What makes this a wine legend?

Wine Legends: M Chapoutier, Le Pavillon, Ermitage 1991, Rhône, France

  • Bottles produced 9,000
  • Composition 100% Syrah
  • Yield 15hl/ha
  • Alcohol 13.5%
  • Release price 160 French Francs
  • Price today £467

A legend because…

In 1988 Michel Chapoutier took control of this distinguished Rhône producer in a kind of family coup. He soon made radical changes, such as throwing out ancient chestnut barrels and moving rapidly towards biodynamic farming. Another innovation was the release of very limited luxury cuvées from top appellations, such as white and red Hermitage, Côte-Rôtie and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, all from very old vines. Some of these wines were aged entirely in new oak. They made an immediate impression and were hailed as among the greatest wines of the Rhône Valley.

Looking back

This was a period of flux at Chapoutier, with Michel making his mark with great energy, not to say ruthlessness. By the late 1980s its big, burly, somewhat rustic wines were no longer selling and bankruptcy was looming. A cash injection from its American importer saved the day, but in return Michel was encouraged to take control and implement his innovative ideas. New bottlings showed more precision and freshness, while the special cuvées attracted attention – not only because of their high prices. The revolution was set to continue, with the acquisition of vineyards in Provence and Australia.

The vintage

There was a tendency to underestimate 1991, as 1988, 1989 and 1990 were all sunny and hot. After a cold spring, the summer was pleasant but not especially hot, and there was some rain at harvest, so growers were on alert for rot. Picking for this wine took place on 10 October, and low yields gave fine concentration. Initially perceived as a lightweight vintage, it later became clear that wines from the best sites, such as Le Pavillon, had considerable staying power.

The terroir

The grapes, from vines around 70 years old, were sourced from the oldest plants in the Les Bessards lieu-dit near the top of the Hermitage hill. They are planted on poor sedimentary soils over a granitic subsoil. This sector gives what are probably the most structured wines from the Hermitage hill.

The wine

The grapes were destemmed before being treated to a cuvaison of four weeks in an old and unsealed oak vat. Extraction was achieved by punching down the cap once or twice a day. Fermentation took place at a temperature that did not exceed 32°C. After the wine had fermented to dryness it was aged for 12 months in older barrels acquired from Drouhin in Burgundy. No press wine was used, and it was bottled without filtration.

The reaction

 

In 2017, Matt Walls wrote: ‘Still seriously concentrated and remains remarkably youthful – this will last from now until 2040 with ease.’

In the same year Jeff Leve commented: ‘Powerful, big, full-bodied, rich and deep. Believe it or not, I think it needs more time to develop to its full potential. This is really such a super wine.’


More Wine Legends:

Wine Legend: Fonseca 1963

Wine Legend: Clonakilla, Shiraz-Viognier 2001

Wine Legend: Le Pin, Pomerol 1982