Chris and Jeff Galvin stare up at the stone chapel perched on the top of the steeply terraced vineyard in the northern Rhône and are momentarily (and uncharacteristically)
silent. The top London chefs are paying quiet homage to Hermitage La Chapelle, Maison Paul Jaboulet AÁ®né's top wine - the key inspiration for their flagship restaurant,
Galvin La Chapelle, in London's Spitalfields.
This is one of the world's most celebrated wines, with the 1961 vintage enjoying true iconic status. Powerful US wine critic Robert Parker describes it as 'one of the three or four greatest red wines I have ever tasted', with subsequent vintages not far behind. But at £19,500 a bottle on the wine list at Galvin La Chapelle (yes, you did read that right), only a handful of people are ever likely to taste it.
Every contour and crevice of the famous granite hillside on the east bank of the Rhône is covered in vines - and at â¬1m per hectare for the 134-hectare Hermitage appellation, you can see why. The three big names - and you can't miss them emblazoned on the hillside in their large painted letters - are Chave, Chapoutier and Jaboulet.
"Hermitage 'La Chapelle' is a cellar blend rather than a vineyard selection," explains winemaker Jacques Desvernois, as we crane our necks upwards, our eyes following the line of cypress trees that mark the top ridge of the Jaboulet vineyard not far from the famous chapel itself, which they also own.
It might not still have the original family owner, but Jaboulet continues to be a familyowned business. Before the Freys bought it in 2006, adding it to their stable, which includes the prestigious ChÁ¢teau La Lagune in Bordeaux, and most recently ChÁ¢teau de Corton André in Burgundy, Maison Paul Jaboulet AÁ®né ruled these hills in the second half of the 20th century, building up a strong négociant business in addition to producing wine from its own extensive vineyards.
A series of wobbles during the 1980s and 1990s might have dented Jaboulet's dynamism somewhat, but it was nothing that couldn't be sorted by current winemaker-in-chief, the formidable Caroline Frey, whose impressive shake-up includes a revival of a 19th century tradition of blending Bordeaux with Rhône in a smart bottling called Evidence, a 50/50 blend of Cabernet Sauvignon from La Lagune and Syrah from the Jaboulet-owned Domaine de Thalabert in Crôzes-Hermitage.
It's not the Galvins' first visit here, of course. The brothers come to the Rhône regularly to taste the wines and eat the food, singing the praises of its produce, from Sisteron
lamb and cheeses such as Saint-Marcellin to Tain-l'Hermitage's white peaches, and Valhrona chocolate, whose HQ shares the same location, and where we while away a couple of hours playing in its interactive museum, before heading to mission control to catch up with Valrhona executive pastry chef Philippe Givre.
So when did this particular love affair with the Rhône - and Hermitage start? "We didn't jump straight into bed with Jaboulet," assures Jeff, scooping up a handful of the hallowed soil for closer inspection. "The quality of the wine cemented our passion for it. I don't like to think of heaven too much but this is our idea of it," he says, wistfully gazing out across the vineyard to the fast-flowing river beyond.
It was Eric Narioo at Guildford wine merchant Les Caves de Pyrene that introduced the Galvins to Rhône wines when they opened their first restaurant Galvin Bistrot de Luxe back in 2005. Soon after that they experienced their first taste of Paul Jaboulet AÁ®né Hermitage La Chapelle, which took place, rather appropriately, at legendary Lyon bouchon La Mère Brazier, a favourite haunt.
"A friend put a bottle on the table and we had a moment. Then we went up the hill to the chapel and the connection was made," recalls Chris. "The more we discovered Hermitage wines, the more we fell in love with the Rhône. It has a great deal of resonance with our cooking - especially its depth and minerality," he adds, revealing that they often use wine as a key inspiration when constructing a dish.
"We'll take lots of ingredients and the wine from the region and then start to build the dish. That way you give it an identity," adds Jeff. His favourite Jaboulet match? Tagine of Bresse pigeon (with cous cous, confit lemon and harissa sauce) with the 2001 Jaboulet Hermitage 'La Chapelle' (£355 a bottle at Galvin La Chapelle). For Chris, it's a jeroboam of 2004 Crozes-Hermitage, Domaine de Thalabert, Paul Jaboulet AÁ®né, with veal and morels.
'La Chapelle' vintages
Unsurprisingly, Galvin La Chapelle boasts an impressive line-up of Jaboulet wines, including Hermitage 'La Chapelle' vintages running from 1952 to 2005, the latter offered by the glass at £44. Then there is the seven-course La Chapelle tasting menu with Jaboulet wines to match, at £142 per person. "We sell around 20 of these menus every Friday night," reveals head sommelier Andrea Briccarello, who has also joined the trip.
But that's not quite the end of the Jaboulet love-in. Just in case you miss the connection, there is a big goblet of soil from the hill of Hermitage displayed in the restaurant, alongside a vine from the hallowed hill.
Suddenly horses come into view at the end of a row of vines, plodding slowly along the vertiginous terraces, guided skillfully by a vineyard worker, who steers the heavy plough, which is turning over the soil, enabling the roots to delve as deeply as possible into the rock. It's a rare sight, and the Galvins are transfixed.
There's been a gradual move towards organic and biodynamic farming at Maison Paul Jaboulet AÁ®né since 2007. "We use three horses to plough 16 hectares around three
times a year, explains Desvernois. "What has changed the style of the wines is the grapes, not the winemaking. We can see a definite difference in the vines farmed this way - there's higher acidity, more sugar and the resulting wines are more intense, more elegant."
In a nutshell, the Hermitage wines are slow to mature, deep in colour and boast intriguing savoury rather than sweet notes - Rhône Syrah at its very best. We get to try a few of the more recent vintages of Paul Jaboulet AÁ®né Hermitage La Chapelle, 2001, 2007 and 2012, over lunch at their smart tasting room-cumwine bar, Le Vineum, in Tain-l'Hermitage.
Soon, though, Frey will be paying the boys a visit in London to hand over a muchcoveted brass plaque, which they will display at the entrance, declaring them Ambassadors of Paul Jaboulet AÁ®né Hermitage La Chapelle'. "Only one other place has that. I've been waiting like a dog waits for a bone for this - it completes the picture, don't you think?" says Chris, proudly.
Maison Paul Jaboulet AÁ®né wines are available in the UK through Bibendum Wine 0845 263 6924,bibendum-wine.co.ukÂ**