Wine News Last Chance to See One of the Great Wines

Last Chance to See One of the Great Wines

The hill of Hermitage is home to one of the greatest wines ever made.
© Paul Jaboulet | The hill of Hermitage is home to one of the greatest wines ever made.
No discussion of the world's greatest ever wines is complete without the 1961 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle.
By Don Kavanagh | Posted Thursday, 03-Oct-2019

It's a fool's errand trying to rank the world's greatest wines, but there is one name that springs to mind almost immediately wherever wine lovers are gathered.

The 1961 Paul Jaboulet Aîné Hermitage La Chapelle is one of the rarest of creatures: a wine that unites the famously fractious wine-writing community. In a world where being a "disruptor", a shock doctor, or simply an old-fashioned contrarian is almost compulsory, this wine gets unanimous praise.

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Given the subjectivity around wine quality – even among the experts – it is impossible to definitively pin a rosette on one wine and say "this is the greatest", but there is a very easy case to be made for this particular cuvée. All the things that make a wine great are here; rarity, provenance, breeding, terroir, vine age, low yield, superior ripeness and longevity all collide in a perfect storm around the 1961 La Chapelle.

For a start, there's the appellation itself. The Hermitage AOC in the Northern Rhône owes its origins, apocryphally, to the knight Gaspard de Stérimberg, who stopped in the locality on his way home from merrily slaughtering the Cathars of Languedoc on behalf of his king, Louis VIII back in 1224. He had a chapel built atop a hill and became a hermit, living in the chapel and thus giving the wine a name. Grapes were planted soon after and the Syrah-based wines from there were soon prized among the nobility of Europe, especially after France's Louis XIII made Hermitage the wine of court.

Wines from the 140-hectare (345-acre) appellation have never really gone out of style since, and the Jaboulet La Chapelle has helped the entire Rhône region polish its reputation for quality, reflecting the granite and limestone soils through grapes from vines with an average age of 40.

The wine comes mostly from the limestone soils of the Le Méal section of Hermitage, which tends to give powerful, long-lived wines. However, there is also a portion of grapes from the granite slopes of the subzone known as Les Bessards. This area usually offers more refined, mineral-based flavors, and the combination of the two has always been a winner.

And never more so than in 1961, when nature had a hand in creating a classic. The vintage was very hot, even for an appellation that is used to high temperatures. However, an unseasonably rainy June reduced the size of the crop, leaving a very low yield. Conditions returned to normal for the rest of the growing season and the resultant, much-reduced harvest was exceptional.

How exceptional? Well, reviewers as diverse as Jancis Robinson, Jeff Leve, Michael Broadbent, Robert Parker and the Wine Spectator have all sung its praises, with the latter two both giving the wine perfect scores. And it isn't a case of having been tasted at the optimum time, either. Robinson has tasted the wine multiple times and given it top marks; the Wine Advocate gave it 100 points in 2015 and recommended a drinking window somewhere between that year and 2060.

That longevity has made the wine a star performer at auction, and also had an unfortunate impact (from the buyer's perspective) on its price. The average ex-tax price on Wine-Searcher is $17,360, which would place it in third place on our current list of most-expensive wines. This is the best bit, though: when it was released it cost 10 French francs, or about $2.04 as rates were back then.

So, if you missed your chance 60-odd years ago, how can you make amends now? Well, apart from laying out a lot of money, you'll need to be quick; we only have 13 listings left.

London's Farr Vintners has a bottle (with a torn label) available for sale at the relative bargain price of $11,070, although that is the in-bond price, so you'll end up paying more once it is released from bond. Cellaraiders in Brewster, New York has it for $12,500 ex-tax.

France is your best bet to track it down, with five different offers there. The cheapest – and "cheap" is very definitely a relative term when it comes to the 1961 La Chapelle – is from Vintage & Cie at $13,606 ex-tax, while the most expensive is Caviste Authentique at $23,946, although that does include the sales tax.

The number of offers is heading determinedly downwards, so if you want to get your hands on a piece of history, you'd better get cracking.

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