LA CHAPELLE, 1969 – 2010 …
Comment by Gérard Chave of J L Chave, quoted by John Livingstone-Learmonth, 2005, p.282: ... in the background ring Gerard's trenchant words about much modern winemaking: "The uniformity imposed by new oak and overextraction are what I deplore the most these days."
Introduction and Invitation:
When it comes to syrah, for many years since the war Jaboulet’s Hermitage La Chapelle was regarded as the pre-eminent example of the grape in the world, fully ranking with grands crus from Bordeaux and Burgundy. In the early / mid-1990s however, decline set in, exacerbated by the untimely death of Gerard Jaboulet in 1997. The reputation for the top Hermitage, and thus the finest syrah in the world, passed to J L Chave. But latterly, with the late 2005 / 2006 purchase of Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné in its entirety by the Frey family, owners of Ch La Lagune in Margaux (and linked with champagne-house Billecart-Salmon too), there is every sign with the 2009 and 2010 vintages, that La Chapelle will soon be restored to top or top-equal billing.
This Library Tasting offers 11 vintages of La Chapelle, and one of J L Chave’s Hermitage, the wines spanning 41 years. So the first thing to casually mention is, you would almost certainly need to go to somewhere like London, if you wanted to find a tasting like this. We have never heard of anything like it in New Zealand (or even Australia). And the second key point is, check the price ($NZ165), then pause and consider you are tasting 12 examples of a famous wine, spanning 41 years, for a price equal to half a bottle. One of the older vintages in this tasting has a wine-searcher valuation of over $NZ1,000 a bottle. The current shelf price of the recent vintages is around $345.
Another compelling aspect to this tasting is, it includes 1990 La Chapelle, a 100-point Robert Parker wine, and along with the 1978, the only La Chapelle in recent decades considered to approach the 1961. Jaboulet’s 1961 Hermitage La Chapelle is widely regarded as one of the greatest red wines of any type made since the war – in the top 10. It remains the ultimate syrah. This tasting should give us an inkling of what it is like.
Finally, there will be one fine syrah in the tasting that is not La Chapelle. What better wine to calibrate Hermitage La Chapelle than 1999 J L Chave Hermitage, a great year there. How many of us have been in a position to ever compare these two great syrahs, alongside each other. This will be a tasting to remember.
Conclusions from the tasting:
This was considered an exciting tasting, which sold out quickly. Tasters came from Auckland, and syrah winemakers came from Hawkes Bay, to share in such a rare set of wines. On the night, people seemed pleased with what they found, even though it was remarkable how many different variations on the La Chapelle winestyle won through to be somebody’s favourite wine of the night – eight of the 12 wines. Our findings reflected the view documented by Jancis Robinson (in 2006), and widely held, that the quality of Hermitage La Chapelle deteriorated sadly in the latter years of the Jaboulet regime. 1990 can be considered the last of the classic great Jaboulet La Chapelles. Conversely, with Caroline Frey now at the helm, 2009 and particularly the 2010 can be regarded as the opening wines for a wonderful new era for this label. There has been some comment that perhaps there is just a bit too much Bordeaux styling in these new wines, so far, but this seems carping. The distinction and precise varietal character of the syrah fruit in the 2010 is both enviable and admirable – and immediately places this label back amongst the pre-eminent syrahs of the world.
