Knowing what wines to age and how long to age them for is a tremendously difficult skill – far fewer wines and mature gracefully than almost everyone seems to think. You get a batch out of your long-term storage and, as you work your way through them, every fucking bottle is fucking fucked. All those wines that were so powerful and thrilling, or delicate and refined when they were young have just descended into crapulence.
Then, when you are contemplating hanging yourself for simply letting all those fun tokens simply rot away to nothingness (or, if you are an idiot, you think that you just needed to let them rot for even longer), you encounter three bottles of serious age that are utterly, fantastically, amazingly, gloriously brilliant.
For the record, I expected the two Hermitage wines to be soft, mellow, scented beauties that would fall apart in our glasses within a few minutes. The final wine I report on, a 1998 Barolo, was one of a number from Piedmont I purchased having tasted them at trade events; they were all powerful, crazily fun wines of heroism. As I toured London to procure my little stash, most of the wine merchants told me I was ‘lucky’ to get them as a lot of the wines (notably, I seem to recall, the one described here), had been blessed with high numbers by the dyscalculic, misguided Mr Parker. Big deal – those high numbers did not seem to diminish my ability to purchase them in quantity (if disability benefits allowed) at deeply affordable prices. Before I decided to pop this just to prove a point, I had tried a few from my stash and all had turned into acrid, bitter piss. I expected much the same from this.
Hermitage 1998, Domaine du Colombier
Soft, mellow, scented old beauty, my arse! This is the nose of a fresh, vigorous wine charged with life and energy – wehay! I have to admit to being rather surprised. Definitely surprised in the very best of ways, most certainly!
A lot of Colombier Hermitages have that vaguely unpleasant smell of beetroot when they are young; this has matured in the sense of losing that aroma. In every other respect this smells like a wine that you could think of ageing the rest of your case for another nineteen years, as it is so lustily vivacious. I do not have a ‘rest of a case’, I may be lucky and have another bottle. That would be very lucky if I do as the quality of this shines through with coruscating brilliance.
It is not the slightest bit dirty or mellow. The fruit is powerful, clean as a whistle and manly in the powerful (rather than soaked in stinking sweat after a gruelling day battling mano e mano with bears) manner one really hopes one will find when popping a bottle of Hermitage. What gives it that power is the ripeness (and consequently a higher alcohol level than Colombier admit on the label), freshness and splendorous complexity.
The alcohol is not the slightest problem. There is so much going on with this nose it seems to need to be (distinctly) over the admitted 13% in order to be the ravishingly butch entity that a real Hermitage should be. It fits with the energetic, almost youthful fruit and the lusty set of aromas that comes from having enough climats across the Hermitage hill.
Colombier may not be endowed with a large holding on the Hermitage hill but, unlike someone like Yann Chave (who is similarly poorly endowed in size), the holding is spread over many plots of the different sub-vineyards (climats) on the hill. Hence, Yann Chave makes powerful but, alas, limited of dimension and totally lacking in cellaring potential wines from this stupendous hill. Colombier’s output may be small yet one could ask for nothing more in terms of its almost sesquipedalian complexity.
Whilst I am sniping at Yann Chave’s ingenuous Hermitage, I cannot stand his maladroit use of new oak. It just adds to the cost of a wine that is simply too plodding to merit such lavish an upbringing. This treatment makes the wine seem like some ‘made by the numbers’-winery Australian Shiraz. That is a poor show for such a grand vineyard.
OK, we have the nose: energetic and vivacious, powerfully and intensely fruity and earthy, gloriously involute and a shade boozy. Yeah, that is a Hermitage nose we want! Time to get drinking!
POW! Yep, Hermitage is indeed the manliest wine in France! This explodes with rich, powerful and god-damned joyful exuberance from the moment the tiniest drop hits your palate. There is an incredible density to it; as you chew it around your mouth, layers of complex and beatific flavours compete for your attention. I felt, almost literally, gobsmacked.
Age has mellowed the tannins to a degree – there definitely a svelte, silken, edge to their potent structure. It is big and full yet has enough refinement, both from mellowed tannins and subtly integrated acidity – that certainly adds to the impression of energy and life that permeates this wine – to make this, in terms of the structure alone, a captivatingly delicious drink.
Then there is all that glorious fruit – cripes it is deeee-lish! Again, age seems to have mellowed and softened it a shade, but there is no lack of life or vim here. The blackberry and blackcurrant fruit that pulse with life through the palate do not have any harshness or bitter pips to them, it is all about having fun and tingling with delight as the waves of unrestrained pleasure wash around your mouth. Yum yum!
