I have to start this tasting note with a little bit of history; I will keep it as short as I can, but it is terribly important. This concerns the wines of Paul Jaboulet Aine – how they were, how they are, and whether one’s views can change if an aesthetic experience changes.
The great Gerard Jaboulet died after the 1997 harvest, leaving the recently released 1995 as his last truly great Hermitage La Chapelle. He left a plethora of other great wines, from Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert to other Northern Rhône wine like Cornas Domaine Saint Pierre and even Southern Rhône appellations, from 1995 and previous vintages, as testament to his brilliance.
If you find one of Gerard’s wines that has been well-stored, you will see that he made wines that were classics of their appellations. The Northern Rhône wines, even in a hot vintage like 1995, had the cool freshness one seeks from a Syrah of that region. They may have occasionally been a little Brett-infested, but they were complex, stylish, refined and elegant.
The great family house was taken over by Nicolas Jaboulet, Gerard’s nephew, who was to drive the house in a new direction. That direction was straight down the toilet.
Everyone complained how bloody awful Nicolas’ La Chapelle (hereafter: Lash) 1998 turned out. Unfortunately (for me), they didn’t complain before I had bought two bottles and a magnum en primeur, especially unfortunately (for me) as Nicolas doubled the price of Lash. Most of mine went down the sink several years ago as no one was stupid enough to buy them from me. Bugger.
Nicolas drifted on, making rubbish, charging the earth for them and not selling enough to keep the stock price buoyant. The family house was ripe for plucking and, as no one in the family could afford to buy the place, a Swiss insurance company swiped it out of the family’s possession.
It was undoubtedly sad that a great Rhône estate, centuries old, had been snatched out of family ownership, but there was, at least, the promise of a return to high quality winemaking.
The company installed Caroline Frey, who also made wine at the insurer’s Bordeaux estate, as winemaker and we all eagerly awaited improved quality even if we feared enthusiastic pricing from a company looking to make a juicy profit.
By arse, Frey’s early wines were awful. Monolithic, alcoholic, hard and bearing little connection with the appellations they once so gloriously showcased. It was clear that if Frey had even the slightest beginnings of a model for how to make Syrah, she had only tried a handful of the more ‘tumescent’ examples from California.
I regularly choked on her Crozes, Cornas, Hermitage and other wines in the mid- to late-noughties, getting more and more convinced she had no idea how to make Northern Rhône Syrah; Barossa Syrah maybe, but not a clue about the Rhône.
As the long time reader of Elitistreview will know, I pretty much gave up drinking her foul wines and limited my connections with them to sniping about them on these pages.
Now we must fast-forward twelve or so years and move to the questionable pleasure that is reading posts on Facebook. A great friend of mine, Ricard, who has a fine palate and loves the great wines I love, reported that some lunch companions of his had kindly bought a bottle of Lash 2010 for them to enjoy with their meal. I archly suggested that he would not have enjoyed that much.
“Yes, I really enjoyed it”, he replied, “The 2010 Lash is showing really well now!”
I thought he had to be joking and suggested as much.
“Oh no!”, he replied. “The 2010 is one of the great successes of the Frey family and is beginning to show gloriously well. We thought it was a really fine wine.”
I slumped back in my chair. I was shocked. Had I got so out of touch that I had missed a renaissance at the now-non-Jaboulet house of Jaboulet? Should I have been drinking the stuff I had detested over a decade ago during that decade?
A different friend of mine, Jeremy, often says, “Having one’s prejudices confirmed is most satisfying, but having one’s prejudices torpedoed under the waterline is vastly more satisfying.” So with the prospect of being vastly more satisfied I ordered a half bottle of Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert 2018 from Jaboulet – with Ricard confirming it was lovely.
I kept the bottle hidden and just before lunch today I sprang it blind on The Editor.
The fun continues in the note below…
Crozes-Hermitage ‘Domaine de Thalabert’ 2018, Paul Jaboulet Aine
I put a Riedel Syrah glass in front of The Editor and myself and pour us each a slug from an unmarked bottle. “Tell me what it is like! Tell me what it is!”, I urge him.
“Bloody hell, it is really big and boozy!”, The Editor reports.
“That is probably just the vintage.”, I reassure him. “Think more about what varietal it is like. What characteristics it has.”
“It does not have much character beyond the huge amount of booze and slight aromas of overripe cherries, a bit stewed.”, He says, “That fruit is a bit Cinsault-like, but it does not have much of its other characteristics. I know it is not going to be Grenache from you, it is not Mourvèdre and there is no way this is Pinot. It does not smell of any real varietal, there is little character beyond it being hot and alcoholic.”
I am more than a little perturbed by this. The Editor is a skilled taster and a remarkably good blind taster, so I check the nose myself.
The Editor is right. It is a solid edifice of alcohol and enzymatically extracted tannin. Saying it is monolithic is ascribing too many dimensions to it.
However, I keep my face from looking aghast and tell The Editor that the wine is Syrah.
He scoffs and says that it is nothing like any of the South African stuff I have been opening recently. I confirm it is not South African.
“Ah!”, says The Editor, realisation apparently striking him, “It is Californian!”
