Hermitage La Chapelle – the rise and fall of a great wine

A week ago I wrote with some admiration about the Australian wine trade’s marketing skills. One recent Australian wine marketing development of which I thoroughly disapprove however is a new set of terms. The most basic stuff is called ‘premium’, more ambitiously priced wine is ‘super premium’ and finally there are wines that are designated ‘icon wines’, those they try to foist on us at quite outrageous prices. Icons surely have to earn their status from their consumers rather than have it created on PowerPoint by their producers.
When I started writing about wine 30 years ago, there was one wine which truly enjoyed iconic status, Hermitage La Chapelle 1961. Practically everyone serious about wine then – though we were admittedly only a tiny fraction of the number of today’s wine fanatics – had a story to tell about this wine. How they nearly tasted it, how it knocked the socks off the almost equally famous Château Latour 1961, how they drove three hours up the M1 to drink the last two bottles off a restaurant’s wine list. I certainly appreciate wine writer Julian Jeffs QC’s sharing one of his last bottles with us over a Sunday lunch in Wiltshire, and will always remember securing a bottle 25 years ago for just £30 at the Dundas Arms near Newbury. (So excited was I that I managed to leave my handbag in the boot of my parents-in-laws’ car as they drove off to Manchester.)
Good Hermitage is always majestic. Slow to mature, very deep in colour, magnificently and hauntingly savoury rather than sweet and flirtatious, the quintessential Syrah – cuttings from which now flourish all over Australia in very different forms labelled Shiraz. La Chapelle 1961, even now, also manages to be rather claret-like, reminiscent of a great red bordeaux, but with more layers. Tasting it again for the first time for some years recently I, not usually a taster who notes more than one or two different flavours in a wine, managed to find hints of game, liquorice, venison and menthol. I also thought the wines still had more to give – unlike most 1961 red bordeaux.
Wines grown on the mound of granite known as Hermitage on the east bank of the Rhône south of Lyons have been famous for so long that they were mentioned by both Pliny and Martial – centuries before vines grew in the Médoc. By the 18th century red bordeaux would often be stiffened by a shot of Hermitage,a practice that continued until the phylloxera louse wiped out the Hermitage vineyards in the late 19th century according to John Livingstone-Learmonth in his magisterial new book The Wines of the Northern Rhône (University of California Press).
Although today Chave is arguably the most respected producer of Hermitage and Chapoutier one of the most talked-about, for most of the second half of the 20th century the dominant producer by far was Paul Jaboulet Aîné, a large family-owned merchant which buys in a significant proportion of its wine and grapes from third parties but which also owns about a fifth of the Hermitage vines. Jaboulet have long made a wide range of wines from all over the Rhône valley but it is their bottling of Hermitage named after the small stone chapel supposedly built as a retreat for a 13th century knight who fell in love with this sun-baked hill high above the river Rhône that made their reputation.
Hermitage La Chapelle’s heyday coincided with the 30-year reign of the firm’s international ambassador, apple-cheeked Gérard Jaboulet, one of the best-loved and certainly most-travelled characters in the international wine firmament. If there was one up-and-coming producer in, say, Mexico, Gérard would have tasted the wines and would describe them with typical enthusiasm and generosity. Most of the waitresses at my husband’s restaurant were in love with him – though how he managed to find the time to visit L’Escargot as well as apparently every other notable restaurant in the world I will never know. Perhaps the pace finally caught up with him for he died suddenly in 1997 aged just 55.
A recent tasting of 33 vintages of Hermitage La Chapelle from 1999 back to 1955 (in which the famous 1970 was unfortunately a bad bottle) suggested that something happened to this legendary wine in the 1990s. The 1990 continues to be a truly great wine, and more luscious than the 1990 Hermitage from the most celebrated small grower-producer Chave when I last compared them. But the most recent Hermitage La Chapelle with any real excitement was made in 1991. Admittedly the vintages immediately after 1991 were not terrifically successful in the northern Rhône but 1995 was good (the rule of five again) as were 1997, 1998 and especially 1999. Yet I found La Chapelle in these four vintages to be, respectively, dangerously evolved, light and sweet, rustic, and rather skinny. And as for the 2000, when I was served this blind and out of context recently I thought it was a northern Rhône wine so light that it had to be well over 15 years old.
So what has happened chez Jaboulet? Livingstone-Learmonth reproduces some fascinating statistics. Because the quantity of La Chapelle produced is decided by the family on the basis of tastings over each winter, it can vary considerably from year to year. According to Livingstone-Learmonth (who loves the hill of Hermitage so much that he proposed to his wife on it), the number of bottles produced used to be some five-figure number but in 2000 production was a record 107,000 bottles.
He also elicited a curious range of answers from the several male Jaboulets involved with the firm when he asked about the sort of oak used for ageing this famous wine and how long it was kept there. Proportions of new oak varied from 0 to 80 per cent according to respondent. Meanwhile prices for La Chapelle have risen considerably since the mid 1990s even if demand has failed to match them. But all is set to change for this venerable firm – and surely for the better.
Towards the end of last year news seeped out that the whole thing, cellars and an enviable range of prime vineyards all over the Northern Rhône, was being sold to the Swiss financier Jean-Jacques Frey. This is great news for wine enthusiasts for Frey has an excellent track record for upgrading properties such as the classed growth bordeaux Château La Lagune in the Haut-Médoc where his youthful oenologist daughter Caroline has been making better and better wines recently.
He has also just coolly swapped his champagne holding from Ayala to a share of the widely admired Billecart-Salmon, selling Ayala to neighbours Bollinger. So the future looks bright for those of us who would like to see La Chapelle regain its iconic status – even if the competition in Hermitage is much tougher than it was. Frey will presumably spare no expense in giving Chave, Chapoutier, Delas, Guigal et al a run for their money. But I suspect we will be asked to contribute towards the expenses too.
1961, 1990, 1972, 1982, 1964
See purple pages for full tasting notes on notable Chapelles back to 1955 (including a disappointing bottle of 1970)