There’s been a lot of change at Paul Jaboulet Aîné since Jean-Jacques Frey, owner of Château La Lagune and Champagne Billecart Salmon acquired the winery in 2006.
The initial plan to keep Laurent Jaboulet on as winemaker was quickly scrapped—Jaboulet was let go in August of 2006 in a move that raised a few eyebrows in the valley. Frey's daughter, enologist Caroline Frey, was put in charge of the winery and, along with consulting enologist Denis Dubourdieu, they quickly changed the in-house team and many other aspects of the company. Frédéric Mairesse was brought in as director and winemaker Jacques Desvernois was hired to run the day-to-day operations.
As I wrote in a my previous column, one can’t jump to conclusions until the changes get a chance to play out here. Seeing a venerable family-run business change owners is not particularly pleasant, but it is business. And since the Freys own it, they can do as they please.
On my recent visit, I met with both Mairesse and Desvernois, along with Caroline Frey and Nicolas Jaboulet, who has remained with the company on the commercial side. Now with the 2006 whites—the first vinified by the new regime here—in bottle, and the reds well on their way, the effects of the changes made are starting to come into focus.
“The first thing we had to deal with was the harvest date,” explained Desvernois, “since we had no experience with the vineyards.”
To that end, harvesting has been pushed back from previous vintages, and the reds show riper fruit and plusher textures. Gone are the slightly herbal twinges that characterized the Jaboulet reds, particularly in the '04 vintage. Grapes are now harvested in smaller buckets for gentler handling and a double sort of grapes is being done in the vineyard and then again on new table de tris (sorting tables) at the winery.
In addition, all the barrels have been changed and now only new, second-fill and third-fill barrels (all from Bordeaux) are being used to age the wines, when previously some barrels remained in the cellar for up to 10 years.
The biggest impact of the new team here can be seen in the whites, which are now whole-bunch pressed to avoid oxidative notes and are kept on their lees longer while receiving more frequent bâtonnage (stirring of the lees). The result is a fresh, minerally, driven set of 2006s that should open some eyes.
The 2006 Côtes du Ventoux White Les Traverses, made from Grenache Blanc and Clairette, is mouthwatering, with stone fruit flavors and a lively finish, while the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape White Les Cèdres (80 percent Grenache Blanc with Picardin) has melon, sweet butter and honeysuckle notes. It’s not big, but nicely balanced. The 2006 St.-Péray Les Sauvagères (an appellation that is rapidly improving) is made from Marsanne with 10 percent Roussanne, and it shows candied citrus peel, lemon verbena and melon notes. The 2006 St.-Joseph White Le Grand Pompée, 100 percent Marsanne, is demure but balanced with subtle yellow apple and melon notes.
Jaboulet has added two new cuvées in 2006 as well, including a 2006 Crozes-Hermitage White Les Jalets, which is sourced from all purchased fruit that had previously gone into the Mule Blanche cuvée. This 100 percent Marsanne cuvée offers bright peach and almond notes, while the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage White Mule Blanche clearly benefits from the stricter selection, showing outstanding ripeness, with direct stone, peach and chamomile flavors. (It’s a blend of equal parts Marsanne and Roussanne sourced from the 25-year-old vines on clay soil.) In contrast is the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage White Domaine Raymond Roure, made from 100 percent Marsanne sourced from 45-year-old vines on sandy soils that ripen a full week later than the vines for the Mule Blanche. It is also outstanding—and a noticeable step up—with orange blossom and white peach flavors backed by very fresh minerality.
Made from two-thirds Marsanne and one-third Roussanne, the 2006 Hermitage White Le Chevalier de Sterimberg flirts with classic quality, offering really pure stone fruit, fennel, chamomile and heather notes with beautiful length. But this isn’t the top cuvée here anymore—the other new wine here is the 2006 Hermitage White La Chapelle, sourced from the winery’s 50-year-old Marsanne vines in the excellent Les Rocoules parcel of Hermitage. The last version of this wine was made in 1961 (and a 1943 I recently tasted offered a beautiful vinous history lesson), and the new regime has decided to resurrect the label in exceptional vintages (and the 2006 Northern Rhône whites are exceptional). Only six barrels were made, and this potential classic offers pure, concentrated star fruit, anise and heather notes, along with a superbly precise, minerally finish. Though whites only account for 10 percent of the production at Paul Jaboulet Aîné, kudos to the new team for the quick and dramatic turnaround in the wines.
As for the reds, there is improvement, but it’s not nearly as dramatic. While the selections have become stricter and the barrel aging program has changed, the vinification remains nearly the same – all grapes are destemmed and after fermentation and malolactic in tank, the wines are moved quickly to barrel for a slightly longer than previous period of élevage. Overall the ’06 reds showed more supple texture and purer fruit, but save for a few exceptions, they lacked the drive of the top wines in this very friendly vintage. The 2006 Gigondas Pierre Aiguille is chewy in profile, with black cherry and a hint of licorice, while the 2006 Châteauneuf-du-Pape Les Cèdres shows more pepper, garrigue and black cherry, with a nice bit of grip on the finish.
Sourced from an unusual mix of parcels in both the northern end (Serrières) and southern end (Tournon) of the appellation, the 2006 St.-Joseph Le Grand Pompée is one of the outstanding efforts here, with plush, sweet toast and a very juicy palate of blackberry and fig fruit. Back into the very good range though, is the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Les Jalets, which shows dark cherry and lavender notes with a soft finish. The 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert shows smoky vanilla toast, with a richer texture, while inching up in quality again is the 2006 Crozes-Hermitage Domaine Raymond Roure, with good iron, violet and black cherry fruit, though the grip fades a touch on the finish.
I did particularly like the two Cornas bottlings here in '06, with the 2006 Cornas Les Grandes Terrasses showing good grip, briar, olive and tobacco notes, while the potentially outstanding 2006 Cornas Domaine de St.-Pierre, sourced from a single parcel of 45- to 65-year-old vines shows a greater range of mixed berry fruit, brighter minerality and a longer, briary finish. The 2006 Côte-Rôtie Les Jumelles, which is sourced from parcels entirely in the Côte Brune half of the appellation, including two hectares purchased just after the Freys took over, is dark and juicy, with sweet olive tapenade and vanilla notes on the finish.
The final two bottlings are from Jaboulet’s prized holdings on Hermitage. The winery is now selling off even more of its Hermitage grapes than before—50 percent—in order to make as strict a selection as possible. Of the half they do keep, most goes into the 2006 Hermitage La Petite Chapelle, which flirts with outstanding quality as it offers supple plum and berry fruit with a forward profile and good length. The top 10 percent of the selection goes into the La Chapelle cuvée, a wine that has a lilting history, thanks to the tremendous wines produced in 1961, 1978 and 1990. While the 2003 was also a classic, more often than not this wine has struggled to match its pedigree in recent years. The 2006 Hermitage La Chapelle is outstanding, with supple coffee, loam and plum notes followed by an elegant, persistent finish. It’s not particularly loaded, though it is well put together. Considering the rapid improvement with the whites however, I was hoping for a bit more ‘wow’ here.
Still, the improvement with the whites is significant, and I like Desvernois’ low-key, simple approach to winemaking. As he continues to get a feel for the vineyards, I could easily see more improvement occuring with the reds here. If you wrote Jaboulet off immediately after the sale, you made the wrong move. If you’re being patient, as I first cautioned, then some really good, under-the-radar buys (such as the Crozes-Hermitage White Mule Blanche) will be out there to be had.