Tasting a Historic Wine Label Across the 80’s and 90’s
A small group of wine collectors of which I was fortunate to be included sat down to taste one man’s contribution to a very special event. This group is passionate about wine and we all manage to contribute in a way that makes each meeting a special event. This month, one of our members Jay Bileti offered to share these special wines and the story behind them. I was the one who brought the Reynvaan from Milton-Freedman (“The Rocks”) AVA. I had the temerity to include this wine in our tasting. I am a huge fan of classic Northern Rhone French wines and was curious how one of the more well-known Northern Rhone style Syrah growing regions in the U.S. (home of Cayuse) would compare side-by-side.
- 1986 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Hermitage AOC
- 1988 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Hermitage AOC
- 1994 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Hermitage AOC
- 1995 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Hermitage AOC
- 1998 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Hermitage AOC
- 2012 Reynvaan “In the Rocks” Walla Walla AVA
Hermitage is a wine growing region that has been viewed as special for literally centuries. So long in fact, that it was actually mentioned in the writings of Roman author/philosopher Pliny the Elder in the 1st Century AD. The 1961 vintage of La Chapelle is one of the most famous wines of the last 60 years, often compared with the greatest wines ever produced in France. The label is steeped in French fine wine history and the winemaker Gerard Jaboulet was one of the best-loved and most famous characters of his time. Unfortunately, he abruptly passed away in 1995. Some conjecture circumstances in the last few years may have affected the vintages in the years before this death. Critics noted a marked fall-off in quality from the early 90’s until after the acquisition of the winery and vineyards by Jean-Jacques Frey in 2005 and we had the perfect selection of wine to test those scores and confirm/deny the idea for ourselves. See Jancis Robinson’s article on the topic at:
“Northern Rhone Style” Wine
What defines this style of wine and what makes it special? Northern Rhone is a cool climate region as opposed to, say the famous Chateauneuf du Pape warm climate region. Both regions grow Syrah, but the cooler climate, sunny days and steep hillside vineyards in the Northern Rhone cause the fruit to draw something different from the vines. These wines tend to have more finesse, than brute force. Delicate in their sensibility, but with tremendous acid and tannic structure. Age-worthy wines that develop a silky and complex profile, with flavors that are equally savory and fruity with time in the bottle. Without referencing a specific Northern Rhone wine, but more keeping a wine type in mind, I can write a generic tasting note like this:
A nose of forest floor, sometimes bacon fat, or cured meat, with herbs like sage, or tarragon in the background. An intense palate of dark, brooding blackberry fruit (occasionally blueberry too), with earth, mushroom and herbs and a silky, sometimes oily mouthfeel. The cool climate produces grapes high in acid and the extracted style produces high tannins. Often the mid-palate presents dark chocolate, that lasts with the fruit and the tannin, through to a very long finish. These wines are always made dry, age forever, are great with food, or as cocktail wines, have a beautiful aromatic nose and show tremendous balance and finesse.
The different vintages were amazingly consistent in profile regarding flavors. So, I will not repeat the same descriptors with each wine. The primary differences were in balance, structure, complexity, intensity and mouth-feel. The first note below provides the additional detail that more broadly applies to most of these wines. All of the wines were decanted for several hours.
1986 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Score: 98/100
This is not everyone’s kind of wine. In fact, I was the only one of the group that put this wine at the top of my list. The nose had a slightly musty, moldy odor that helped you to visualize an old wine cave in France. The complexity is what drew you in. There was blackberry, sweet browned butter, forest floor and black pepper on the nose. The palate was still fruit forward, but was equally matched by the savory flavors from the nose. The black pepper did not show through to the palate. There was a mid-palate of dark chocolate and a long finish. The structure was perfectly balanced. With medium tannin still present and medium plus acidity. The mouth-feel was soft on the attack, becoming fine grained tannin and then finished with a good grip. An amazing wine that showed everything in a world class wine. The rest of the group couldn’t get past the musty nose. For me, it added character. If this is a problem for your palate, knock off a couple of points and you will get a more representative score.
