Tag Archives: Washington

Five Vintages of Jaboulet La Chapelle Hermitage

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.

The Wines

  • 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

A History

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:

https://www.jancisrobinson.com/articles/hermitage-la-chapelle-the-rise-and-fall-of-a-great-wine

“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 label, more in keeping a wine type in mind, I can write a generic tasting note to help you understand the character of these wines:

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.

TASTING NOTES

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 built a visual of an old wine cave in France. The complexity of the nose immediately drew me in. There were aromas of blackberry, sweet browned butter, forest floor and black pepper showing. 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 finishing 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 sensibilities, 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 showing, 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.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, French Wine, Northern Rhone, Syrah/Shiraz, Wine Collecting, Wine Critics, Wine Education, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

2012 Saviah Cellars Girl & the Goat

2012 Saviah Cellars Girl & the Goat

Walla Walla AVA, WA

Wine Tasting Note:

Rich, fruity blackberry, plum and spice on the nose. Fruit forward blackberry, plum and black currant on the palate, moving to a mid-palate and finish of copious amounts of dark chocolate. Spicy white pepper and cinnamon undertones. Medium-high acidity and medium tannin structure. Nice silky mouth-feel with an extra long finish. Super well-balanced wine. Drinking great right now… best window: 2016-2019. I wish this was more widely available than just in the restaurant in Chicago. I was gifted this bottle by Richard Funk the winemaker/owner at Saviah Cellars who took on the challenge of making this wine for Stephanie Izard – owner of Girl & the Goat. This wine is produced from his near perfect estate Petit Verdot vintage in Walla Walla during 2012. This is a superlative wine for drinking by itself and with food. I drank this with a coffee rubbed NY strip and it was a great match. 50% Petit Verdot, 25% Cab Sauv, 25% Cab Franc.

I don’t know whether the vision for this wine was the chef’s, or the winemaker’s, but this turned out to be a wonderful wine. Richard Funk is a great guy. I really enjoyed spending time with him during our last trip to  Walla Walla. He really hit a home run with this wine and I hope that Petit Verdot vineyard of his produces more great vintages in the future!

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

2012 Reynvaan Syrah In the Rocks

Reynvaan Pic

 

Reynvaan Family Vineyards – Walla Walla, Washington

Walla Walla Valley AVA

Wine Tasting Note

Do you enjoy Syrah from the Northern Rhone region? Cote Rotie AOC perhaps?

If you have enjoyed a quality bottle from the Northern Rhone and added it to your “wines of distinction” list (like I have) seek out a bottle of Reynvaan Syrah and experience a domestic producer that understands this style well. Everything about the Reynvaan wine speaks “Northern Rhone”… meatiness, earthy, floral. Many casual wine drinkers I have introduced to this style have had a difficult time wrapping their heads around it. My wife tasted this wine tonight and immediately said, “this is good… wait, I don’t think I like it.” This is that kind of wine – soft, supple, appealing… until the complexity shows on the palate… and you wonder, “is wine supposed to taste like this?”

Tasting this wine in the first hour after opening is a shame… the real wine doesn’t reveal itself and open until the 3rd and 4th hour. Tasting note after 4 hours open:

The nose carries strong raw meat aromas, with blackberry and mulberry fruit, floral violets and a touch of nail polish. The wine is fruit forward on the palate with blackberry and black currant, has a dark chocolate mid-palate and a floral violet with oily tar finish. After four hours, some of the freshness of the fruit is lost, but the classic Northern Rhone profile is revealed… that oily texture and tar finish. Wow, for 25% – 50% less than Cote Rotie, this wine can be acquired in the U.S. The wine has medium-high acidity, but only medium tannins. The lack of tannins throws the balance off a bit, but the plush, oily texture is right on. This is a well-made wine from a vineyard managed to produce fruit to match this style. The evolution of flavors and textures in the last four hours leads me to believe you should give this some time in the bottle to realize its true potential: peak drinking window 2017-2018. This is not a wine I would choose to experiment with for extended bottle aging.

Well done! If Matt Reynvaan could have squeezed a bit more tannins from the skins/stems, this would have been world class, at the absolute pinnacle of wines made in this style.

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Filed under Cool Climate Wine, Syrah/Shiraz, Walla Walla Valley, Wine Tasting, Wine Tasting Notes

A Tale of Two Red Cities

In the USA, Walla Walla Valley AVA is fast approaching premier status as a red wine producing region. The highest accolades are coming from Merlots and Syrahs, but the area produces well-made Bordeaux Blends too. From a critic’s perspective, this area is a serious alternative to the Napa Valley region… especially, if you prefer the Napa wines produced before the mid 90’s. Now, there is a choice between two premium “red” producing cities in the U.S.

The over-arching theme in Walla Walla is the pursuit of Old World styles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. If you enjoy the popular New World style of heavily-oaked, fruity Cabs coming from Napa (like Caymus and Silver Oak) very few of these Walla Walla wines will find their way into your cellar. Syrah aside, I have chosen three of the oldest producers in Walla Walla as effective examples of the diverse styles of Bordeaux Blends that represent this growing region: Walla Walla Vintners, Seven Hills Winery and L’Ecole #41. I visited all three last month and was fortunate enough to do a deep-dive with each.

