As comparisons go, it now seems a bit tenuous, but you could see the logic in the minds of the wine distributors of yesteryear: compare the wines of the Australian young pretender, Penfolds Grange Hermitage (the ‘Hermitage’ part was dropped from 1990 to comply with EU labelling regulations, neatly coinciding with the brand’s coming of age in its own right) with those of arguably the most celebrated bottling of the same grape variety produced in France. The rationale was twofold: for reflected glory, of course, but principally as a reminder to those tasting the wines that Australia’s ‘workhorse’ grape variety, Shiraz, was indeed one and the same as the perfumed, peppery, dark-fruited and densely pigmented Syrah from the Northern Rhône.
Thus it was that lucky wine fans got to try, side by side, Hermitage La Chapelle from Jaboulet, responsible for many terrific wines and some truly spectacular ones – notably the great 1961 and 1990 – regularly cited as being up there with greatest red Bordeaux of the twentieth century (think Pétrus 1961 and Mouton Rothschild 1945) – against Penfolds flagship wine, despite their differences of terroir, winemaking style and hemisphere.
Our September wine auction features a great example of each wine, with a bottle of the fabled 1990 Hermitage La Chapelle and a 2001 Penfolds Grange. We’re open to invites should you choose to open them and compare, but we thought we’d take the opportunity to take another look at what makes both wines so special.
The wines of France’s Hermitage hill hold a special place in the hearts of many wine fans, being often responsible for the ultimate expression of Syrah as a variety, the south facing granitic slope producing dense, robust and seriously age-worthy bottlings that can last for decades. Historically, and to the eternal embarrassment of many famed Bordeaux Châteaux, barrels of it were used to boost and add structure – or ‘Hermitagé’ wines produced in France’s other wine producing regions well in to the early 20th century, up to and including ‘First Growths’.
For relative scale it’s worth remembering that the entire, unexpandable Hermitage hill is only around 126 hectares in total, of which the Jaboulets own just 22 hectares of vines (including 6.8 hectares of the most famed, limestone-rich climat, Le Méal). For comparison, Bordeaux’s Château Lafite is 100 hectares by itself.
Antoine Jaboulet established his wine business in Tain l’Hermitage in 1834, with the first mentions of ‘La Chapelle’, named after the tiny chapel of St. Christopher which sits atop the hill, appearing in family records from the late 1800s.
Bottling wines from a large number of appellations Jaboulet was ‘the international yardstick for good Rhône’ in the 1970s and 1980s, according to authority John Livingstone-Learmonth. Connoisseurs who know their wines have, for example, long made a bee-line for great older vintages of the Domaine de Thalabert Crozes Hermitage, which has always punched way above its retail or hammer price – until quality started to wobble in the late 1990s due to a variety of factors, including poor selection.
Swiss financiers (and owners of Bordeaux Château La Lagune) the Frey family, bought Jaboulet in 2006, installing their unquestionably talented winemaker daughter Caroline at the helm. Quality improvements have included biodynamic viticulture in the vineyards, double-sorting of the fruit prior to vinification, and a change in the wood regime (Château Latour being one source of barrels). Time and the evolution of the wines in bottle will serve to show if 2000s bottlings can stand alongside the best of the 20th century in the affections of critics and Syrah fiends.
The creator of Penfolds Grange, Max Schubert, was not, as it happens, trying to emulate the wines of the Rhône at all with his legendary creation, at least initially. Rather, his winemaking experiments were as a direct result of a trip to Bordeaux in the early 1950s on behalf of Penfolds, who had largely made and sold sweet and fortified wines since their establishment in 1844. He reasoned that Australia’s wealth of old vine Shiraz fruit and the usage of small oak barrels could produce a similarly long-lived, structured, dry ‘fine wine’ to those he tried in the Médoc.
His initial experiments were with the 1951 vintage, with the 1952 vintage being the first commercial release, using fruit from vineyards including the Grange vineyard at Magill and pressings from the Barossa’s Nuriootpa to give the wine sheer physical mass and matter. Extended fermentation, going for maximum extraction, and maturation in new American oak hogsheads for 18 months created a beast that confounded the Penfolds board, who tasted it in 1957, universally detested it, and ordered that production cease at once (‘Schubert, I congratulate you. A very good, dry port, which no one on their right mind will buy, let alone drink’, said one).
Geography saved Grange from extinction. Penfolds board was located in Sydney, New South Wales, with the winemaking team in South Australia’s Adelaide, enabling production on the sly of the so-called 1957 to 1959 ‘hidden vintages’. In 1960 the early 50s vintages, starting to develop nicely, were re-evaluated by the board who had a change of heart, and the 1955 became a hit on the Australian wine show circuit shortly thereafter, cementing the wine’s domestic reputation.
Proper international renown took longer to come (hence the Jaboulet vs. Penfolds comparisons), but advocates included the doyenne of English wine writers, Jancis Robinson MW, who famously poured it for a panel of unimpressed French wine professionals on live television in the 1980s. It was undoubtedly the great 1990 vintage, however, that cemented Grange’s reputation, with Wine Spectator making it their wine of the year in 1995, with Robert Parker scoring most vintages well into the 90s, and awarding the 1976 a ‘perfect’ 100 point score.