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Syrah reaches its highest expression in France's northern Rhône Valley, and particularly on the ancient hill of Hermitage.
Paul Jaboulet Aîné is one of the great estates of France’s Rhône Valley, and it owes some of that fame to its greatest wine, Hermitage La Chapelle. Hermitage, both the hill and the appellation, gains its name from the small stone chapel built by the knight Gaspard de Sterimberg in 1224, after his return from the Crusades (the current chapel, on the site of the original one, was built in 1864). Wines from the hill have been famous since the era of Louis the XIII—he made it his court wine—and the best are some of the ultimate expressions of the Syrah grape: concentrated, powerful, intensely flavored and able to improve for decades in a cellar.
La Chapelle is one of those. It draws on grapes from all three main sections of the hill: Les Bessards, l’Hermite and Le Méal, with the greatest proportion coming from the latter. I had the good fortune to taste through a lengthy vertical of the wine recently, at the offices of Jaboulet’s new importer, Skurnik Wines, and in the company of its new-ish owner (and winemaker) Caroline Frey. Frey has only been making the wines since 2007, but it’s clear that under her direction the estate has ascended back to its former standards (in the mid-'90s to mid-'00s Jaboulet was adrift in a sort of qualitative doldrums; fine wines, but rarely great).
Of the current vintages, the 2012 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle ($300) was spectacular, with incredible depth of texture, sweet blackberry fruit, and a long, savory, richly tannic (but not astringent) finish. It was closely followed by the 2013 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle ($275), the current release, a more powerful wine but a touch less seductive, full of smoked meat and spice notes. The 2009 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle shows the warmth of that vintage in its rich black fruit and mocha notes, but for me it didn’t have the structural bones of the above two wines (a modest quibble—it's still very, very good). The 2007 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle keeps that same rich dark fruit with a bit more tannic depth; over the past eight years, though, those tannins have softened into a kind of plush, velvety blanket; it was a joy to taste.
I wasn’t in love with the 2006 or 2005 vintages, and while 2003 avoided some of the traps of that super-hot year, it was still a bit roasted and plummy. 2001 was pretty, but a little slight (or subtly elegant, depending on your point of view); 1998 was holding on well, with leather and dried wild berry notes. The 1995 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle was a return to form, and at 20 years of age is still firmly structured but with a core of ripe cherry fruit and notes of charred meat.
The final vintage we tasted was the 1985 Jaboulet Hermitage La Chapelle. (Caroline Frey noted, “We can see that to drink La Chapelle we have to be patient! But it’s frustrating—because to enjoy the vintages I’ve made, I’m going to have to wait 20 to 30 years, and then I’ll be old.”) But she’s right: Great vintages of La Chapelle deserve that amount of aging. The 1985 was practically perfect, savory and complex, its aroma lifting from the glass with notes of dried currants, leather and ink. My final note on it was simply, “Wow.”
The only problem with La Chapelle is that it costs a lot; too much for this journalist, for instance. But wine lovers looking for a near-equally ageworthy bottle should check out the 2012 Jaboulet Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage ($50), an intense, gamey, violet-scented Syrah that has the potential to age a decade if not more.