The top five Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelles in this exciting tasting presented a startling, but rewarding, range of styles, collectively illustrating what a rewarding grape temperate-climate syrah can be. From the left, 1969 La Chapelle, very much needing decanting and breathing (just for age, not reduction), surprisingly rich, marking 18 well-breathed; 1982 La Chapelle clearly a different, fragrant, sweeter style as it has been from the outset, reminders of some Cote de Nuits wines, 18 +; 2009 La Chapelle a big, rich, plush wine flirting with over-ripeness, 18.5; 1990 La Chapelle along with the 2010 showing near-perfect ripeness of syrah, still cassis aromatics apparent, fully mature, top wine for three people, 19, and 2010 La Chapelle, in practical terms a perfect example of fine syrah in its youth, intense cassis and dark plum, aromatic, long and exciting, 19 +.Background to Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle:
Now that Michael Broadbent has stepped back from active wine-writing, the two wine people I read most are the rather hard-marking Jancis Robinson and the more ebullient Robert Parker (sensu stricto). Robinson shared in a vertical of La Chapelle in November 2005, which covered the vintages 1955 – 2000. Between them, and their no-nonsense writing style and pan-Atlantic perspective on wine, the truth is often to be found. Nowadays too, for the Rhone Valley one also has to consult John Livingstone-Learmonth, who writes in a most engaging yet old-fashioned style, with a remarkable level of factual detail.
As noted earlier, Robert Parker in June 2000 referred to 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle as: 'This is unquestionably one of the greatest wines made in the twentieth century. In the two dozen tastings where I have had the 1961 La Chapelle, I rated it 100 points twenty times.' Other wine authorities have expressed similar views. Sadly we do not have the 1961, it having achieved prices of up to $US28,500 per bottle at auction in recent years. We do however have the 1990, thanks to John Comerford, and the 1989, thanks to Mike Parker. Second only to the 1978 (which we also lack), these two vintages have (according to some) the reputation of showing something of the calibre of the 1961. However Jancis Robinson’s late-2005 tasting of 33 vintages did not include the 1978 or the 1989 in her top wines. Instead she listed: 1961, 1964, 1972, 1982, 1990. Note we have the 1982, as well as the 1990. We also have the 2009, which Parker describes as: '... the 2009 Hermitage La Chapelle is easily the greatest, most profound La Chapelle since the 1990.', and the 2010, which all agree is scarcely less, and slightly fresher. We will see.
In the handout for the Tasting I paraphrased Robinson’s write-up of her Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle vertical tasting, to set the scene for tasters. Though it makes this introduction less self-contained, for publication it seems more appropriate to link to her January 2006 summary review, here, which is free issue on her website. The individual reviews remain behind the pay-wall. Her coverage of La Chapelle vintages is one of the most complete on her website, outside the wines of Bordeaux.
La Chapelle the wine:
Based on Livingstone-Learmonth's summary for La Chapelle on his website and in his celebrated book 'The Wines of the Northern Rhone', the general approach to making the wine is: the wine all syrah, Le Méal the main vineyard, then Les Bessards, some Rocoules, average vine age 40 years; the grapes destemmed, cooled, usually c.22 days cuvaison, some oxygenation; for the 2009 and 2010 now 20% new oak, the balance 1 – 3 year oak barrique-sized, c.12 – 15 months depending on season, then 3 months (presumably assembly) in vat; at one stage some fining and filtering, not clear currently; production up to 1990 or a little later understood to be less than 4,000 cases, some years half that, progressively through balance of century and till Freys took over increasing to a max known of 8,900 cases from the same strictly delimited area, so this very much a factor in the absolute decline of the wine; since 2007 decreasing to historical levels again, the 2009 (a reduced crop year) just under 2,000 cases.
Below is a Table indicating the approximate quality of each vintage, and four wine-writer summary views of the achievement for La Chapelle the wine in each vintage, expressed simply as their score for the wine. Further information is included in the notes for each vintage.
Table 1: To the left the Wine Spectator / Michael Broadbent vintage rating for the Northern Rhone Valley each year, then four wine-writer ratings per year for Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle: 1969 – 2010
|Year||Vintage Rating |
WS1 / MB2
|Broadbent 3||Robinson 4||J. L-L5||Parker 6|
|2008||WS 86||–||–||not made||–|
|1990 ✲ 1||MB ✶✶✶✶✶||✶✶✶✶✶||18.5||✶✶✶✶✶✶||100|
|1989 ✲||MB ✶✶✶✶||✶✶✶✶✶||18+||✶✶✶✶||96|
|1985 ✲||MB ✶✶✶✶✶||✶✶✶(✶)||16.5||✶✶✶✶✶||95|
|1981||MB ✶✶✶||–||16 –||✶✶(✶)||68|
|1979 ✲||MB ✶✶✶✶||✶✶✶✶||16||✶✶✶✶✶||90|
|1978 ✲||MB ✶✶✶✶✶||✶✶✶✶✶||18.5+||✶✶✶✶✶✶||100|
|1976 ✲||MB ✶✶✶✶||✶✶✶||15||✶✶✶✶✶||87|
|1969 ✲||MB ✶✶✶✶✶||✶✶✶||15||✶✶✶✶✶||89|
1. Wine Spectator ratings per year for the Northen Rhone Valley go back to 1995, then “notable years” only, indicated by ✲ placed by year.
