A Knight To Forget

Every year I think about buying a couple of cases of Bordeaux en primeur, but every year I always seem to have either just bought a case or two of something interesting or I find that I’ve just allocated my next few months’ wine allowance to several bottles of something I just can’t live without. And there’s always the knowledge that once the initial scuffle between the châteaux to out-hype and out-price each other has died down, the majority of the wines will remain in the region of their release price until they are bottled, if not for longer. So there really is no rush to buy them…

Then the next vintage rolls around and the same thing happens again. I still have next to no Bordeaux in my cellar, but I do have a whole host of other wines that excite and inspire me every time I think about them.

That being said, I do sometimes take advantage of en primeur offers from other quarters of the wine world, although the first time I did so was the start of a rather steep learning curve. I don’t buy wines to sell for profit, rather my investment is in my future drinking. However expensive the wines that I love are today, the one thing I do know is that I definitely won’t be able to afford (or to find) them in ten years’ time when they are ready to drink.

About eleven years ago, an en primeur offer from Lay & Wheeler fell through my letterbox that was too good to pass up. It contained a selection of northern Rhône wines from the spectacular 1999 vintage by, amongst other producers, the legendary Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné. 1998 had been THE year for Châteauneuf and for the southern Rhône, but I’ve always been more of a fan of the complex purity of the north’s Syrah and 1999 was its year to shine. It didn’t take much more than a single read through of the offer leaflet to persuade me to pick up the phone and order a case of the red Hermitage La Chapelle and a case of its white counterpart the Hermitage Le Chevalier de Stérimberg, both for delivery about eighteen months hence.

The chapel of Saint-Christophe

The chapel of Saint-Christophe

The Stérimberg was something of an impulse buy; I really like Rhône whites and this Marsanne and Roussanne blend seemed a great way to introduce myself to white Hermitage. In fact, the etymology of its name sold it to me. The knight Gaspard de Stérimberg returned wounded from the Albigensian crusade and, in 1235, gained the permission of the White Queen of Castille to build the small chapel of Saint-Christophe to establish his hermitage on what is now the hill of Hermitage. Jaboulet purchased the chapel in 1919 and it has inspired the names of their top wines.

Whilst waiting for my wines to arrive, I occasionally browsed the wine literature, the wine press and the still fledgling internet for any tasting notes of what was obviously a pair of fantastic wines, but very little news was forthcoming. When the 1999 northern Rhônes eventually began to hit the market, everyone else’s wines were garnering rave reviews, but mysteriously little was being said about these two icons of their ilk. When I did eventually find some tasting notes, matters became clearer. What I hadn’t known is that although vintages of La Chapelle such as the 1961 and the 1978 are some of the finest wines of the 20th century, Jaboulet was in the middle of a slump during the late nineties which continued until fairly recently. Jaboulet was bought in 2006 by Swiss financier Jacques Frey (owner of Médoc third growth Château La Lagune) and a concerted effort was made to turn things around. (These improvements also happened to coincide with a re-branding of many of its wines and a deliberate doubling of their prices. Cynical? Me?)

Needless to say, all of the tasting notes I read of these wines smacked of disappointment and wasted potential. No-one went so far as to say that the wines were outright shockers, just that they really weren’t what should be expected from this terroir in this vintage. I think I’d have preferred it if people had actually hated the wines, at least they’d have had strong feelings one way or the other and that has to be better than blanket ambivalence. As Michelangelo said, the ugly can be beautiful, the pretty never.

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage Le Chevalier De Stérimberg 1999

Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Hermitage Le Chevalier De Stérimberg 1999

I have not yet tried the La Chapelle – I think I’m just delaying any possible disappointment – but I tried my first bottle of the Chevalier de Stérimberg about three years ago. The cork was fine, but the wine began to darken on pouring and was quite definitely oxidising before my eyes. I’d opened it for a special occasion and foolishly I didn’t have anything else suitable in reserve. I poured as little of it as I could reasonably get away with and moved on to the red as quickly as possible.

I can’t say that I’ve been in any rush to open another bottle, but the common wisdom is that white Hermitage should be drunk within four years or after ten, and neither of us is getting any younger. A Friday night is a great excuse for most things, so why not give the Stérimberg another chance?

Again, the very long cork was in perfect condition, with no signs of anything untoward. The wine was quite a deep yellow gold, almost apricot coloured, but it did darken a little during the course of dinner. The nose had smokey, honeyed, white and stone fruits and a hot-pebble minerality, but definitely showed signs of oxidation/age.

The palate was dry yet rich and full bodied, with a firm, smokey acidity and minerality. White fruit and floral characters completed the ensemble, but all I could focus on was the oxidation/tiredness of a wine that should have just been hitting its peak. I'm trying very hard to write more effusively and to enthuse in a way that befits this wine's appellation and vintage, but to be honest it really wasn't all that special. Ten bottles of white Hermitage will be heading off on a crusade to auction rather soon.