Woman Vintner Puts Rhone Valley Jaboulet Back on Map

French winemaker Caroline Frey, in chic white jacket over a sparkly T-shirt and slim velvet pants, hardly looks like a fighter.

Still, she was ready to block roads to prevent construction of a massive TV tower on the Rhone Valley’s most famous vineyard spot and source of her best wine, the hill of Hermitage. Her efforts, along with other winemakers, paid off: in June, it received protected status.

Frey’s tougher job has been resurrecting the reputation of wines from the venerable Rhone firm Domaines Paul Jaboulet Aine.

When her father, real estate entrepreneur Jean-Jacques Frey, purchased the wine company in 2006, quality was inconsistent, even for flagship Hermitage La Chapelle, one of the world’s legendary reds, and the Jaboulet brand had lost its cachet.

My recent tastings, however, suggest that 35-year-old Frey, born in Champagne, trained in Bordeaux, and winemaker at her family’s Chateau La Lagune, is beginning to turn the Jaboulet wines around.

It helped that 2009 and 2010 were stellar vintages in the Northern Rhone, where the red grape is syrah and whites are marsanne, roussanne, and viognier.

The Jaboulet family’s Rhone history dates back to 1834. For much of the 20th century, it was the most important negociant and producer there, with 280 acres (113 hectares) of vines, including 52 acres in Hermitage.

Pouring Money

After taking over, the Freys poured in money, just as they did after purchasing Chateau La Lagune in 2000.

“First I stopped pesticides and herbicides and began plowing with horses to allow the vine roots to go deep in the soil,” explains Frey, pulling out bottles for tasting at Vinexpo in Bordeaux.

As proprietor, she has created new domaine wines from Jaboulet vineyards, built a new winery, and revived Hermitage La Chapelle white. Defunct since 1962, this rarity seems aimed at collectors.

Drastic sorting and selection, Frey says, also upped quality. Only 2,000 cases of 2009 Hermitage La Chapelle were bottled, compared to nearly 9,000 cases in 2000.

Some of the 30-plus wines are works in progress. I never liked the winery’s boring Parallele 45 red, white, and rose ($10), and still don’t.

The 2011 Domaine Mule Blanche Crozes Hermitage Blanc ($40), a tart, citrusy marsanne-roussanne blend, lacks personality.

Orange Rind

I preferred the full, lush 2011 Domaine des Grands Amandiers Condrieu ($78), made from viognier, with its notes of minerals, orange rind and white flowers.

The best red value, despite a 30 percent price rise last year, is the glossy Domaine de Thalabert Crozes Hermitage ($52), made from 60-year-old vines. The 2010 is all pepper, licorice and spice; the 2011 is round and luscious with smoky, savory fruit.

I also like the inky, powerful, almost beefy 2011 Domaine de Saint-Pierre Cornas ($100) from a four-hectare parcel of 40-year-old vines.

The star, Hermitage La Chapelle, is back on track, though it now faces tough competition from other producers such as Jean-Louis Chave, whose brilliant Hermitage red and white have a cult following. The Jaboulet wine is named for the 13th-century stone chapel built, according to legend, by a wounded knight back from the Crusades seeking a peaceful refuge.

Czar Fan

Louis XIII boosted the fame of Hermitage wines in his court. The Russian Romanovs, including Czar Nicholas II, were fans. And great 19th-century Bordeaux were “hermitaged” -- mixed with Rhone wine to give them color and body.

Unlike some producers, Jaboulet blends together grapes from granite and limestone plots for La Chapelle. The ripe, deep 2009 ($200) was the turn-around vintage, while the dense, luscious, smoky 2010 ($240), with its suede texture and taste of candied violets, is a step up. The smooth, blackberry-and-licorice 2011 ($140 as futures), to be released in January, will be ready to drink much sooner than the 2009 and 2010.

While a few critics suggest the Jaboulet wines haven’t yet established a style, I see a definite vision at work. Frey is aiming for wines that are pure, balanced and not theatrical or high in alcohol.

Liv-Ex’s September Market Report shows increased interest in both Northern and Southern Rhone wines last month.

Auction Demand

Auction demand for Northern Rhone wines is tightly focused on the very best Cote-Rotie and Hermitage wines from top producers such as Chave, E. Guigal, and Jaboulet, says Jamie Ritchie, chief executive officer and President of Sotheby’s Wine for the Americas and Asia.

One way Frey has drawn more international attention is by offering bottles of Hermitage La Chapelle direct from the Jaboulet cellars at Sotheby’s auctions.

On Saturday, Sept. 7, in Hong Kong, the New York auction house held its third successful Jaboulet sale, with vintages spanning 1949 to 2010. A private Asian bidder paid $94,231 for six bottles of the 1961, nearly double the high estimate.

Still, that wasn’t quite as high as the price paid for the 1961 at Sotheby’s Hong Kong sale last December, when, after enthusiastic bidding, three bottles brought $22,000 each, 165 percent above estimate. That works out to about $3,666 per four-ounce glass.

I’ve sipped this velvety red on only three occasions, and it was one of the best wines I’d ever tasted, up there with 1945 Mouton Rothschild. Other top vintages are 1978 and 1990. Whether 2010 is in their league remains to be seen.

“I think there’s a big difference between the quality of Jaboulet wines today and the perception of them,” Frey says. “It takes years to change opinions. That’s so frustrating.”

(Elin McCoy writes on wine and spirits for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans on U.S. TV, Warwick Thompson on U.K. theater and Scott Reyburn on the art market.