Geoff introduced the tasting on a personal note, first by welcoming the winemakers and wine lovers from Auckland, Hawke’s Bay, the Wairarapa and, of course, Wellington. That people were willing to travel nearly the full length of the North Island just to be in attendance was testament to the uniqueness of the tasting. On offer were 11 vintages of La Chapelle, and one of J L Chave’s Hermitage. The wines spanning 41 years, a tasting that has never been heard of in New Zealand or Australia.
Secondly, Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle was introduced as one of the five wines that helped to define Geoff’s personal style and tone of wine appreciation. A memorable wine that made an impact on him.
Before a drop was sampled, the tasting was fully hyped.
However, the tasting was unique not only because of those in attendance or the significance this wine had for the presenter. The cost sets it apart. One of the older vintages is valued at over $1000 NZD. The shelf price for the current vintage is $345 NZD. What we got was 12 examples of a famous wine for a mere $165 NZD. Geoff quoted his colleague Linden Wilkie, who used to attend Regional Wines tastings but is now based in London presenting tastings rather like these. Wilkie advised that this tasting would be priced at around £250 in London, “and would sell out instantly.”
Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle presents an interesting wine case study. Case study, what a sexy phrase, but it does have a compelling story. This wine was considered to be the ultimate syrah – the 1961 is iconic. One of the greatest red wines of any type made since the war. Although we didn’t have the 1961 on offer as part of the Library Tasting, we did have the 1978, which is the only La Chapelle that’s considered to approach the 1961. Along with the 1978, yet another draw card, there was the 100-point Robert Parker wine, the 1990 La Chapelle.
The reputation of this great wine was bruised and battered following the death of Gerard Jaboulet in 1997. With the decline of the house of Jaboulet, J L Chave became known as the pre-eminent example of syrah in the world. With the sale of Jaboulet by the Frey family in 2006, and with the reports made of the 2009 and 2010 vintages, La Chapelle has come back swinging and many believe it will reclaim top (or top-equal) billing.
Finally, I’ve been to many Library Tastings in the past few years and this one was odd for the lack of an attack on the wines. Far too often when looking at older wines there is a knee jerk reaction to shine a spotlight on the flaws of the wine, calling out the oxidation or brettanomyces present. This tasting was special in that when people talked about the wines they were able to focus on the beauty that remained.
This was one of the hardest tastings I’ve been to in terms of trying to pin down what Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle is. The variability in age, quality and the range of expression made this a hard one to truly understand with such limited exposure. With luck this never before seen tasting will have an encore.
For more on the rise and fall of Hermitage La Chapelle, Jancis Robinson provides a great read.
1969 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
Pale brick colour with a medicinal quality that persists. The nose shows lots of pink and purple florals that are just starting to decay. As the wine sits in the glass it starts to open and begins to show more complex aromas of charcoaled acorns, coated in plum jam, housed in a cedar case wrapped in a sheath of leather. (If that’s not complex, I don’t know what is.) There’s a huge amount of fruit and aromatics on this as a blind wine. The touches of decay, the pale colour and the light body all point towards an older vintage. When the actual vintage is revealed, the huge fruit and aromatics become simply staggering. The palate has retained a really healthy level of acidity and shows more fruit, lashings of vanilla and a dash of savoury spice.
1979 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
There’s something clearly green on the nose of this one, the base layer aromas on the wine evokes ideas of sprigs of mint, green capsicums and a general herbal-ness. The wine builds up from this green quality with a game-like savouriness infused with vanilla. In the mouth the wine continues to show meaty flavours along with something malty or nutty. This is paired with good tannins and a bracing acidity still. The age on the wine has the acidity sticking out sorely. There’s not much left in the tank for this old wine.
1982 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
A much more fruit forward expression with red verging on black cassis and dark plum married nicely with manuka honey, beeswax and just a touch of smoke. Apricot and citrus zings across the palate where there’s a fully intact tannin structure still in place and a clear thread of vanilla, all well balanced by the acidity. This is a love it or hate it kind of wine. Sitting staunchly in the love it camp I’m thrilled to hear Geoff proclaim that this is not the last we’ll see of this wine.
