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Wine Legends of 2011: Château d’Yquem 1921

Every month in the magazine we celebrate a different bottle of wine that we believe should be recognised as a 'wine legend', this year's selected 12 include Dom Perignon 1961, Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947 and Graham's Vintage Port 1945.

Wine Legends of 2011: Jaboulet, La Chapelle, Hermitage 1961

Jaboulet, La Chapelle, Hermitage 1961 Northern Rhône, France

A legend because…

While Paul Jaboulet and Gérard Chave are easily the most prestigious producers from the 134-hectare Hermitage AC, no wine has enjoyed the acclaim attached to the La Chapelle 1961. Its power and harmony were apparent from the start, and for decades the wine has been a star at auction. In the 19th century, wines from Hermitage had routinely been used to beef up lacklustre vintages from Bordeaux, but in the 20th century many vineyards were neglected. The recognition given to La Chapelle 1961 helped to kickstart interest in the great granitic vineyard and its wines. US critic Robert Parker has described it a ‘one of the three or four greatest red wines I have ever tasted’.

Looking back

The Jaboulet business was deeply rooted in family. At least four members, brothers and cousins, were involved in both the winemaking and commercial side. A highly consistent négociant business, as well as being a producer from its own extensive vineyards, led to Jaboulet becoming the most visible of the great Rhône houses. In the 1980s and 1990s accidents and premature deaths seem to have robbed the house of its former dynamism and, in 2006, Jaboulet was bought by the Frey family, owners of Champagne house Billecart-Salmon and of Château La Lagune in Bordeaux.

The people

The wine was made under the supervision of Louis Jaboulet, who retired in 1976. His better-known son Gérard would only have been 19 at the time.

The vintage

The granitic hill of Hermitage is always an exceptionally hot site. In 1961, a warm spring gave the vines a head start, but rain in June severely diminished the potential crop. Thereafter, conditions were ideal until the completion of harvest. Extensive coulure (the failure of grapes to develop after flowering) led to unusually low yields.

The terroir

The Jaboulets have long been major vineyard owners on the hill of Hermitage, owning 19ha of Syrah and 5ha of Marsanne and Roussanne, yielding, in a normal vintage, about 7,500 cases. The lion’s share of the Syrah vines lie within the Le Méal sector, but with significant parcels in other prized sites such as Les Bessards. An average age of 40 years is maintained for the Hermitage vines. There is no actual parcel known as La Chapelle, however; the name refers to the small chapel perched on the hill. The wine is a Syrah blend from the different parcels.

The wine

From 1989 onwards, Jaboulet produced a second wine from Hermitage (Le Pied de la Côte) in addition to La Chapelle. In 1961 there would have been no such selection, other than a rejection of substandard fruit in the vineyard. The grapes were trodden by foot and fermented with indigenous yeasts in large, open wooden vats. Although destemming became routine in the 1980s, it is probable that about half the stalks would have been retained in 1961, contributing to the wine’s robust tannins. The finished wine would have been aged for about 18 months mainly in vats, and a very small proportion of barrels, including some made from chestnut wood. It would have been bottled without filtration.

The reaction

Decanter’s Michael Broadbent, who last tasted the wine in 1993, described it as: ‘Huge in 1967, fruit-laden in 1983, magnificent in 1990.’ UK critic Jancis Robinson MW, in 2006, found the wine ‘reminiscent of a great red Bordeaux – but with more layers’. She added that the wine still has more to give – ‘unlike most 1961 red Bordeaux’. In 2009, US wine writer Jeff Leve found the 1961 ‘massive and intensely concentrated, with layers of rich, thick, juicy, ripe black fruits and minerals. The wine perfectly melds power with elegance.’ In 2000, Robert Parker, who had long described the 1961 as ‘one of the greatest wines ever made’, called it ‘extremely unctuous, with compelling concentration and purity. This full-bodied, seamless, mouthfilling 1961 is truly immortal!’ D ‘Reminiscent of a great red Bordeaux – but with more layers’ Jancis Robinson MW

The facts

  • Bottles produced: 10,000

  • Composition: 100% Syrah

  • Yield (hectolitres/hectare): 8hl/ha

  • Alcohol level: 12.9%

  • Release price: 10 French francs per bottle

  • Price today: £9,180 per bottle (average price on Wine-Searcher.com)
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