated the majority of vineyards across Europe. Now in the capable hands of the 16th-generation vigneron Jean-Louis Chave, the domaine’s wines from Hermitage—both rouge and blanc—are considered the gold standard of wines from that appellation.
Lucky for us French wine lovers, Jean-Louis decided to highlight Hermitage’s neighboring regions with a line of wines under his own négociant label, J. L. Chave Selections, of which his Crozes-Hermitage Silène is one. Named for Silenus, the companion and tutor of Bacchus in Greek mythology, Chave’s wine is 70 percent syrah from his own vineyards and 30 percent purchased fruit.
I decided to open the Crozes-Hermitage with a girlfriend and her husband. A sort of double date, one might say. “Rustic,” I told them. “I expect this wine to be rustic and a bit rough around the edges. Think François le Champi. Like a paysan wearing overalls, chewing on hay.” We took our first sip. Violets. Cassis. We swirled our glasses and sipped again. A hint of smoke. Barbecued meat. Granite flintiness on the third sip. All in perfect balance. My friends stared back at me. “Seems to me like it’s a really elegant, good-looking guy dressed in a suit,” quipped the husband. “Yes, carrying a bunch of violets,” said my girlfriend. “And I think he’s just about to serve me pork, rabbit or pheasant that he’s hunted, cleaned and then cooked himself, seasoned with garrigue,” I said, thinking of all the lovely game with which the wine would pair.
Well, mes amis, I stand corrected. Thanks to J. L. Chave, I have dropped my Crozes-Hermitage baggage for good. I’m ready for a second date.
Editor’s note: Food and wine lovers heading to Paris might want to try one of the Girls’ Guide’s favorite cooking classes in Paris.