A Great White Wine: History, Herstory, Ourstory

In addition to all the sensory pleasure that wines provide, some of them have the added dimension of history. We all enjoy a good story, and when it culminates in a lovely glassful, that’s even better.

Diane and I and our good friend Gene recently experienced a wonderful convergence of those attractions over a celebratory dinner at Galatoire’s, in New Orleans.

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As most food and wine people know, Galatoire’s has plenty of history in its own right. Now approaching its 110th anniversary, Galatoire’s has for decades maintained its place as a – maybe the – classic New Orleans restaurant, and a dinner there is de facto a special occasion. This one was even more special because Diane and I were in New Orleans to celebrate (a) her birthday, (b) our anniversary, and (c) Gene’s birthday – one of those significant ones that end in 5 or 0. So we had a lot of convergence right there, in our own persons.

Then there was the wine. With our appetizers and first course, we drank a truly lovely bottle of 2006 Hermitage blanc from Jaboulet, the house’s great Chevalier de Sterimberg. Now there’s a wine with history!

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Hermitage

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The Rhône has been a wine river from antiquity. Greek settlers many centuries BC may have introduced the vine to its valley, or they may have found Gaulish tribes already cultivating it. When the Romans finally got there in the first century BC, they rapidly exploited the microclimates and soils they found, and the area south of their regional headquarters at Vienne and north of their garrison at Valence quickly became an important wine center. It has remained so ever since, except for a period of snobbish neglect in the 19th century, when the wines of its principal appellation – Hermitage – were used to “ameliorate” the best wines of Bordeaux. The French even have a verb for it: hermitagiser.

Lovers of Italian wine will recognize the pattern: Northern growers scorn the wines of their south but use them to give body and fruit and finesse to their own production. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

On the Greco-Roman-Gaulish time scale, Hermitage is a Johnny-come-lately wine. It owes its start – or at least its name – to a French knight, Chevalier Gaspard de Sterimberg. According to the (fairly well attested) legend, our good knight was injured during the 13th-century Albigensian crusade, one of those episodes of French history about which the less said the better: Essentially, some of the nobility and all of the Church of southern France tried to exterminate what they called a nest of heretics centered in Albi – fratricidal war at its ugliest. At any rate, the injured and apparently chastened de Sterimberg convalesced at the top of what is now the Hermitage hill, where he built a chapel and spent the rest of his life in solitary and peaceful prayer.

Whether all the vines that now climb up to his chapel – which, by the way, gives its name to Jaboulet’s glorious red Hermitage, La Chapelle – were already there is not clear, but there is certainly a long and continuous history of viticulture on the site.

The Jaboulet firm was founded in 1807, and for a long while all the fame of its Hermitage accrued to its red wines. George Saintsbury thought red Hermitage “the manliest of wines,” back in the days when one could say such things without blushing or apologizing. Jaboulet even then produced the white Chevalier de Sterimberg, but it never acquired much of a reputation.

Then, in the mid-1980s, Jaboulet began to change the way it made the wine: complete malolactic fermentation, some time in small oak, and a unique-for-the-area blend of Roussanne and Marsanne – almost 50-50, the largest percentage of Marsanne in the zone.

The result has been what we enjoyed at Galatoire’s: a big, round white; fat without flabbiness; with unusual aromas and flavors – acacia flowers, hazelnuts, mineral – finishing with a hint of paradoxically dry honey. While still not as renowned as La Chapelle, Chevalier de Sterimberg has definitely become a cult wine in Europe and among consumers who relish the white wines of the Rhône. It has charm, and depth, and a degree of rarity (usually only 12,000 or fewer bottles made) and a wonderful ability to match with the most seemingly unlikely foods.

For example: Our bottle played happily with Galatoire’s “appetizers” (the quotation marks are there because Gene rightly warned us years ago that in New Orleans, there is no such thing as an appetizer) of souffléd potatoes and deep-fried eggplant spears, accompanied by Creole sauce béarnaise and an improbable but quite tasty muddle – mixed at the table – of powdered sugar and Tabasco sauce.

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appetizer

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After that, our first courses of crabmeat maison, shrimp remoulade  (Diane has written about that dish here), and seafood gumbo gave the wine no difficulty at all.

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3 dishes

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One more bit of history converges here too: After the sudden death of Gerard Jaboulet in 1997, the wines went into something of an eclipse until the Jaboulet family sold its properties to the owners of La Lagune in Bordeaux, whose daughter Caroline Frey, a trained enologist, took over in 2003 as the manager of all the estates. The wines since then have been hers, and she has very successfully continued the most progressive changes that Gerard Jaboulet had begun. So one more story merges into the old Chevalier’s, and all – including Diane’s and mine – converged at a splendid dinner in New Orleans. Happy birthday, Gene!

4 Responses to “A Great White Wine: History, Herstory, Ourstory”

  1. Ed McCarthy Says:

    It takes an ex-English teacher to write as well as you do. Definitely a step up from ex-teachers of math, etc.

    • Tom Maresca Says:

      Hmm. You wouldn’t just be saying that because you’re an ex-English teacher yourself, would you?

  2. Gene Bourg Says:

    Thanks for extending the pleasures of that very memorable dinner, Tom — with the choice of that marvelous wine and this eloquent posting. Gene

  3. Lars Says:

    Great storytelling and wonderful revelation, Tom!

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