- Rating: 96 out of 100
- Tasting Fee: 25€
- Accepts Reservations: Yes
- Reservation Required: Recommended but not required
When you are in Hermitage, Chapoutier needs to be your first stop because of its reputation alone. Though, if you are asking me where you can get the best tasting experience in the city, then I would recommend Paul Jaboulet Aîné. In return for a tasting fee that is modest by Napa standards, you will be able to sample their top flight white and red Hermitage wines, including the famous La Chapelle. Their wine store / tasting room is in the main square of the city too, which makes it very convenient to pair with lunch or dinner. And to be perfectly clear, La Chapelle has to be tasted. You cannot leave the city before doing so.
Paul Jaboulet Aîné is another one of those wineries that has been around for as long as people can remember (founded in 1834). Each generation, the eldest son was traditionally named Paul and was expected to carry on the family tradition of winemaking. This tradition took a turn when the Frey family in Champagne (they own a substantial stake in Billecart-Salmon) bought the domaine in 2006. Paul Jaboulet Aîné was entrusted to Caroline Frey, who acts as both the winemaker and oversees the management of the vineyard. Having run Château La Lagune in Bordeaux, Caroline was ready for the challenge of turning Paul Jaboulet Aîné into a premier brand in the Rhone.
To support Caroline’s efforts, the family increased the winery’s holdings from 85 hectares to 135 hectares, decreasing their dependence on sourced grapes and increasing the quantity and quality of the Estate’s grapes. 25 hectares of the 135 is right here in Hermitage; 4 hectares are dedicated to white grapes (2/3 Marsanne, 1/3 Roussane) and the other 21 hectares are for the reds (predominantly Syrah). The family made several other investments, including a new production facility built in Hermitage. In 2012, they were finally ready to open up their storefront in the heart of Hermitage and show off their revamped offerings. I have not tasted the wines produced before Caroline arrived, but I can say that across the board, these wines impressed.
Of course, it takes more than better grapes and tools to make fantastic wine (though, they certainly do not hurt the cause!). They also put in all of the extra effort that the best wine estates are known for. For example, all of the grapes they use are harvested by hand. If they are procuring grapes from other vineyards, they will send their own people to do the harvesting to ensure the proper care is taken. They will put the grapes on the sorting table twice to ensure quality standards are met. For procured grapes, they even have an x-ray machine that will take care of some automated sorting as well. They spare no effort or cost in their winemaking either. Stainless steel (2x pumpovers a day) may come first, followed by a year in barrel (20% new French Oak). For this piece, they can utilize up to seven different barrel makers and then blend the final product together before bottling.
And that final product is quite stunning. So stunning in fact that there were several wines of the 2015 vintage that were sold out upon release. You read that right - this not-so-small producer HAD SOLD OUT a good portion of their portfolio before the 2015’s even had a chance to hit their wine store in town (their distributors and restaurant clientele laid claim to all of the bottles). This meant that for the tastings, there were some wines where the 2014s were poured instead. NOTE: 2015 was a super hot year, yielding riper grapes and therefore riper flavors in the wines with higher alcohol. Apparently, this was the craving of not just wine drinkers in the USA, but in France as well… I would be interested to see if this is a trend or just an anomaly.
As for the wine bar itself, it is quite simple and pleasant. Not too fancy that you’d need to consider what you were wearing, but nice enough that you felt the experience demanded a certain level of attention. It is a popular place in a popular part of the town, so while walk-in tastings are welcome, it is highly recommended to make a reservation. I tried to stop by in the morning for a tasting, but was asked to come back in the early afternoon (after lunch) for my tasting.
Once setup inside (or outside on the patio), you have two tasting options. Of course, I felt this was a false choice and instead selected both options and enjoyed them back to back… Looking back, it is hard to recommend one over the other. While the “Le Myth Hermitage” tasting had the better quality of wines overall, the “Les Confidentielles” tasting represented a better overview of the portfolio and had wines that I was most likely to purchase and bring home with me. So maybe the best compromise is to do both tastings, but not back-to-back?
I leave it to you to decide for yourself, but hope the notes below help in making that choice!
Le Myth Hermitage Tasting (30€)
- 2015 Le Chevalier de Sterimberg (45.20€)
- Their only white Hermitage. To produce, they use a pneumatic press, wait 24-48 hours for the fermentation to start in stainless steel before moving the juice into barrels or concrete eggs to continue the fermentation process. Named after Henri Gaspard de Sterimberg - the knight who asked the queen for land in the area and became a “hermit” on top of the hill (it’s also how Hermitage got its name). Jaboulet also owns the little chapel on top of the hill (they won it in an auction), which is how La Chapelle got its name. The nose is full of MLF flavors, white flowers, white peach and is very bright/refreshing - which is surprising for a 2015 (because of the hot growing season). Medium(+) acid and medium body give the wine structure. The palate is well balanced between the MLF and fruit flavors with some heat from the 13.5% ABV. No single aspect stands out - the wine has great balance and integration. It was served a bit warm, but it was still outstanding and showed wonderful elegance.