On the inside of my face, a most satisfied grin is beginning to form, but I remain outwardly unperturbed. “No, it is not Californian.”, I inform The Editor.
“Oh this is one of those Northern Rhône Cornas from someone who really extracts the wine like Colombo.”, he attempts, at least landing in the correct viticultural zone this time.
I tell him that it is indeed Northern Rhône, but not Cornas. He protests that it is so big, boozy and butch, showing so little other characteristics, that it could only be Cornas from a producer I hate that I have only poured to remind us of the evil filth we hate. That grin on the inside of my face gets even more satisfied.
I insist it is not Cornas, and so he goes through every other Northern Rhône appellation with increasing desperation until the only one he has to guess is Crozes.
“This cannot be Crozes!”, ejaculates The Editor, “It is so big, so heavy! There is no freshness, no elegance. It does not smell like Crozes, it smells of very little apart from alcohol!”
I have a quick smell and taste. Yes, it smells nothing like Crozes, it is completely atypical, just an overripe lump of a wine.
Now, do not come to me saying that it is just the vintage or The Editor and I are incapable of assessing young wine. Leaving The Editor’s prodigious oenological skills to one side, I have simply tasted more wines at every stage in their development than you, I do not care who you are, I have, and then gone on to identify them blind several years later.
This wine bears no relation to the fresh, lively Crozes of Gerard Jaboulet. You may recall I wrote his wines were ‘complex, stylish, refined and elegant’; of those characteristics this wine is only ‘stylish’ and that style is ‘Parkerised to a fabulous degree’.
We discuss the wine further: its emetically harsh tannins, lack of refreshment, lack of complexity and lack of anything fruity beyond hints of cherry jam – there is no pepper, no spice, just awfulness. The Editor is appalled that someone could make such a thing and admits he has no clue what criminal could do such a thing to Crozes.
I lift the bottle from its hiding place and announce it, “This is Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert 2018 from Jaboulet.”
“Ah,” says The Editor, “that’s how I remember them!”
And it is how I remember them.
I was right!
Just in case any of you are unconvinced by my desire to challenge my prejudices, I have actually purchased more Jaboulet than this half bottle. I got a couple of 2020s en primeur, a Domaine de Thalabert and a Cornas Domaine Saint Pierre. I will leave them in storage for long enough for them to have realistically gained some maturity. I will taste them then and, if Elitistreview has not been banned because of the ever longer reach of the anti-alcohol lobby’s actions, I will report on them then. Who is up for betting against me?
Absolutely agree with this. Bought a half bottle too (I assume you got yours from the Wine Society?) with intention of seeing whether things had improved chez Jaboulet and thought exactly the same. Left a review on the Wine Soc page saying many similar things.
Oh that was your review, Tom!
Someone posted a link to my review on the Wine Soc community that prompted a lot of ‘comment’ from other members, mostly negative and what a fraud, hoax and troll I am. A couple of people pointed out that your review chimes with mine (although I thought two stars seemed overly generous), but this was conveniently ignored so people could get back to slagging me off!
A few people did speak in support of my position, but at the point I had been muted by the moderators because so many people had the complained that I had the gall to reply to people who had misrepresented what I do on my site*. The “I’ve been buying Jaboulet from the Wine Society for so many decades, I can no longer tell good from bad”-brigade had shouted down all opposition.
Turns out it was a friend of mine who had posted the link, specifically because he wanted to ruffle the feathers of some members. The response to his post made him ask the Society if they could delete all his posts and close his community account! He has about the same view of the place as me, as I went through the account settings looking for a way to delete my account.
What these people defending the truly awful wines of Frey didn’t seem to get, which was pointed out by you, me and my friend, was there is a good argument about history here. Mdm Frey was effectively installed in the jewel of Rhône estates by her rich father who bought the place even though she had no winemaking experience with Syrah. She drafted in another winemaker to help after some time who also had no experience with Syrah. This explains why the wines that were once so typical are now such poor reflections of their terroir.
That’s the crux of the issue. The good name of a family domaine that had been built up over centuries was snatched up and given as a plaything to a rich kid to use to trade her inadequate skills. To some people, this is fine. Some say things change at the whim of history, some cannot even tell they have changed they are so hopeless at analysing what they drink; but to some of us it is a deep and sad shame that the house that was the model of typicity for Rhône appellations was now no longer such a place. It had been usurped. That name was now another rich person’s plaything for churning out boring, ‘international’-style wines either because that is all her palate is educated to enjoy or it is all she is capable of making. All those great wines of the past will just slowly disappear, and, to the next generation of wine drinkers, the name of Jaboulet will mean something entirely different. Some of us feel what it means has been massively devalued and, whilst future history may not be on our sides’ with this, we want to say it has been devalued.
That is the message I feel you, my friend(s) and I were trying to get across. It is a valid and reasonable message to communicate.
*Everyone says how rude I am about bad wines and how they love the funny reviews I write about wines I don’t like. Less than 5% of the posts on my site are tagged as having a comment about wine I don’t like. I don’t want to review wine I don’t like; I don’t want to have to drink and then write about things I hate! So I don’t, hence why so few posts about bad wine.
I have no doubt whatsoever of the validity of your assessment, David. I shall continue to avoid!