2. The Michael Broadbent ratings required some interpolation. The ratings given for the Northern and Southern Rhone Valleys are sometimes combined. For some years, clarifying detail in the text allows an inference for the North to be made.
3. In one of the more astonishing omissions from Broadbent's first great vintage notes book (1980), the Rhone Valley was not covered.
4. Jancis Robinson and Julia Harding scores only, averaged where appropriate.
5. John Livingstone-Learmonth marks out of 6 stars, the latter used very rarely indeed.
6. Most recent score, latterly Joe Czerwinski, then Jeb Dunnuck, before 2000 Robert Parker.
The Wine Spectator rating for the years is used, because in my experience, their summary of the character of a vintage (in general) is more accurate than Robert Parker / The Wine Advocate, due to the latter rating bigger wines higher, and liking acid less. There is a slightly more European sensibility in the Wine Spectator evaluation of the vintage, as a whole. Parker's particular affinity with the syrahs of the Northern Rhone Valley means he has a better feel for the individual wines, however, and he uses descriptors more carefully and understandably.
The success of this tasting owed much to discussion with, and critical bottles being supplied by, John Comerford, Wellington, and Mike Parker, Masterton. Thank you both.
Broadbent, Michael 2002: Michael Broadbent’s Vintage Wine. Harcourt, 560 p.
Broadbent, Michael 2003: Michael Broadbent’s Wine Vintages. Mitchell Beazley, 223 p.
Livingstone-Learmonth, John: The Wines of the Northern Rhone. University of California Press, 704 p.
Parker, Robert M. 1987: The Wines of the Rhone Valley and Provence. Simon & Schuster, 457 p.
Parker, Robert M. 1997: Wines of the Rhone Valley. Simon & Schuster, 685 p.
Robinson, Jancis, 2006: Hermitage La Chapelle – the rise and fall of a great wine. https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/hermitage-la-chapelle-the-rise-and-fall-of-a-great-wine
www.drinkrhone.com John Livingstone-Learmonth, subscription needed for detail
www.robertparker.com Robert Parker, but latterly more his deputies, subscription needed for reviews
www.jancisrobinson.com Jancis Robinson MW and Julia Harding MW, subscription needed for reviews
THE WINES REVIEWED – SYRAH:
The first ‘price’ shown below is the 2014 wine-searcher world value, expressed in $NZ. The Jaboulet website is not always accessible, and lacks information.
