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Jaboulet's New History Starts Now

170-year-old négociant firm enters a new era under new ownership

James Molesworth
Posted: November 28, 2006

Paul Jaboulet Aîné is one of the most venerable négociant firms in France's Rhône Valley. Founded in 1834, it is famed for its benchmark Hermitage La Chapelle, and currently produces more than 200,000 cases per year. But as of Jan. 1, the Jaboulet family officially sold the company to Jean-Jacques Frey, owner of Château La Lagune in Bordeaux's Haut-Médoc appellation and part-owner of Champagne house Billecart-Salmon. Frey's team, including his daughter, Caroline, will usher in a new era, which means many changes, and a few questions.

  Caroline Frey and her family have taken over Rhône négociant house Paul Jaboulet Aîné.
The new team includes director Frédéric Mairesse and winemaker Jacques Desvernois. Desvernois, 30, has just a few vintages under his belt, primarily at Clos de l'Oratoire des Papes in Châteauneuf. He was hired at Jaboulet on Sept. 1, 2006, and found himself picking grapes less than two weeks later--baptism by fire.

In addition to Desvernois, consultant Denis Dubourdieu has been retained. Dubourdieu is known for his work with white wines in his home base of Bordeaux, as opposed to reds in the Northern Rhône. How will his lack of experience in the region play out? What depth of a relationship will he have with the winemaking at Jaboulet? As one vigneron said to me on my trip, "When you're a consultant and you're here, you're not there. And when you're there, you're not here."

The Frey team has brought in a new barrel program, shipping in dozens of used barrels from Château Latour. Seeing rows of barrels stamped with a prominent Bordeaux property's logo in a Rhône cellar is an eye-popping change in tradition: Bordeaux barriques in lieu of the Burgundy pieces more commonly used throughout the region. The grain of the wood is different and the staves are a different width. What effects will the barrels have on the Rhône Valley's Syrah as opposed to the Cabernet Sauvignon they typically house?

All the barrel aging is now done in the showplace cellar Jaboulet bought in Châteauneuf-sur-Isère in 1992, located a few miles east of Tain on the edge of the Crozes-Hermitage appellation--no more aging in the historic Tain facility. The new facility has a beautiful cellar, complete with a modern tasting room open to the public. But the humidity is very high. The walls are slick with moisture rather than the famous mold that grows in the stable environments of older French cellars. Whether or not this higher than normal humidity level will have an effect on the wines' élevage remains to be seen.

As for the wines themselves, all the 2004 reds, produced under the old regime have been re-evaluated, and a stricter selection reduced quantities by half. Still, I found most of the wines to show the pronounced light, crisp profile that is the downside of the vintage.

Jaboulet began double sorting grapes (selecting bunches for quality in the vineyards, then selecting again on a table de trie at the winery) in the 2005 vintage, and the quality of the wines has since taken an upturn. The Cornas and Hermitage cuvées showed potentially outstanding quality, though I thought the rest of the line was a little bit behind.

Jaboulet scaled back its grape purchases in '04 and '05 while the company was on the selling block (for instance, in '04, there was no Côtes du Rhône Parallèle 45, the company's workhorse $9 wine). The buying has yet to resume so far, and whether Frey wants to ramp up the négociant side of the business again remains to be seen. A recent purchase of 5 acres of vines in Côte-Rôtie, however, indicates that reinvestment is not out of the question.

There is a lot of change going on here. Some critics will undoubtedly denounce the new Jaboulet based on resistance to change alone. But new ideas are always needed. At the very least, Jaboulet deserves to be given a clean slate and our patience while the new regime settles in. Even if we offer them with our fingers crossed.

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