It has been a quiet week at Nemo headquarters but this has allowed us some extra time to reflect on our current wine list. This can be a dangerous task as we invariably start on one region and find ourselves still there several hours later. However, we did think that this may not be a terrible thing and came upon the idea of a 'Head to Head' between producers of a particular region. An in depth look at two producers and the differences they bring to an area can help open up a region some may not have looked at, or clear up some of the questions others may be asking.
This week we have decided to look at two of the major producers (both in reputation and quantity) in the Rhone valley. Jaboulet and Chapoutier.
Jaboulet is most famous for their Hermitage La Chapelle which has long been thought of as one of the best wines in the world. For some it rivals Bordeaux first growths for its complexity and consistency. They also produce wine from 25 other appellations making them one of the biggest winemakers in the Rhone. The question is, are these other wines as consistent and complex as La Chapelle? Does the name Jaboulet allow one to relax when buying wine under that name?
To an extent yes but there are always caveats. Jaboulet reached its peak of reputation in the 80’s for being the mass quality producer in the Rhone Valley. You could buy one of their wines and feel safe that you were getting something that was worth its price tag. The bottom end wines were well made but simple. The top end offered complexity and finesse.
But the reputation began to wane in the 90’s and not until the Frey family bought it in 2006 has it come back into the fold. That being said, we still rate some of their wines from the “low” point as being exceptionally good value. We once picked up a case of the 2000 Cornas Saint Pierre from a wine shop in south west France which, given its price tag, was an exceptionally good everyday wine. Their Domaine de Thalabert is also rated highly in our household: well made, with some complexity, good ageing potential and rarely goes above £30 a bottle.
The heavy investment from the Frey family and the focus on biodynamics has turned Jaboulet around in the eyes of wine critics and does seem to have had a positive impact on the wines as well. Wines that were well made but simple have increased in their complexity as though receiving a little more attention has allowed their full potential to come through.
The Chapoutier story has a slightly inverse timeline to Jaboulet. Up until the 1980’s when Michel and Marc Chapoutier took over from their father, the name did not carry as much weight in the Rhone Valley. Michel overhauled the winemaking facilities and methods which saw a considerable increase in quality and the increase in reputation followed.
As a producer Chapoutier is well known for its biodynamic principles as well as its focus on wines that truly reflect the terroir. They bottle their wines unfiltered and unfined to further this characteristic.
From our point of view all this focus on winemaking to preserve and encourage the terroir in each wine has the effect of making these wines very specific in taste. We have invested time and money trying them to really be sure of our opinion but we always find an underlying taste of mushroom in the Chapoutier wines. And this is where (for us wine geeks) wine becomes so interesting. These wines are hailed as some of the best in the Rhone valley and command huge sums of money. People rate the Chapoutier name highly and feel confident in buying wines with this label. And we are not denying that, like Jaboulet, this is another producer that offers good value both at the bottom and top ends of their range. There is care taken when making these wines. But, unlike Jaboulet, this is not a producer we see as a solid all-rounder. We don’t think it’s for everyone because the taste is so specific.
That said, if you like Chapoutier wines, you cannot go wrong with them. Consistent, well made wines that range from simple, everyday drinking to the truly complex, high end, special occasion bottles.
To sum up, try one of each, see who you prefer, and, if you’re lucky and like both, you have most of the Rhone valley covered and never have to suffer a poorly made wine from this region again.
2012 M. Chapoutier La Sizeranne Hermitage £78 per bottle
This is a great bottle to start to understand Chapoutier - made from grapes taken from different vineyards it is big and bold but shows terroir in abundance.
2013 M. Chapoutier Chante Alouette Blanc Hermitage £68 per bottle
Chapoutier's whites should not be overlooked especially as they can offer far better value than the reds. A clean, fresh tasting wine when young that becomes rich and full with a bit of age. Best drunk soon.