Ruby, carmine and velvet, without doubt the deepest wine. Bouquet is wonderfully rich and fresh, fresh enough to retain cassis though this is just on the cusp, grading to darkest bottled plum (black doris), lovely aromatic complexity in which subliminal black pepper on subtle new oak adds depth. This is much more dynamic and vital than the 2009, much more exciting. Flavours match the bouquet beautifully, again much fresher, tightly wound, more like the 1990, very dry, very good concentration and length in mouth. A magical syrah might have a greater floral component than this wine, but even so this is text-book. I did not taste the 1990 as a young wine, and the 1978 was never sold at retail in New Zealand, so this is the most impressive young La Chapelle in my experience. A heritage wine. It was clearly the most liked wine by the group, with six first-place rankings. Cellar 15 – 45 years, to judge from the 1969. GK 09/14
Ruby and velvet, the second bottle young for its age, clearly younger than the 1996 or 1999, the third deepest in colour. Bouquet is quiet, understated, not because it is reductive, just because it is incredibly taut. There are browning cassis and bottled black-doris plum components, like the 2010 maybe a hint of black pepper tied up in the oak, and amazingly, as the wine breathes up in the glass, 24 hours later it is fresher, much closer to the 2010, not the 2009. This surprised me, my general experience of 1990 French wines being the year was somewhat too warm for the aromatic characters I seek. Flavours follow logically, a really taut palate, not rich or heavy but very satisfying. The browning cassis component is now dominant, with a hint of brown mushroom. It is astonishing how akin these two wines are, despite there being 20 years between them: they stand above the others. Lovely now, but will cellar another 20 years. Three people had this as their favourite wine. The first bottle opened showed unacceptable oxidation, despite the cork appearing perfect – always an acute disappointment in a bottle at this value. John Comerford generously equipped the tasting with two bottles, in case. GK 09/14
Ruby, carmine and velvet, not quite the saturation of the 2010, the second deepest. The purity of berry aromas in this wine is a delight, but the more you look at it, the more you realise it is a bigger, softer, plusher and less aromatic wine than the 2010. It is much harder to isolate a cassis component here, or a hint of pepper. In a slight step towards subtlest Australian examples of the grape (as shiraz), the oak here is more the source of the aromatics. Palate is not as good as the bouquet, the tannins are obtrusive, and the complexity of flavour is less, even though the wine is weighty. In terms of my ripening curve for syrah, this wine is tip-toeing into a warmer-climate expression of the grape, lacking complexity. It is still a wonderfully powerful expression of syrah, but there is little hope of a floral component. I expected this wine to be well-liked, but no first-places. Cellar 10 to 45 years. 09/14
This is clearly a mature wine in appearance, lighter garnet and ruby, the colour midway in depth. Bouquet is very particular, showing perfectly the bush-honey aromatic complexity that both Les Jumelles and La Chapelle have had since day one in this vintage, on mellow browning berry aromas in which there is a suggestion of a rich old Cote de Nuits wine. There are nearly some floral notes. Palate is supple and harmonious, more tannin backbone than any pinot noir would show, with a clear suggestion of pepper in the grape tannins. You feel the new oak component was less, then. People either liked this wine very much, two top places, or found it not appealing at all, a little too much outside their experience, with several least-liked votes. Fully mature to fading a little now: it was never a big wine, even in its youth. GK 09/14
Ruby and garnet, below midway, but good for its years. This is the only one of the wines to clearly smell older at the tasting, in the sense that there is a leathery and older cooperage note to it, but it is certainly not the weakest. Some tasters were attracted to the leathery maturity, one rating it their top wine, and none their least. In mouth the richness is surprising for its age, the wine comparing more with the 1989 and the 1990, than any of the others. It was still opening up in the glass, long after the tasting was finished. Intriguing wine suggesting a concentration / low cropping rate not so evident in many of the younger wines. No hurry at all, will easily make a half-century. But open this wine well ahead of presenting it, decant it, and leave it to breathe. Score is well-breathed. GK 09/14
