The iconic la Chapelle vineyard was already recognized by the Roman writers Martial and Pliny as one of the great wine soils of the world. Today, the company which owns that important piece of land has been renewed.
When one considers some of the world’s most successful and most famous wineries, it is striking how many have passed from one family to another. And how often those transitions have been responsible for a dramatic improvement in the quality of their wine. There are few better examples of that happening than Paul Jaboulet Aîné, owners of the iconic la Chapelle vineyard, and a name that has long been synonymous with the red wines of the Rhône Valley. As a result of earlier records having been lost, nobody knows precisely how many generations of the Jaboulet family were making wine in this region before an ambitious 27-year-old called Antoine started his company in 1834. It is known, however, that when he died 30 years later, a successful business passed into the hands of his twin sons, Paul and Henri, and that it was Paul, the eldest – l’aînéafter whom it would then be known.
The year 1864 was, coincidentally, also when La Chapelle (or the Chapel of St Christopher as it is properly known), was built on the site of a tiny church that had originally been constructed in 1235 by a wounded knight, who became a hermit on his return from the crusades. And it was, of course, that hermit after whom the entire Hermitage hill on which it stands is named. Hermitage is undeniably among the finest places to grow grapes and make wine anywhere on earth. It was described by the Roman writers Martial and Pliny 2,000 years ago and the wine it produced was often used to add body to top Bordeaux until the late 19th century.
No part of the Hermitage hill produces better wine than the vertiginously steep collection of vineyards – a set of plots including les Bessards, les Greffieux, le Méal and les Rocoules – that collectively provide the grapes for Hermitage la Chapelle. The Jaboulet family had been buying vineyards in the area for a long time, and then in 1919 acquired the historic La Chapelle itself. Over the following seven decades they produced wines that often outclassed the finest efforts of Bordeaux. Indeed the 1961 is arguably an even more legendary example of that vintage than any first growth.
Although 1990 was another great historic vintage, during the ensuing decade the family business suffered an enormous blow. In 1997, Gérard Jaboulet one of the best-known, most generous and most widely-travelled members of the wine world suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of just 55. After Gérard Jaboulet’s death, as many influential critics noted, the company seemed to lack leadership and the wines failed to live up to expectations.
The purchase in January 2006 of Paul Jaboulet Aîné by Jean Jacques Frey, a businessman whose wine roots lay in Champagne, came as a relief to many lovers of its wines. The Freys may have been newcomers to the region, but the highly talented Caroline Frey had already shown how quickly she could get to grips with a combination of unfamiliar vines and winery at Château la Lagune, which her family had bought in 1999.
Robert Parker spoke for many when he wrote a few years later that: “One needs no further evidence of the extraordinary turn around in the quality of the Jaboulet wines than what proprietress Caroline Frey has accomplished in 2009 as well as 2010. As I indicated last year, this is one of the great qualitative turn arounds in the wine world.”
While pointing out that both La Chapelle and La Lagune stand on the 45th parallel, the parallel of great wines”, Frey herself clearly relishes comparing and contrasting the two estates’ very different terroirs and grapes. Indeed, in a nod to 19th century tradition, she has even blended Syrah from the Rhône with Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the white and pink pebbles of the Medoc. Ten thousand bottles were produced in 2010, labelled as ‘Evidence par Caroline’ and legally designated as a Vin de France. As she explains : “This idea came naturally from my frequent travels between our two family wine estates and my own curiosity about the outcome of the blend, hence its my own story. And I am so pleased to see [it] is successful with wine lovers and the wine trade.”
Apart from conducting fascinating experiments like this and confronting the annual challenge of ensuring that 2,000 cases or so of la Chapelle now fulfil their potential, Frey is at pains to remind listeners about the range of other wines she is responsible for at Paul Jaboulet Aîné. “In the Rhône Valley, Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne not only find joy on the slopes of the Hermitage but also on the slopes of St. Joseph, Cornas, Côte Rôtie, Saint Péray and in the stony slopes of Crozes Hermitage. On the granite slopes of Condrieu, Viognier is king. Further south, we grow old vine Grenache and Mourvêdre for example on the stones of Châteauneuf du Pape….”
Understanding that the key to all great wines lies in the vineyards rather than the winery, Frey has begun to convert all of the viticulture to organic and biodynamic methods. Full certification is expected for the 2015 vintage and it is a project of which Frey is particularly proud: “This is a big move that has been made for these historic estates. This brings… much expression of the terroir, the wellbeing of the vines and our winemakers”. There may no longer be Jaboulets at the helm of Paul Jaboulet Aîné, but the business is still very much a family concern and very definitely in very good hands.
Domaines Paul Jaboulet Aine
Château La Lagune
Tel : +33 4 75 84 68 93
Fax : +33 4 75 84 56 14