CHICAGO WINE JOURNAL: Classic art of Jaboulet’s new Chapelle mistress
By Lawrence B. Johnson
Since my earliest forays into French wines, the brightest stars in my firmament have consistently included the patrician Hermitage La Chapelle produced by Paul Jaboulet Aîné in France’s Northern Rhône Valley. So it was little short of enchanting to step back through time at a vertical tasting of this great expression of Syrah at a recent Chicago seminar sponsored by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
What made the occasion doubly intriguing was the presenter: the youthful winemaker Caroline Frey, whose family, longtime owners of the famed Château La Lagune in Bordeaux, acquired Jaboulet and all its vineyards back in 2006.
Frey has been making the wine at Jaboulet ever since her family took ownership, and the three recent examples of her work on display – Hermitage La Chapelle from 2012, 2011 and 2009 – testified to her skill and indeed to the renaissance of a label that had seen some erosion in its general regard during the 1990s. Steadily pushing Jaboulet toward bio-dynamic farming – that is, eliminating herbicides and other forms of chemical treatment – Frey has created nothing less than a new generation of Hermitage La Chapelle that recaptures the depth, intensity and indeed profundity of one of the world’s greatest wines.
Hermitage La Chapelle bears the name of a small stone chapel atop the Hermitage Hill on the east bank of the upper Rhône River.
It may have been Bacchus himself who sprinkled magic wine dust over these slopes, which support splendorous vineyards of Syrah. Hermitage La Chapelle, by the way, is not a single-vineyard wine but a blend of grapes from four lots on the celebrated hill.
Here’s what I found in the five-vintage vertical extending back from recent wines by Frey to Jaboulet classics from yesteryear. The prices cited are typical but variable; and while you might locate all three of the Frey wines in better shops, the two oldest vintages more likely would be auction finds.
- Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 2012 – Here’s a grandly constructed wine that’s going to be classic. For now, the characteristic La Chapelle notes of leather, blackcurrant, smoke and game vie with pronounced, albeit ripe, tannins in this dark purple wine. Give it a decade of cellaring and you’ll be, well, at the onset of its early maturity. ($149)
- Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 2011 – This is a lighter version and already more evolved than the 2012. The fruit in the rather soft 2011 La Chapelle is generous enough, but I doubt the wine has the acid-tannin framework to warrant extended aging. It makes for delicious drinking now, though. ($145)
- Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 2009 – Happy to add my voice the chorus of alleluias for this sensational wine, a hedonistic amalgam of dark cherry, leather and tobacco, rich in body and framed by precise acidity. The 2009 La Chapelle leaves nothing to be desired in present drinking – but at the same time it holds very great promise for cellaring. ($245)
- Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1991 – This one of course pre-dates Caroline Frey’s arrival on the Hermitage Hill. Now 24 years old, it’s an elegant example of Jaboulet La Chapelle in its glory years, or perhaps at a pause in them. Despite a brick-red rim, the 1991 is in robust condition. ($275)
- Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle 1983 – I fell instantly in love with the focused red-fruit nose of this grande dame, and sniffed and sniffed before I ever tasted. Its color has paled some and the fruit has dried, but only to a certain grand and noble effect. A lovely reminder of the majesty of Jaboulet’s La Chapelle of old. ($200)