Tasting Note : 1996 Cornas, Paul Jaboulet Aîné

I’ve long had a particular liking for the wines of Cornas, this supposedly toughest, most masculine appellation in the Rhône. I’ve always had a few bottles in my cellar, and was appalled when a scare over some of the oldest vineyards shook the region two years ago.

One of the first Cornas I cellared, shortly after I started putting away a few bottles, was the Paul Jaboulet Aîné Cornas – the regular cuvée, which had the advantage of being more affordable, allowing me to keep two of the 1996 on their side for the following decade.

The 1996 vintage was a significant year for the Jaboulet domaine, since it was the last worked by Gérard Jaboulet, the patriarch who had done so much to enhance the estate’s reputation over the previous decades. Gérard died suddenly in 1997, leaving the family in clear disarray. The quality of the wines suffered in the following few years, as many comments and reviews repeatedly stated.

The long-term result of that difficult period has been the purchase of Paul Jaboulet Aîné, a family operation for almost two centuries, by the Frey family, owners of Château La Lagune, among other properties. Only one Jaboulet, Frédéric, is still working with the company : seven were at the helm up to the sale, in 2006.

The sale has certainly meant an influx in cash. What it means in terms of quality and reputation will have to be seen over the next few year

In the meantime, I am finishing the last few bottles of Jaboulet wines from the Gérard era in my cellar, including a recent tasting of the second bottle of 1996 Cornas. I had tasted the first bottle a year ago, and written a tasting note on my French blog where I was perplexed at the rather reserved flavors and aromas it displayed.

This time was different. Animal smells jumped forward right after opening, blending afterwards with a lovely touch of licorice, some cedar, coffee, a touch of black fruit, and a bit of herbal notes. The licorice and cedar were the most noticeable flavors on tasting, with a pleasant mouthfeel that faded a bit on the finish.

Though this was a pleasant and complex enough cuvée, it seemed unlikely that the wine would have gained anything from staying longer in the cellar. The orange edges and the evolved set of flavors and aromas hinted that while it hadn’t faded, it was on the edge of doing so. Nothing like the 20-year minimum wait time that used to be touted by Rhône experts about the « black wines » of Cornas. Maybe that duration would be more appropriate for the Domaine Saint-Pierre of the same era, the best Cornas vineyard owned by the Jaboulet estates, or for the cuvées of top producers like Clape, Jacques Lemenicier, Vincent Paris or Mathieu Barret’s Domaine du Coulet, to quote a few. I guess I’ll still wait a bit before opening that 98 Clape…

P.S. : Thank you, Jancis !

I’d like to thank Jancis Robinson for her help with this post. Being away from my home, and without any reference books, I couldn’t find any trace of Gérard Jaboulet on the Jaboulet web site or just about anywhere on the web, and my memory was failing to remember the first name. How quickly someone of that stature can seem to be forgotten… I posted a tweet asking for help, and Ms Robinson was kind and generous enough to provide an answer in the next couple of hours. I promise to raise a toast to her with the next bottle of Jaboulet – or Cornas – I open.

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