1988 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Score: 96/100
This wine was almost everyone’s favorite in the group. Not as intense as the 1986, with more fruit on the nose and palate. Even softer, with medium minus tannin and medium acidity. This wine was missing the bigger mouth-feel of the previous wine and did not have enough tannin left to provide a good sense of structure. Not quite as balanced and the finish was a bit shorter. Don’t get me wrong, this was a fabulous wine too and I would drink it every day if I had an unlimited supply, but in a world class sense, just a step under the 1986.
1994 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Score: 92/100
Alcohol was the most prominent characteristic on the nose. The nose was weaker and less complex. More fruit-forward than the others, with some black pepper on the palate at the finish. Much less balance and finesse. with medium tannin and medium acidity. This vintage was definitely not of the same caliber as the 80’s vintage wines previously tasted.
1995 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” Score: 91/100
This wine was enjoyed the least by the group. Everything from the 1994 with even a weaker nose. Showed more fruit than the ’94 and more black pepper on the finish. The structure was up a notch to medium plus acidity and tannin. This wine was a touch disjointed and was missing the elegance of the previous wines completely.
1998 Paul Jaboulet Aine “La Chapelle” 96/100
This wine was second on my list. Very fruity nose with noticeable alcohol. The flavors/aromas were more intense, as if moving back towards the 80’s vintages. This was the first wine with a touch of menthol on the palate. Nice dark chocolate component with a very long finish. The structure showed high tannins and high acidity, but had enough fruit to balance this approach to a bigger style wine. This wasn’t the same kind of wine as the 80’s vintages, but excellent in its own right. This is balanced enough to actually improve with more bottle age. Perhaps a drinking window of 2016 – 2026, with the best years to enjoy in the early 2020’s.
2012 Reynvaan “In the Rocks” Score: 93/100
So, here is the “sleeper”. I enjoyed this wine too, but this was less of a food wine than the La Chapelle vintages. Blackberry, mushroom and forest floor on the nose with sort of a grape hard candy component. The fruit on the palate became blackberry and grape jelly with a really interesting savory black/green olive tapenade that persisted, moving to dark chocolate on the mid-palate and finish. Good, rich intensity, but less tannin than I would prefer. The medium plus acidity added structure. This was most definitely made with a Northern Rhone profile in mind… tending towards a New World approach that brings more fruit and a softer feel. If structure is your thing (like me), this wine was reaching the end of its drinking window. I would say 2015 – 2020. Not enough tannin, or acidity to be more than a (better) fruity cocktail wine after 10 years. Keep in mind, a value comparison is in order too. This wine is a third of the price (or less) compared to recent vintages of the La Chapelle.
I wrote a previous tasting note on this wine in 2015 here: https://bit.ly/2l28hnW. I thought it was slightly better when younger.
Why Was the Reynvaan Bottling Added to the Tasting?
“The Rocks” is an up and coming Syrah region in the U.S. Established as recently as 2015. Winemakers/vineyard managers are early in maximizing its potential. Give the winemakers and the vines another 10 – 20 years and we may have another Hermitage, or Cote-Rotie type region on our hands. The AVA gets its name from the intensely rocky soil. These soil conditions tend to produce intensity and add savory aspects to the wine, most likely because the vines are so stressed. See pic below to get an idea:
Progression of Quality with La Chapelle
I would agree with Jancis Robinson and many other critics that assert the mid-90’s wines fell off in quality… but I would disagree that it was not until after 2005 that the quality began to improve. That 1998 La Chapelle was a much better wine than the 1995, albeit a wine with less finesse. Oh, and by the way… ALL of these wines were fabulous. This article was an attempt to share a well-considered evaluation of wines at the pinnacle of quality in the industry.
This tasting has convinced me I need to find a later vintage of La Chapelle to compare these to. I am curious where the new owner took this historied wine label.