There is ample Syrah peppery spice and you could not ask for a more mind-buggering complex Syrah to drink (you drink this, not just taste it). Yes, you can identify this as coming from the Hermitage terroirs, but that does not make it dirty in any way at all.
There is no silliness with too much new oak, that pleases me. Some might object to that fact that you would get completely newscasted if you drank a whole bottle by yourself, but it is Hermitage from a ripe vintage – that is what it is supposed to be like!
All-in-all, a fabulous, complex, energetic with that age has only touched slightly. I really hope I do have another bottle, because I bet in ten to… erm… bloody hell, why not?.. twenty years’ time this will be incomparably stunning!
Hermitage La Chapelle 1995, Jaboulet
I hope you will forgive a bit of historical indulgence at the start of my comments on Lash 95.
My friends from the Oxford Blind Tasting Team and I first tried this wine as a cask sample at Domaine Jaboulet with the great Gerard Jaboulet himself! He had made all of the great vintages of Hermitage La Chapelle (aka Lash) I had tried up to that point and meeting the man himself was somewhat awe-inspiring. He was a lovely, generous fellow (he gave us a case of St. Joseph to drink with our next engagement in the timetable of our burn around the Northern Rhone: lunch! I think most of that case still exists somewhere in Jeremy’s cellar…). It tasted fantastic then and every bottle we purchased from the seemingly endless supply at Oxford’s Oddbins Fine Wine tasted just as fantastic. I was so sad when I learned of his passing and really pissed off when I tasted what his relatives and the people they sold on to did to the Domaine. We shall not see this like again – oh well, I will, as I have another bottle! Only one… *sniffle*
OK, let us begin properly! Now this is the powerfully sweaty man who has been mud-fighting mano e mano with bears for several days and drinking Elixir Vegetal de Chartreuse to keep his strength up. It is more than a bit dirty and, my, it is rather boozy and lush. I always remember it being a touch on the Lucullan end of the Hermitage spectrum, but this bottle does seem particularly of the Molotov Cocktail idiom. Wehay!
Some of the sweaty dirt on the nose is undoubtedly Brett, so there is a hint of shit to the dirtiness. However, the fruit is so wildly extravagant and opulently overblown, lush as I said, it does not seem too bothersome. The presence of Brett in this wine might go some way to explaining the variability in the last few bottles I have had. Brett makes wines age unevenly, if you did not know this. Out of the last four bottles I have had, two have been scented beauties, but very tired and falling apart within twenty minutes of opening them. This bottle and another have had explosive, succulent fruit, but the fruit seems a bit more mature from this bottle.
There is nothing wrong with mature fruit, as long as it is not over-mature and dead. Pleasingly, this is full of life, even if just the tiniest bit of that life is bacterial and fungal as the fruit shows hints of decay. Mainly, it is lovely and plummy with some strong hints of very ripe blackberry. If you are lucky enough to have bottles that Brett has eaten as slowly as it has with this bottle you should not fear the fruit surviving for more than ten years – in the best of cellars, of course!
Just to be complete on the sweaty, dirty aromas. Drinkers of Australian fighting wines will know that very ripe Syrah/Shiraz can often have a slight whiff of sweat to them; those beginning to blind taste should be aware that ‘sweaty saddle’ is one of the terms one uses to describe Australian Shiraz monsters. 1995 was very hot and some people, including Jaboulet, let their wines soak up an awful lot of sun. Sweatiness is not a fault as such on Northern Rhone Syrahs, but one does rather hope vignerons will get out there and harvest before the grapes get ripe enough to show this. We can forgive this.
If you’ve drank Jaboulet wines from 1997 and earlier you will have noticed that they always have an slight earthy character to them. This was just ‘house style’ for Jaboulet. With long-term cellar age, and especially when a hint of Brett is blowing around, this earthy character can become quite strong. Again this is not exactly a fault, it is more how you would really expect a twenty-two year old Jaboulet wine to smell.
Now, I am definitely not a coprophile – definitely not, got that? However, I also think from a wine from the good times of Gerard being at the helm – probably the last truly great wine of his era in charge – can also be forgiven for having a hint of Brett-derived shittiness. I know some people will not tolerate any Brett character in their wines at all. Moreover, it is perfectly possible that I am being over-generous as I loved this wine limitlessly in its youth and it has been a close and much-loved associate of mine since that barrel sample in the 90s. Furthermore, it could also be that I am not being overly harsh on this wine because the Colombier Hermitage got me drunk enough to be friendly and forgiving.
