Matthew Jukes meets Caroline Frey, an inspiring pioneer revolutionising the wine trade.
I always pop into Château La Lagune when I am tasting Bordeaux for my annual En Primeur Report. It is a joy to taste the wine and also spend a few minutes chatting with the owner, winemaker Caroline Frey. This year I fired across an email to her asking if, while tasting her famous Bordeaux, I could have a look at the wines she makes from her other estates. I had no idea that my usual 15-minute meeting would turn into one of the most memorable two hours I have spent in my entire wine life.
Caroline is a committed and dynamic vinous eco-warrior. Her vineyards, which her father Jean Jacques Frey acquired, are ultra-holistically farmed with care, and attention taken in every corner and beyond to the local flora and fauna. She was recently awarded the insignia of Chevalier de l’Ordre National du Mérite for her work in agriculture, viticulture and the environment, as well as the protection of indigenous and migrant species of birds. In her various properties she has all but finished her transition of these vineyards to organic viticulture. All her Crozes-Hermitage and Hermitage vineyards at Paul Jaboulet Aîné, her mighty estate in the Northern Rhône, are farmed biodynamically. The changes have taken the taste of her many wines to a level never before experienced at these estates.
It’s all about the taste
In addition to looking at the 2017 La Lagune barrel sample, which shimmered with stunningly pure cabernet fruit, Caroline also showed me a suite of her devastating new Burgundies. Her 2015 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru was a model of noble exuberance balanced with devastating minerality and acidity – a running theme in every single wine in her portfolio. Four inaugural vintage 2015 reds showed amazing vitality – a village Volnay; a village Pommard; a Premier Cru called Aloxe-Corton, Les Petits Lolières; and a Grand Cru, Corton, Le Clos du Château Monopole, all paraded precision, lightness of touch and true pinot noir character, which has so often been besmirched and confused in recent years.
I moved on to the Jaboulet range and I was not prepared for the precision and tension which each and every wine showed in the glass. While this estate is, understandably and historically, world famous, the production of many of their wines is minuscule. Only a handful of barrels from each stellar plot are made annually, but they all shine with remarkable individuality and intent. I have written up my tasting in full detail on my website, but suffice to say that, having been privileged to taste both the legendary 1961 and 1978 vintages of the pinnacle Jaboulet wine, Hermitage La Chapelle, I can tell you that the 2016 release (only a 2,800-case production) is a perfect 20/20 in my notes and it is the finest expression of this vineyard I have ever seen.
So far so epic. As we finished our tasting, I asked Caroline what she does to relax, not expecting her to have any time left in the day. Perhaps I should have guessed the answer – she runs up and down mountains, marathon-style! Take a peek at her Instagram account, which shows Condé Nast Traveller-quality pics from the peaks of every conceivable mountaintop in the Alps.
In 2015 her Swiss mountain-running coach told her that he might know of a few small plots of vines that she might fancy in her favourite Valais region of Switzerland. She bought a tiny 2,000 sq m plot of vines in 2015, and I was excited to taste her first production wine from the 2016 vintage. Entitled, Les Grains Blancs de Mon Jardin Secret, this wine is a secret no longer. Only a handful of people have ever tasted this wine, not least because she only made 500 bottles.
This vineyard and its sublime white wine represent her personal tension-decompression-vehicle. She works the land herself, she picks the grapes herself and makes the wine herself as a therapy to enable her to confront the world with her other stellar, world-famous brands.
In 2017, she made just 50 litres of wine using her favourite grape variety, petite arvine, and while I have yet to taste this offering, the joy and electricity this personal project has given her is, clearly, what lights up her passion and energy for driving her other estates so hard in search of the purist expression of their hallowed vineyard sites.
How to buy
Search for Jaboulet online and you will find that her first-rung wine is available on the high street for under ten pounds. Then climb this ladder via the others to the pinnacle, which only the privileged can afford, and see that integrity, expression and clarity is available at every step.
One final thought – is there anyone else in the world who makes elite Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhône wines, let alone Swiss wines, too? The answer is, of course, no. It has taken a young lady, with the health of the planet at the forefront of her mind, to crack this impossible challenge.