A visit to Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Côtes-du-Rhône

There was no excuse for being three hours late for our tasting at Jaboulet.  Okay so the TGV now has my father’s glasses and trying to get them back is a waste of time, we got lost six times thanks to the typically bad French road signs and with no GPS – it was just no wonder we completely messed up.  Getting from Valence to Tain l’Hermitage seemed like such a straight shot.  It’s supposed to take only thirty minutes.  There really was no believable way to excuse ourselves at this point.

Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné is one of the largest producers in the Northern Rhône and this is the kind of tasting that you don’t want to be late for.  Least of all when you have a private tasting with the winemaker. Ralph Garcin could not have been more sympathetic, even though he does that commute everyday.  If he thought we were crazy tourists, he didn’t say anything.  As one of three winemakers at Jaboulet, Ralph breezed right into a private tasting for us and poured 10 wines out of their array of thirty-five.  Ralph is a Provence guy having lived in the South of France all of his life, and in perfect English, with an interesting Australian twang, he talked us through Jaboulet’s 200 years of history and each of the wines.  Clearly he had spent some time downunder.  We immediately liked him. He then asked if we’d like to see La Chapelle.

La Chapelle of course is what I‘d heard about from most people that knew anything about wines from this region.  Yes, we do want to see it, I said to myself (you don’t get offers like this every day).  Jaboulet’s best wine takes its name from this mystical chapel that is perched on the hillside above Tain.  In the wine world, it is well known. Following his lead we walked briskly towards his stationwagon, holding back our smiles and excitement.

Clearly he had driven up the windy road a million times.  Surrounded by the steep and terraced vines, we started to see the spectacular view of the Rhône and Tain as we etched up the hillside.  Did he have a sixth sense about cars coming the other way that we could not see?  Clearly he did.  There was no room for two lanes on the hillside.

Here in Tain there is no question which producers these vines belong to. Jaboulet and M. Chapoutier signs dominate the terraces on both sides of the Rhône river. After two centuries of winemaking these two giants are a force to be reckoned with.

La Chapelle is undoubtedly the guardian of the Rhône valley.  Perched prominently above the terraced hillsides below, the chapel is more like a shrine to the vines.  When you get closer you realize it sits between the two competitors.  Literally there are M. Chapoutier vines on one side, and Jaboulet vines on the other.  There are no fences here.  The tiny chapel seems to create harmony and an unspoken barrier between the two. Maybe it’s because the chapel, or its knight has a peaceful way of taking care of both of them.

Legend has it that in the 13th century a knight came to this area after being scarred and exhausted from a large battle. He decided to live here and become a hermit.  The legendary knight built La Chapelle to live out the rest of his days in peace.  The name “Hermitage” comes from this hermit, and the chapel is named after Saint-Christophe, le patron des voyagers (the patron saint of travelers).  This fascinating story gave me a new understanding of “Hermitage” after seeing this on so many bottles.

As we turned a corner, Ralph slows down to show us the view.  From here we saw the Rhône river as it stretches south and the famous wine villages of Saint-Joseph, Condrieu, Côte-Rôtie and Saint-Péray.  High above the village of Tain, it is very quiet, serene and magical.  La Chapelle itself has a presence here that is hard to describe.  This calming icon marks the place where the Jaboulet and M Chapoutier grapes connect.  The two Rhône super powers reign supreme as they overlook the entire valley from north to south.

As we looked down to the vines below, Ralph pointed out the Syrah, Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier grapes that make up Jaboulet’s great wines.  The terraces are too steep for machinery so the grapes are hand harvested.  Understanding what goes into a bottle makes it easy to see why these wines command a mid to premium price point.

In the US, you’ll recognize the Jaboulet brand for Parellèle 45, their rosé, which is entirely produced for the American market, and finely tuned for American taste buds.  As Ralph chatted away in his English French-Australian accent, I wondered, why did the knight pick this place? Could it be Saint Christophe, La Chapelle or the legend of the knight contributing to the success of the wines of this region?  Even if it’s not true, I like to believe it is.  There certainly seems to be something special going on here.  I think I just found one of France’s most remarkable wine regions.