WWV Pic

Walla Walla Vintners

The flavor profile across all releases at Walla Walla Vintners (WWV) had the most dissimilar flavor profile in the area. I met with Bill Von Metzger the winemaker and we discussed the winery founded in 1995 in depth.  Their vineyards (and immediate neighboring sites) located at the Eastern edge of the valley contain the only dry-farmed vineyards I was able to find in this AVA. They originally prepared these estate vineyards for irrigation, but have yet to experience a growing season requiring the additional water. Although, if the Washington drought continues, they expect this may change next year. The WWV 2015 vintage validated once again the impact of dry-farming on my palate. All wines tasted tended to be more concentrated and textured, perhaps squeezing more out of the terroir.

Bill is a locally educated and trained winemaker. In my experience, this can be an impediment to good winemaking. Exposure to a broad sampling of world winemaking styles tends to develop better winemakers. Although in this case, Bill transcends his background… I think, primarily due to his keen curiosity and desire to experiment. I thought Bill showed a deft hand at pursuing the Napa Valley style… at half the price. Of my twenty (or so) tasting appointments in the area, this was the only winery embracing the challenge and successfully producing this style in a cooler Walla Walla climate.

If you enjoy Napa Cabs, try these wines. They may not quite reach the level of the premium Napa producers, but my goodness, not at $75+/btl either. The quality is good and the value is undeniable.

SHW pic

Seven Hills Winery

Seven Hills is the preeminent Old World French Bordeaux style producer in Walla Walla and one of the first wineries founded in the area in 1988. I met with Erik McLaughlin, an executive and manager at the winery. Erik and I discussed the history of wine growing in the region, their philosophy and the resulting growth. Seven Hills produces wines that compare very favorably to Bordeaux labels. All their wines have a lighter, sometimes silky texture with a good acidic and tannic backbone. Refined, balanced and built for aging, but approachable enough when young to be an excellent companion to a steak dinner. The tasting room is in a very urban setting at the winery, with the atmosphere from the 100+ year old building enhancing the tasting experience.

I talked briefly to Casey McLellan the winemaker and founder and I heard from both of them their total commitment to this wine style, regardless of the popularity of New World style California wines over the last decade. A great story and I believe a good business decision. These wines are some of the best of what I call “restaurant style” wines, made to accompany food and at the right price to be fairly affordable after the three tier distribution system delivers it.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, try these wines. Again, these do not quite reach the level of premium Bordeaux producers, but comparable quality is sold at half the price (or less) of their Old World competitors.

Schoolhouse photo

L’Ecole #41

L’Ecole is the most notable example of a winery in the region that best walks the fence between New & Old World styles. Founded in 1983 in an abandoned school house, they have grown substantially into a large commercial winery. I have been drinking their wines since the early 2000’s and do miss the hometown, small business atmosphere from those early days. Is it OK to be nostalgic for the old building facade, before the face lift? Then again, I also preferred the previous cute label too. Yes, (begrudgingly) I understand the idea – “Time and Tide stops for no man”. I met with Ben Dimitri the tasting room manager and we talked about L’Ecole history and past vintages.

It was interesting to discuss the story of the 2004 vintage in Walla Walla. It was the coldest growing season in memory for the area and few local vineyards were able to produce ripe fruit at harvest. 10+ years ago, Washington State was still a fledgling wine region and the largest producer in the state (Chateau St. Michelle) offered the early Walla Walla producers the opportunity to source fruit from their warmer Columbia Valley vineyard locations. What a generous and smart move…  missing a vintage in those early years would have seriously hurt the local industry and slowed their momentum in the market. The topic arose, because I mentioned enjoying a bottle of 2004 Ferguson (lost in my cellar somehow) last year. The bottle handled the 10 years of age well, but was at the outside edge of its drinking window.

If you enjoy red wines originating in Bordeaux France, but would prefer an easier drinking more approachable style… L’Ecole is your ticket. Once again, think half the price.

Diversity and Value

If you notice, there are two common themes here: diversity and value. Try these Walla Walla wines. If you are more than an occasional, casual wine drinker in particular, seek them out. These can easily become your choice for the value section of your cellar.

Wine Tourism

This area has a long way to go as a wine destination, but it was significantly more welcoming than my last visit seven years ago. Premier sous chefs around the country looking to venture out and start a premium cuisine restaurant, please consider Walla Walla. A well-run, properly promoted gourmet restaurant will succeed here, without the competition you would find in other top wine regions. Currently, the food is only slightly better than average, even at expensive establishments. With all the fresh fruit and veggies grown locally, this would be a perfect location for a farm-to-table concept. Producing world-class wines right in their backyard, Walla Walla has to be the next wine destination to hit the foodie scene. I look forward to my next visit and enjoying a much more vibrant restaurant scene.

Walla Walla Premium Bordeaux Style Producers

Leonetti Cellars and Woodward Canyon Winery are the two oldest wineries in the Walla Walla AVA. I have tasted their wines and they are excellent, but priced to match, or exceed their Bordeaux and Napa competitors. These wines are every bit as good, but I find it hard to see the value. Frankly, I would rather drink the established producers I know from Bordeaux and Napa, with much larger production and greater availability. This post was meant to highlight the value in Walla Walla. These producers do not fit into that category.

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Filed under Bordeaux/Meritage Blend, Cool Climate Wine, U.S. Wines by Region, Walla Walla Valley, Wine by Varietal, Wine Tasting, Wine Travel