Ruby and some velvet, right in the middle for depth. One sniff and this wine is wildly different from all the La Chapelles. The reason is the remarkable floral component, embracing carnations, pinks and dianthus, not so much wallflower. Such a volume of florality immediately puts one on guard, is it accompanied by leafyness or stalkyness in the wine. In mouth I think it clearly is stalky, even though the wine is a vivid expression of syrah. There is a hard edge to the grape tannins, so this wine is the polar opposite of 2009 La Chapelle. One could say that between these two poles lies the truth in terms of syrah varietal complexity. My recollection of the 2009 Chave is it has the weight of 2010 La Chapelle, but is even fresher and hence more floral. This is an exciting wine, five people rated it their top wine, and two their least. Cellar 5 – 15 years, but it may end up a little dry, on those not-quite-perfectly-ripe grape tannins. GK 09/14
Soft, warm almost rosy ruby and garnet – this could be a rich pinot noir. Bouquet is delightfully fragrant, and there is only one word to characterise it, autumnal. Yet it is sweet and pure. On palate the wine is intriguing: for those of us who have wondered how long 1983 La Chapelle would need to lose its tannin, here is the answer: till about now. But there is still a lovely tannin structure, now rounded and mellow, the wine showing very little evidence of new oak. With some kinds of food, this would be enchanting. And how good to see a well-constituted but formerly tanniny wine finally condense its tannins, and emerge from its chrysalis. So many commentators wondered if it ever would. Some even sent their wine to auction ... It should hold this harmonious autumnal phase for 10 years or so, though it is clearly drier than the 1982. Two people had the 1983 as their top wine of the set, and two their least. GK 09/14
Ruby and garnet, the weight of an old Corton (say), the lightest wine. It is not pale on bouquet however, there still being attractive vinosity, and only a hint of decay. In mouth it is like the 1982, rather lovely fruit, an aromatic backbone, intriguing flavours, all a little firmer than the 1982, and still showing nearly a hint of black peppercorn. It is also reminiscent of the 1999 La Chapelle, but more concentrated even though 20 years older. Fully mature now, no hurry. Tasters did not warm to this wine as much as I did, four ranking it their least wine. [ Disregard date shown for review, is 9/14 – a site technical hitch ]. GK 08/14
Attractive ruby and garnet, glowing, the second to lightest colour. Bouquet is simply charming. It is not a big wine, but it is remarkably pretty, and it shows appropriate ripeness. It is much older and lighter than the Chave 1999. This wine too shows an almost burgundian appeal, though the tannin balance is firmer than any burgundy. It is just the lack of concentration that lets the wine down. As observed recently in other syrah tastings, it is worth remembering that Prof Saintsbury did say that Hermitage is the most ‘manly’ of wines. Pretty well mature now, will lighten gracefully for another 5 – 10 years. One person had this 1999 as their favourite wine of the evening. GK 09/14
Ruby, garnet and velvet, above midway in depth. This is really perplexing wine. Freshly opened, it was well-berried and aromatic, yet by the time of the tasting it seemed almost oxidised and collapsed. Then with further time in the glass, it freshened up a great deal. Old wines are so unpredictable. So the message seems to be, either decant and present the wine straight away, or leave it to breathe in the decanter for several hours. Freshly opened it reminded of the 2009, heaps of fruit, tending over-ripe. Well breathed, it is closer to the 1983 the way it used to be, rich fruit but drying tannins, not much evidence of new oak. Either way, this will cellar for another 5 – 15 years. Not a favourite with anybody, and three people had the 1989 as their least wine of the set. I look forward to seeing the next bottle, in case today's wine has suffered from an imperfect cork. GK 09/14
Ruby, some garnet and velvet, above midway in depth. This is a much richer and more concentrated wine than the 1999, it is clearly syrah and in style for La Chapelle, but it lacks the charm of the 1999. Total acid is on the high side, and this makes the tannins seem hard and austere. The actual flavours are good, a lot of browning cassis, new oak nicely in balance, but all lean and sinewy, seeming very dry. This will cellar for another 5 – 15 years, but it is unlikely to lose the acid. The 1996 did not arouse strong feelings in any taster. GK 09/14
Ruby and garnet, just below midway in depth of colour. In its mature way, this smelt the least ripe of the set. There was almost a leafy suggestion, and redcurrants rather more than black. Palate follows on logically, total acid up a bit, the flavours austere, though by no means weak. This will hold its present level of achievement another 5 – 10 years at least. The puzzling thing (to me) is, my initial experience of the wine at release, alongside the Delas Northern Rhone range of wines, was very different, the wine then seeming rich and ripe. I suspect this is a scalped bottle (that is, TCA below threshold), even though no such comments were forthcoming. I look forward to the next bottle, therefore. Two people rated the 1985 their top wine, but four their least. GK 09/14