Consequently, I am sure we can all agree that, whilst this nose is not a model of perfection, it is a quite attractive and certainly lubricious (whilst definitely not involving coprophilia) nose for a 22 year old Gerard Jaboulet Hermitage – and it could indicate that at least some of one’s remaining stock could develop further in pleasurable directions. If you do not agree with that I will see you outside later (I am the tall chap with glasses, a cricket bat and a Glock 20-shaped bulge in my armpit).
Good, it smells nice, how does it taste? My first reaction is that it is rocket fuel! That alcohol does give it a sweet, power-crazed character. Then it fills your palate with that soft, rich, booze-enhanced fruit and you really feel this is a lush old lovely.
The acidity levels are on the low side and this had never been a wine of tough, hard tannins; it has such a lush structure too. Easy, but quite nice.
There is a bit more than simple lasciviousness here, though. The earthiness works as a foil for the plump fruit and the two taste reasonably complex together. You do not have to work all that hard to taste the main characteristics nor to taste how they interact with each other. Much lovelier than, but just as open for business as, Harvey Weinstein before the newspapers nabbed him and all those actresses shopped him. Well done them, well done Gerard for your last great Lash that will provide some lubricious pleasure for years to come for those with the magic bottles, and Harvey you are a predatory shit (although innocent until proven guilty and all of that, but I think we can be pretty sure which way the wind is blowing).
Barolo Prapo 1998, Ettore Germano
It is not dead! Not only has it survived, it is beauteous, delicious, gorgeousness in wine form! That is just tits!
The first thing that strikes you when you stick your hooter into the glass is not the sensation of being struck on the hooter by a large club made of alcohol, as it was in the early noughties, but what a supremely elegant and svelte little stunner this seems to be. It is so beautiful and generally pulchritudinous, I am perhaps more smitten with this that I was with the two Hermitages!
The nose is shows sweet perfumes of flowers (irises, if I was drawn to identify them) and totally ripe, incredibly refined aromas of dried cherries – it smells a bit like cherry flavour Tunes, the cough sweets I used to munch through in my youth that now seem to have disappeared from the shop shelves. I used to love them, but this is a far more refined, sensual aroma.
There is also, if I may risk sounding too influenced by my Barolo-spotting blind tasting experience, something like road repairs only highly complex and attractive. I suppose this is the tar one is supposed to detect on Barolo – it smells much nicer than tar or road repairs, but exists in the same aroma spectrum.
The overwhelming impression of this nose is that it is a carefully sculpted beauty of minimalistic elegance and complex refinement. You just wouldn’t notice the 14.5% alcohol unless you go actively looking for it. It is so far from the hilarious, over-blown monster I tried at a trade tasting so long ago.
It has turned from that into a stunningly proportioned model who poses for a few photos in the more alluring of clothes and then, in a soft, winning, compelling voice, comes over to discuss the gaping flaws in Wittgenstein’s philosophies with you whilst passing the odd comment on the Beethoven string quartets that are being performed in the background. It is an amazing nose that delivers far more than you could reasonably expect from something that started out being closer to lighter fluid than wine.
The palate is also glorious, quite unlike the all-to-common dry, acrid, tannin juice one encounters when drinking old-ish Barolo. It is clean as a whistle and there is no titting around with heavy handed use of oak that has overwhelmed all the loveliness during its maturation.
Those floral and cherry flavours are intertwined into a confidently structured set of ripe tannins that seem in complete harmony with each other. There is good, lively acidity too.
Indeed, life, energy, harmony and arresting beauty are what this palate is themed on. It is so attractive, so… well… lovely! I could have drank this all afternoon (mind you, the same applies to the two Hermitages). The finish is long and fizzes with the complex interplay of its vivacious structure with all the other, and there are a lot of them, flavours this wine has.
Probably the best bottle of aged Barolo I have ever had, but there is certainly no rush to drink if you are incredibly lucky enough to own some. Quite brilliant!!
All of these wines are at the highest level of quality for their appellations and having the occasional bottle as good as any one of these is precisely why we drink fine wine. Smashing. On release when I bought these they cost £19.99, £24.99 and £45 respectively. Christ, I robbed those wine merchants.