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Hermitage La Chapelle Vertical

by Tom Cannavan, 04/99

This was a private tasting organised in Glasgow by two very good friends who are huge fans of La Chapelle, one of the world's greatest Syrah wines. The tasting comprised 11 vintages, from 1996 back to 1978, as well as two "ringers": Chapoutier's "Le Pavillon", another contender for the greatest of all Hermitages, and Penfolds legendary "Grange", Australia's finest Syrah/Shiraz wine.  

As a group the Jaboulet wines were immensely impressive. The selection encompassed wines from all qualities of vintage, from poor years like 1987, to fabulous years like 1978 and 1990 (both awarded 100 points by Robert Parker).

The 1978 for example is, at 21 years of age, amazingly fresh with good colour, great concentration, and a long life ahead of it. The 1987, though from an obviously weaker, more dilute vintage, is just gorgeous for current drinking. Though vintage variations were clear, and some examples displayed mostly primary fruit, others mostly tertiary aromas of earth, spice and game, there was a distinct family resemblance. I was particularly impressed by the medium-bodied finesse of most of these wines, especially once they have been given at least 6 or 7 years of bottle age. They are delightful food wines (as was confimed when we did the whole thing again with dinner after the formal tasting). The legendary power of Hermitage is displayed in youth, but with ageing this evolves into a savoury, complex, sometimes ethereal array of aromas and flavours.

The "ringers" stood out like a pair of sore thumbs. It is hard to reconcile that the Grange comes from the same grape: it has such an intensity of fruit and such a fabulous, soaring, almost volatile, Porty character. The Chapoutier 1989 (another Robert Parker 100 point wine) was so different from the Jaboulet 1989, with much more pronounced toasty oak and a really muscular character.

The tasting was split into 5 flights and was conducted blind. We weren't told how many "ringers", if any, would be tucked in amongst the La Chapelles. These notes are as written during tasting.

Flight One
The three most recent vintages

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1996
Very deep, dense purple/crimson. Intense blackberry nose, developing notes of mint and coffee. Distinct grilled-meat note, slightly stalky. Very, very grippy with a deeply buried core of blackcurrant fruit, but plenty of sour acidity and massive tannins have a grip of this wine at present. Loaded with extract and massively structured this needs many years but is a profound wine.
I'm amazed by how much this has closed down since tasting on release 6 months ago.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1995
Deep crimson colour. Crunchy blackcurrant, cassis fruit on the nose. Quite smoky and creamy, with lead-pencil notes. Some dusty blackcurrant and blueberry fruit but again absolutely loaded with tannins and high acidity. There is more integration, so a little older than the previous wine, but still way, way too young. Needs many years for tannins to resolve but has outstanding concentration.
This too has closed since I last tasted it in August '97. I loved it then and have no doubt it will will be a beautiful wine.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1994
Very deep ruby/black. Nose is quite plummy and deep. Much more evolved. Notes of bacon fat. Very unctuous and delicious in the mouth. Full-bodied with very rich, ripe fruit. Still has good tannic backbone and will keep, but drinking really well.

Flight Two

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1991
Lovely ruby/crimson colour. Quite pale. Big, barnyardy, vegetal nose. Meaty, dense and earthy with hints of fig. Chocolaty bitter-sweetness on the palate with a mouth-filling texture. Lots of blackcurrant and ripe plum fruit, very chewy and spicy too. Lovely smooth tannins give some grip to the finish with noticable acidity. Long, round and lovely mature wine.
I was quite surprised when the vintage was later revealed. Last time I tasted this 18 months ago I liked it but thought it a bit odd. This tasted complete and very delicious.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1992
Slight orange tinge to ruby red. Much darker, more chocolaty nose with toasty, oaky aromas. Also a little vegetal, with mushroom notes. Flavours not so complex on the palate, and less extracted. A little thinner on the palate and less satisfying. A relatively weak example.

Flight Three
Both syrah, both 1989, both amongst the greatest wines of the vintage, but so different!

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1989
Dark ruby, quite warm colour. Fabulous nose. Peppery and rich, with black fruits, coffee and juicy cherry note, some mushroomy notes and hints of damp undergrowth. A vice-like grip of lemon acidity and firm tannins dominates as it strikes the palate, but then there is good blackberry fruit and a nice fleshiness to the texture. Really complex and structured. Needs more time, but very, very fine indeed.
This was actually drinking extremely well with dinner afterwards, but should still be a 30 year wine.

Penfolds (Australia) Grange Hermitage 1989
Dense purple. Ah! what a nose: ultra-rich New World shiraz. Port-like, massive, unctuous sweet fruit, dense with a velvety black chocolate richness. Stunning nose. Palate carries this through in a really silky, vanilla-infused power of opulent black fruit and spice. Incredibly long, the tannins are supportive but soft, and the acidity beautifully integrated. Very, very fine. Australian. Armagh maybe?

Flight Four

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1988
Even crimson colour with orange at rim. Really pungently aromatic on the nose. Grilled meats and smoke, but vivid raspberry fruit too. This is a very full and concentrated wine with lots of red fruit flavours and a cherryish acidity and firmness to the fruit. Long and still tannic, with lots of spicy flavours in the finish. Very good indeed. Needs time.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1987
Some age, with browning, paler crimson colour. Fresh nose, blackcurrant and raspberry fruit. Much lighter style, but some blackcurrant and coffee-bean aromas. Surprisingly grippy but with fine fruit. Rich, spicy oak too and good length. This is a lighter vintage, but is drinking really well for that.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1985
Similar browning colour to previous wine. Quite a dank, backwater note on the nose, but with airing it improves. Freshly ground coffee and then aromas of mushroom and truffle. Beautifully pure core of cassis and cherry fruit on the palate wrapped inside some firm tannins and quite high acidity. This is structured, savoury and intriguing, though somehow not quite complete?

Flight Five
Three Parker 100 point wines!

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1978
Ruby, though very pale. Older wine. Huge, gorgeous nose. Tobacco, volcanic ash, grilled-meats, pepper and spice, but a streak of focussed raspberry fruit too. Notes of liquorice. Beautifully delineated fruit on the palate. Superb integration of components. Fine acidity, fine tannins. Really dense, creamy texture. Full of fruit, but serious, chewy, structured character. Complex and superbly long. Sensationally good.
Amazed in some ways that this was 21 years old. Absolutely superb and has years ahead of it.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage La Chapelle 1990
Dense, youthful crimson colour. Dark, brooding aromas. Caramel, spices, plummy black fruit and a super-ripe, mint-humbug intensity. Palate is very, very tannic, swamping rich, jammy blackcurrant fruit. This is full and luscious, but the wine is braced by fierce tannins and searing acidity. A very serious wine and with huge potential. Maybe the 1990 I'd guess, but if so, nowhere near ready.

Chapoutier, Hermitage Le Pavillon 1989
Very dark and dense crimson. This is a very different nose. Big, charred, hight-toast new French oak. Black pepper, game, toast, gorgeous sweet black fruit, with a bitter-sweet depth. Very firm, with grippy tannins and loaded with vanilin oak again on the palate. It is very, very concentrated though, richly-textured and powerful. Really quite different from the previous wines. A Hermitage from another producer I think.

My sincere thanks to D&S who so generously hosted the event.