NORTHERN & Southern rhone

Paul Jaboulet Aîné

When Giants Walked the Rhône

Forty years ago, Paul Jaboulet Aîné was the great house of the Rhône Valley.  As John Livingstone-Learmonth has written, Jaboulet was, “the yardstick … the trailblazer around the world … bringing the very hearth of the Rhône into people’s lives.”

And they did so not only from their home base of Hermitage, but from all of the great appellations throughout the Rhône. Jaboulet’s most famous wine, then and now, is the legendary Hermitage La Chapelle, made from fruit from their own vines.

Yet, from the 1950s through the 1980s—and from Côte Rôtie in the north to Châteauneuf du Pape in the south—Jaboulet also made cuvées from purchased fruit that were among the greatest wines from their respective villages.

That Jaboulet, as a negociant, could achieve such quality is explained partially by the house’s great skill in the cellar. But even more important was their access at that time to fruit from what are some of today’s most famous domaines.

Reign of the Maison 

It was the time when the Rhône’s large merchants were all-powerful. Few domaines had the capacity to bottle and sell their own wines, and so the negociants formed relationships with the growers, many with astonishing holdings, to create some of the greatest wines of the day.

And none were more powerful, or made a wider range of great wines, than Jaboulet. Founded in 1834 with important holdings in both Hermitage and Crozes-Hermitage, the firm had a network of hundreds of Rhône Valley growers from whom they purchased fruit. And until World War II, most of its wine (even Hermitage) was sold in cask, often to Bordeaux and Burgundy.

But under the legendary Louis Jaboulet—who ran the maison from 1935 until handing the reins to his son Gérard in 1977—Jaboulet began to bottle more and more of their own wines. This not only increased quantities of the domaine-bottled La Chapelle and Crozes-Hermitage “Domaine de Thalabert;” it gave birth to the great branded cuvées that Louis created through his relationships with the Rhône’s finest domaines.

Tapping the Best

The most famous of these brands was Jaboulet’s towering Châteauneuf du Pape “Les Cèdres” (labeled “La Grappe des Papes” for the French market). A typical Les Cèdres blend was two-thirds Grenache, with the balance largely Syrah. The winemaking was classic: whole cluster fermentation in concrete tank, a month-long maceration and 12-18 months aging in foudre.

Jaboulet’s carefully traditional winemaking made the most of its fruit, but what made Les Cèdres one of the greatest of all Châteauneufs was that the grapes came from some of the Southern Rhône’s greatest domaines. A case in point is Jaboulet’s storied 1967 Les Cèdres which, according to Robert Parker “is made 100% from old vines of Château de la Nerthe.” Today, that fruit would go into la Nerthe’s prestige wine, Cuvée des Cadettes.

Another great branded Jaboulet wine was the Côte Rôtie “Les Jumelles,” which Jancis Robinson says was  “magnificent” in the past. Livingstone-Learmonth wrote that the cuvée typically was “bought in grape form from twelve to sixteen small cultivators, and may contain 5 per cent Viognier.” Were we to know the names of those “small cultivators,” we’re sure that many would be well-known to us today.

La Chapelle & Thalabert

Of course, there was never any doubt about the source of Jaboulet’s two great domaine-bottled wines: Hermitage La Chapelle and Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert.

La Chapelle was typically based on the lush fruit of Le Méal and the firm structure of Les Bessards, Hermitage’s two greatest climats. And Domaine de Thalabert owes its Hermitage-like truffly perfume and velvety texture to a special terroir, the pebble-strewn lieu-dit Les Chassis, owned by Jaboulet since its founding in 1834.

Sadly, the rise of domaine-bottling in the late 1980s and early 1990s robbed Jaboulet of many of the fruit sources that made Les Cèdres and Les Jumelles so magical. And family disputes, compounded by the tragically young death of Gérard Jaboulet in 1997, lead to a decline in quality by the start of the new millennium.

But this decline was short-lived, thanks to Jaboulet’s 2006 sale to Compagnie Financière Frey, owners of Ch. La Lagune and a large shareholder in Champagne Billecart-Salmon. The Freys instilled new life in this proud maison, and since 2009 the Jaboulet wines are again outstanding. That’s great news for anyone who loves the beauty of Rhône wines.

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