- 2015 La Petite Chapelle / La Maison Bleue (59.00€)
- The rebranding of this wine to “La Maison Bleue” in 2015 is Jaboulet’s way of saying that this wine isn’t necessarily inferior to the La Chapelle - the fruit is from a different part of the hill than La Chapelle. The intensity on the nose is on another level with tons of fresh black fruit, mellowing spices and outpaces the aged La Chapelle I had next. On the palate, you can feel the garrigue character undulate beneath the fruit and black pepper, but it is in a backup role. The power of the 2015 vintage certainly came through here and I can see how it would be very attractive to American consumers who want a twist. And with its tannin level, this wine can age for a good while. I wonder how different it will be from the La Chapelle. At 1/3 the price though, this is a pretty nice value play.
- 2006 La Chapelle (160.00€)
- The premier bottling from this producer. The nose is very cerebral - aromas include cooked black fruit, some garrigue character, a pinch of spice, and healthy amounts of earth, mushrooms and other tertiary notes. On the palate, the tannin and acid are well balanced / integrated into the core of the wine. Although lower in intensity due to the wines age, the black fruit carries through the finish for 30+ seconds. You need to drink this wine slowly and deliberately coax out the garrigue and black pepper on the palate are let the wine breath long enough to do this for you. Otherwise, everything stays integrated and the wine feels like an easy-drinking, delicious, older wine. It’s dangerous that you need to feel out / wait for the complexity, but when you do, it totally changes the experience. So many different things happen in your mouth: acid, pepper, fruit, mushroom. A great experience to say the least.
Les Confidentielles Tasting (25€)
- 2014 Domaine de Roure (31.40€)
- Croze-Hermitage Rouge from a 3.5 hectare parcel. This is their finest Croze-Hermitage production and therefore is not released in vintages where the quality is not up to their standards. It’s grown on a hill north of the village and the soil is sandy, like the top where they grow their top tier wines. The nose has some of that animal fur character, blue fruit, pepper, and garrigue. The palate is medium bodied, medium(+)/high tannin, medium(+) acid with flavors of red/black fruit, garrigue and black pepper. Has a bit of integration work to do in the bottle, but all of the flavors are present with good intensity that should make for a great bottle of wine in the future. And with the acid/tannin level, this wine could easily age 10-15 years.
- 2014 Domaine de La Croix des Vignes (42.15€)
- This Saint-Joseph Rouge is a new cuvee created by Catherine Frey that is a blend of their two most northern vineyards in Saint Joseph, next to Condrieu. Aromas include black fruit with animal fur and black pepper having more dominance. The integration level of the components give this wine a great depth. The palate is medium bodied, high acid, medium(+) tannin with flavors similar to the nose, but even more integrated and lighter in intensity, which was quite surprising. The tannins still need to soften/integrate more and once some of the tertiary character starts coming out more, this will be a very interesting wine to drink and share with friends.
- 2011 Domaine de Saint Pierre (52.20€)
- 100% Syrah from the highest elevation vines (420m) in Cornas that can age 10-15 years in bottle. Catherine Frey has been trying to make the wine more fruity in more recent vintages (it’s normally very spicy/peppery). In this rendition, the pepper and garrigue take a backseat to the black fruit on the nose, but are still present. They definitely make their presence felt on the palate, though not as much as the Saint-Joseph above. High acid, medium(+) tannin, medium bodied with the flavor intensity reversed from what you got on the nose (the pepper/garrigue is stronger on the palate). Again, really good integration already and soft enough to drink when paired with food, but I’d wait a little longer before drinking it without food.
- 2014 Domaine des Pierrelles (65.80€)
- A new cuvee created by Catherine Frey in 2009 with grapes predominantly from the Cote Blonde. There is no Viognier blended in here as it’s not needed - the Syrah is grown in Limestone and is already fresh in flavor. The nose is that of a powerful, already well-integrated Cote Rotie. The palate is high acid, high-but-smooth tannin, medium bodied with flavors that are more black fruit dominant than garrigue/pepper. Already tasting really well, I might give it 1-3 years to see if the palate emulates the nose a bit more and lessens the fruit intensity. The salinity/minerality on the finish pairs well with the acid, leaving you craving for more on the finish.
Again, the tasting fee for both was not insignificant, but well worth it. I would much rather pay money and taste some amazing wines instead of tasting some less expensive / quality wines for free. Once I returned to the states, I purchased a case of their “Les Jalets” Croze-Hermitage for $20 per bottle and have been very happy with it as one of my table wines. It also brings back wonderful memories of a great time in Hermitage. Hopefully one day, I will be lucky enough to afford some more La Chapelle! When that day comes, I’ll be sure to reach out to their US Importer: Skurnik Wine and Spirits in New York. Telephone 212-273-9463 / 646-780-4254 and email at email@example.com
If you are visiting the Rhone, you have to stop by Hermitage. And if you stop by Hermitage, you have to stop by Paul Jaboulet Aîné. The only question is, how are you going to bring their wines back to the USA, haha! Cheers!!
Rating: 96 out of 100