The Long Road Back

If there was ever a “gold standard” in the Rhône, it was the Hermitage La Chapelles made by Paul Jaboulet Aîné throughout most of the twentieth century. In their ethereal perfume and sumptuous elegance they transcended category, taking their place among not just France’s, but the world’s, greatest wines.

Sadly, La Chapelle’s lustre dimmed in the late ’90s and early 2000s, the period following Gerard Jaboulet’s untimely death, when this venerable house seemed to lose its way.

But now under new ownership—Compagnie Financière Frey, which also owns Bordeaux’ Ch. La Lagune and is a large shareholder in Champagne Billecart-Salmon—Jaboulet is hitting on all cylinders. And from 2009 on, La Chapelle is returning to its legendary form.

A case in point is the 2011—in its fantastic complexity and perfect harmony of richness, powerful structure and finesse, it can stand alongside some of the best of the great pre-1990 La Chapelles that forged the wine’s mythic reputation.

New Blood
Credit for La Chapelle’s return to glory must go to the gifted Caroline Frey who has, since 2004, similarly brought La Lagune back among the Médoc elite.

But her heart is clearly in Hermitage—she’s left Bordeaux to live in Tournon, across the Rhône, and has wasted no time in applying her vision and skill to make La Chapelle a standard-bearer for the region once again.

It began with restoring the health of the Jaboulet holdings in Bessards, Méal, Greffieux and Rocoules, the prime lieux-dits that have always been behind the legendary La Chapelle’s brooding power. Here Frey has slashed yields to maximize the richness, depth and complexity of the fruit from these 40 to 60-year-old vines.

Classic Methods
The classically lengthy fermentation/maceration is at low-temperature to preserve the primary aromas, and the malolactic takes place in oak vats. Aging is in pièces, with minimal use of new barrels, just as it was in La Chapelle’s heyday.

And, the barrel aging is for a relatively short 15-18 months, in the tradition allowing La Chapelle’s powerful character to develop through long aging in bottle.

It’s not only the yields that have been lowered, however—so has La Chapelle’s overall production. Any lots that don’t meet Frey’s rigorous standards go into a second wine, La Petite Chapelle, to ensure that the Grand Vin is made only with the best material. So severe is the selection that in some years, such as 2008, no La Chapelle was made at all.

All of this has served to bring La Chapelle back to its rightful place as one of the Rhône’s greatest wines.

In his vertical tasting report on La Chapelle from 2012 back to 1949,  The Wine Advocate’s Jeb Dunnuck wrote that, “at its best, Syrah, or wine for that matter, simply cannot get any better.” The 2011 offers compelling evidence that La Chapelle is well on its way towards again reaching such heights.

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