The first wines from Jaboulet’s new owner raise the thorny issue of global style from a classic producer.
The health of the house of Paul Jaboulet Aîné and the veracity of its wines are of supreme importance to the Rhône Valley. Since World War II, Jaboulet has been the main global name for the Rhône. Until the 1990s, its status was founded on the extensive distribution of a wide range of wines, and on top quality from one or two of its own names, notably the red Hermitage La Chapelle.
During the 1990s and early 2000s, the Jaboulet name lost ground. The range of wines suffered from irregular standards, and quality did not keep up with progress around the Rhône and beyond. Even top names such as La Chapelle lost their cachet, for good reasons – a mix of overproduction and less-than-careful ageing in the cellars. The nadir was the
dilute 2000 La Chapelle.
Drift ensued, as factions within the family pursued different agendas and interests. The nominal head, Louis Jaboulet, born in 1912, attended the office occasionally, but there was a lack of centralised, focused decision-making, and a lack of care with the wines. It was hard to say who exactly knew what was going on, and who held any vision for the company
– be it in their vineyards or their wines.
Thus the purchase of Jaboulet by Swiss financier Jacques Frey in January 2006 burst open a rickety cache of secrets, whims and obscurities. This has turned out to be a mini-Shakespeare play, one dealing with the collapse in some disarray of one family, the aggrandisement of another, and posing serious questions about a whole set of local cultural standards and human motivations.
The Swiss bidders beat off serious competition from within the Rhône, as well as from other Bordeaux interests. The Freys’ track record in the wine field centres on third growth Château La Lagune, which itself had been a pioneer in the 1970s in the Médoc, while they are also owners in Champagne – of Ayala’s vineyard holdings (they sold the house itself to Bollinger in 2005) and a 45% stake in Billecart-Salmon. Jacques Frey’s daughter Caroline has an oenology degree gained in Bordeaux, and supervises the Lagune vinifications. Their Rhône experience: nil.
In such circumstances, what would you do? Would you make the wines that you usually make, regardless of regional style differences, charge as much for them as you could, reinvigorate the whole range, change agents, and bustle up the whole business? Or would you go quietly into the local community, observe and gently introduce change, with the help of local specialists, and seek to evolve the business away from its recent underperformance?
Would you seek rapid return on your considerable investment? Or would you seek terroir in your wines, which may compromise those returns? Money or terroir; truth or fiction?
Here lies the dilemma for the Frey team. Culturally, it should indeed be a dilemma for them. The northern Rhône heritage is extremely strong and important, but also underestimated by many in the modern wine world. Most wine professionals in Bordeaux know absolutely nothing about the Rhône: talk to them about St-Joseph, for instance,
and they have no idea where it is.
In the northern Rhône, Syrah lies at the heart of the matter – a grape unknown in Burgundy and Bordeaux, except in centuries gone by as a filler for weedy vintages, or for converting good vintages into star vintages (think 1811, the year of the comet).complete cycle from vineyard to cellar to bottle, so to some extent, we must reserve judgment.
2005 suffered from the ongoing sale negotiations with several interested parties, meaning that the wines may not have been placed in cask quite soon enough: vinified by the old family, then aged, playing catch-up, by the new family.
2006 was a year of a complete vinification process, but not a full year in the vineyards for the new owners. Placed before the taster, therefore, is a very mixed bag of wines. My first inspection came in November 2007, at the Jaboulet cellars outside Tain. My second came in London in May 2008, at the offices of its new British importer, Liberty Wines.
The reason for two tastings: my concern about the style the wines were being given and the need not to rush to snap judgment. In the meantime, some currents had flowed. It became clear when talking widely across the northern Rhône that not all members of the Jaboulet family liked the deal with Frey. I had also received emails from drinkers asking why their
regular Jaboulet wines had doubled in price – the Thalabert 2005, for instance.
After the takeover, Jaboulet itself commissioned a consultancy to study the market by socio-economic groups, presumably to match wine styles and prices to specific consumer groups. The pursuit of brands, with wines even referred to as such in everyday chat, was quickening: no more Côtes du Rhône-Villages, but instead, Parallèle 45 Réserve.