1983 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
Mellow and fragrant with soft autumnal characters making for an earthy and rustic drink, it’s not what you would call aromatic. The palate is meaty in a charcuterie, well seasoned with white pepper and a side of raisin chutney kind of way. The firm tannins are pleasantly drying, the acidity helps to retain the wine’s freshness and the finish is showing tart apple and cassis. Although fully mature, the wine is currently drinking very nicely.
1985 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
Coolest and most linear of the lineup showing more vegetative notes than fruit. There’s a savouriness like herb-crusted beef tenderloin with a side of capsicum. Sweetness on the nose and palate comes more from a dark, rich chocolate character than from any sense of fruit. The wine is akin to a cool climate cabernet sauvignon with a shadow of leafiness or a forest floor quality. The tannins and textural weightiness are there, the acid a touch too high. A wine representative of a time and place.
1989 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
Our host was disappointed that a ripeness that was showing at the time of decanting was no longer present, leaving an aged nose that was a few hours ago showing a far more lifted profile. But the wine is not to be dismissed simply for showing its age – much of the disappointment stemmed from the role this wine was expected to play based on where it sat in the lineup. So not only was this wine affected, but so were the next few that followed when tasting in sequence. I noted that the wine was showing a bit of a je ne c’est quoi, this was later described back to me as a touch of aldehyde, giving the wine something of a spirity character.
1990 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
The 1990 was rather closed on tasting and it was only towards the end, after 90 minutes or so in the glass, that you were able to uncover the concentrated cassis character that was slightly older and starting to brown. The balance of the palate was very appealing, with well integrated fine grain tannins and the freshness of clear, crisp acidity. One of the bigger wines, I would like to have seen it again on another day to see how the expression might continue to evolve.
1996 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
This was served as the first wine of the flight and on the virgin palate the acid was very high, but as you cycle through the flight and the palate becomes accustomed to the spectrum of syrah it’s experiencing, the acid and tannin become more approachable. Aromatic plums and crab apple fruit on the palate shine a positive light on the acidity. The oak on the nose is obvious, making for a rather rustic and inelegant wine however, there is the softness of red fruit and florals underpinning this rusticity. The palate shows a bready or malt-like character that is paired with over-ripe blackberries. The wine was put forward as a scene setter for the tasting, a good example of a mid-spectrum syrah.
1999 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
There was a strong pinot noir quality showing through on this wine with its lighter, softer nose, greater florality and delicacy than the rest, much lighter body and tannins as well. But for a pinot this would be rather muscular. Beefy for a pinot, puny for a syrah. The wine has an acidity that enlivens the tannins and there’s a nice harmony and balance to the wine with plenty of moss, undergrowth and forest floor expressions coming through on the palate. It was slightly reductive on the finish but on the whole enjoyable.
2009 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
For me this wine was a disappointment: bitter acid, the palate lacking fruit, the alcohol nearly burning on the finish, the tannins overly drying. The nose showed strawberries, but it was closer to artificial strawberry syrup than fresh and natural. Others noted that there was a richness and power to the wine that I just didn’t see on the night.
2010 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle
A very dark and savoury nose, with plenty of deep dark blood red roses that are too ripe, just starting to turn towards decay, and rich, dark boysenberries, again as ripe as conceivable, any riper and they’ll start the downwards turn. And with this very rich, ripe dark berries and florality there was a more savoury element, like what you get when you poach eggs in yoghurt. That acidity on the palate stands out sorely and isn’t well-balanced. An interesting wine, the complexity is there to have you swinging from thought to thought.
1999 J L Chave Hermitage
This wine shows a florality on the bouquet that’s verging on being perfumed, making for a welcoming and pleasant introduction to the wine. Overlapping these primary characteristics of fruit and florals are layers of smoke, cedar and vanilla. The wine entirely lacks the meatiness seen in the other wines in the lineup. My favourite comment from the night, which I’ve elected to appropriate, is that this is pinot noir on steroids. Showing more intensity, concentration, depth and breadth as a syrah but with the fruit aromatics and beauty of a pinot. The palate is a wondrous array of pink and purple flowers, baked black plums, savoury spice, white pepper with an exquisite execution of oak handling