Likewise, the lamentable decision to spin off 2,000 bottles of the best Marsanne out of the white Hermitage Chevalier de Stérimberg into a new brand, the La Chapelle white. When asked to whom this wine was directed, Caroline Frey responded: ‘Oh, collectors and three-star restaurants.’
If this is the new mentality, then it is clear that nothing must be done to rock the boat in terms of risk-taking in the winemaking, and in stretching out any limb that might suggest individuality.
An international style of neutrality had entered the wines. After the second tasting in London, my impression was that these now appear to be wines made for non-Rhône drinkers, people who do not know the Rhône. For Rhône connoisseurs, I suspect the wines will appear half-cock, wines that to some extent have been neutered, led by the hand of Bordeaux.
‘Elegance’ is obviously a word dear to the new Jaboulet team’s heart. The white wines, for instance, based around the rich glycerol of the Marsanne grape, have been downsized to aperitif status, with oak aplenty. These are no longer foodfriendly wines, but more brittle imposters.
For nerve in my whites, I would prefer to seek out the Loire, Burgundy or Alsace, to name simply three regions in France. ‘We want to suppress the bitterness of the Marsanne’ was a comment from Caroline Frey during my November visit: to me, this is robbing the grape of its typicity. The red wines play safe, with oak to the fore. The 2006s are pristine in the
international sense, but they lack Rhône body, particularly on the finish: there is none of the Rhône ripeness and impact here, nor in the whites, for that matter.
My real concern is that the now-slick Jaboulet marketing machine will move into action in places like Singapore and across Asia, and will suggest to drinkers whose main focus is Bordeaux that this is how the Rhône is: a Bordeaux subset. Then we really will have set the clock back decades.
The reds I tasted were certainly cleaner than the rather motley crew of 2004 and 2005 whites that preceded them. The star 2005s are the Hermitage La Chapelle and the Cornas Domaine de St-Pierre. They are both full and Rhônelike, with probably more intrusive tannins than the new regime find acceptable.
Time will sort these out. It wasn’t all good, though: the Cornas Domaine de St-Pierre 2004 was particularly disappointing, with Brett symptoms (that is, wet dog, manure and plasters) and tired fruit. It is absolutely correct that there should be some bedding-in time for the new Paul Jaboulet Aîné. But my main concern remains that these northern Rhône wines are being robbed of their typicity, and that prices are becoming way out of sync for the quality offered. Somewhere in theword ‘quality’, I expect individuality or personality. More local conviction, with local input or appreciation, rather than the imported mix of laboratory and Bordeaux mentality, is needed if this top Rhône house is to be truly credible.
La Chapelle Blanc, Hermitage 2006
(tasted November 2007)
Wide nose that goes in the direction of
being savoury, and is also quite complex,
has light spice with a crème patisserie
aroma, with some cooked apple, too. This
is more serious than the other whites –
and so it should be, given the price.
Pebbly late on, its length is good, with
some scale and persistence. I can only
think that making this will not help
Stérimberg in any shape or form.
2010–2025. £127.95; Lib
La Chapelle, Hermitage 2006 ★★★
(tasted May 2008)
Still-primary nose, reserved and showing
just one fruit – black cherry – along with
a toffee air. The palate fruit is clean,
elegant, but once again with the new
Jaboulet range, where does this really
come from? It has clean cherry lines
and the tannins are harmonious, but it
lacks that heartbeat of the south: here
we have Bordeaux ruling the roost. An
international wine that does not inspire,
nor goes the extra yard. I want more
guts, content and firmness in this young
wine. Should Hermitage wear white
gloves or be beautiful? 2010–2027.
La Chapelle, Hermitage 2005 ★★★★★
(tasted May 2008)
An oily, mulled-fruit aroma that is broad
and entrenched. There is some blackpepper
snap, while the mix of cherry and
blackberry sits securely on the palate and
delivers a long thrust, with some power
and a little punch around it. It keeps
going well, and provides Rhône guts,
with live and quite punchy tannins that
do not obstruct. The tannins need alittle time. It has the fruit of the east end
of the appellation but some noble lacing,
and an extra tannic, granite grip as well.
2011–2030. £113.99; Lib
La Petite Chapelle, Hermitage 2006
(tasted May 2008)
The aroma reflects violets and mulled
blackberries, and comes with a hint of
smoke and meatiness. Black fruits and tar
mingle on the attack – there is plenty
here, with an open, early declaration.
Tannins and oak run alongside some
quietly rich matter – this is a wine of
some interest. Black fruit peeks out on
the aftertaste, and survives its measured
oaking. 2010–2023. £52.95; Lib
Domaine de St-Pierre, Cornas 2006 ★★★
(tasted May 2008)
The nose has a sideways drift – there is
quite a broad wall of fruit that is pretty
even and secure, and still primary. The
palate fabric is knit, delivered with a
restrained touch. This is sleek Cornas that
holds an in-built black-cherry flavour with
some quite gracious tannins. The length
is correct. There is no real local feel,
though it tightens towards the finish and
shows a little granite grip. Again, a wine
that could have more stuffing, more true
depth. 2010–2021. £48.95; Lib
Les Jumelles, Côte-Rôtie 2006 ★★★
(tasted May 2008)
Floral, bountiful and broad aroma of
soaked fruits and plum with a little tar
lacing and an opulence via some rose-hip.
The palate of red fruit is woven with a
floral nature, and some granite tension
before the last area becomes oaked, and
possesses matter delivered with some
elegance. Not intense or gutsy, but maybe
this is the appellation closest to what the
new regime wants – so-called elegance
rather than Rhône guts. 2010–2021.
Parallèle 45 Réserve,
Côtes du Rhône-Villages 2006 ★★★
(tasted November 2007)
Soft nose of black berry and tar. The
palate also comes in a soft fruit vein,
shows black fruit, cherry, with liquorice
and spices late on. Has more structure
than the regular Parallèle 45. Clear-cut
N/A UK; +33 4 75 84 68 93
Another view – Steven Spurrier
I spent a wonderful week as a trainee at Jaboulet Aîné in July 1965 and have retained great affection for the company, although my esteem for its wines fell in recent years. A tasting in November 2008 already showed improvements in the 2005 blends, and a look at the full range confirmed the new direction the company is taking. It can be summed up in two words: modern Rhône.
The rebuilding of the brand began with two 2007 Vins de Pays: a Viognier and a Syrah, named Le Petit Jaboulet. Hard to imagine Le Petit Guigal, Le Petit Chapoutier or even Le Petit Delas, but the fresh, fruity style continued for the whites through a floral, slightly minerally Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Les Cedres 2006 (16.5pts/20), a fleshy Crozes-Hermitage, Mule Blanche 2006 (16.5) from 40-year-old vines, the best Mule Blanche I’ve ever tasted, a lifted and elegant St-Joseph, Le Grand Pompée2006 (16) and a most impressive Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine Raymond Roure 2006 (17.5) – for me, a mini- Hermitage.
The 2007 whites had less fruit. I have never been convinced by the Hermitage, Chevalier de Stérimberg; I’m still not.
The northern reds kicked off with a pleasant Crozes-Hermitage Les Jalets 2006 (15), which winemaker Jacques Desvernois told me has been greatly improved in 2008, due to grapes from the Cave Cooperative de Tain, and 25% oak maturation. Much better was the famous Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert 2006 (16) and better still was the Crozes-Hermitage Domaine Raymond Roure (17.5) from 60-year-old vines, my top red of the day.
As in the whites, the 2007s seemed tighter and less warm than the 2006s, with the exception of a fleshy Cornas, Domaine St-Pierre (16) and the Hermitage, La Chapelle (17.5). The 2006 Côte-Rôtie, Les Jumelles (16.5) has kept its femininity,
while the 2006 Hermitage, La Petite Chapelle (17) showed elegance and polish from nicely concentrated Syrah while retaining the Hermitage grip.
Outside influences are very present: owner and La Lagune winemaker Caroline Frey visits once a week, and Bordeaux consultant Denis Dubourdieu once a month, and twice at vintage time. The cleaned-up, pristine labels reflect well the wine in the bottles, while the famed 1961s from my first visit remain embedded in the memory.
Written by John Livingstone – Learmonth