Don’t you get tired of seeing the latest “elite” California wine producer debut its brand-new wine at a retail price of $200 or more? It has become such a common occurrence--and not only in Napa Valley, but also in other parts of California--that I hardly pay attention to it any more (nor to the wines, for that matter). Usually it’s a Cabernet Sauvignon or a blend of Cab and other varieties.
Yes, I know vineyard land costs a fortune in Napa Valley, but come on! Show a little humility, please. Why would most consumers pay a high amount of money for a wine they have not tried, and that has no track record? The thinking seems to be, “I have to charge a lot of money so people will know this is an important wine.”
This is the reason I’m singing the praises of Chappellet Winery right now. I just finished tasting through its wines, and its most expensive wine retails for $59, with most of its wines well below that figure; in fact, they start in the $20 range.
In 1967 Donn and Molly Chappellet followed the advice of André Tchellistcheff, California’s greatest winemaker, and purchased land on Pritchard Hill, high in the Vaca Mountains of eastern Napa Valley. At that time, the Chappellets were among the first wineries to plant a vineyard on a high-elevation hillside. As son Cyril Chappellet (who now runs the winery along with his sister Carissa) told me, “We were all by ourselves on Pritchard Hill for a long while,” but now several other wineries have joined them on Pritchard Hill’s steep, rocky slopes, including Bryant Family, Colgin Cellars, and Tim Mondavi’s Continuum Estate, to name a few. Although not a huge winery, Chappellet makes about 60,000 cases annually, and it is the largest winery on Pritchard Hill; this figure includes Chappellet’s wines from Sonoma-Loeb (15,000 cases), which it also owns.
Chappellet’s first commercial wine was its 1969 Cabernet Sauvignon; that wine, plus the 1970 Cabernet Sauvignon that followed (made by Chappellet’s original winemaker, Phillip Togni) both received great reviews, and Chappellet’s reputation for Cabernet Sauvignons became established.
In 2011, the Chappellet winery purchased Sonoma-Loeb Wines from Ambassador John Loeb. The winemaker of both wineries, Phillip Corallo-Titus, had been making Sonoma-Loeb’s wines since 1990 at Chappellet’s winery. This move was significant in enriching Chappellet’s portfolio. The winery was known for making excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, which sell out quickly every year, plus one of California’s only really good Chenin Blancs. Now with Sonoma-Loeb, the winery has access to very good Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from Sonoma.
As a vineyard site, Pritchard Hill has become renowned for its Cabernet Sauvjgnons. This is reflected in the varieties planted in Chappellet’s 102 acres of vineyard land; 65 acres grow Cabernet Sauvignon; the remainder is divided among the four Bordeaux varieties (Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot), plus Chenin Blanc. All Chappellet grapes on Pritchard Hill are organically farmed; the vineyard was officially certified organic in 2012.
I recently had the opportunity to taste six current Chappellet and Sonoma-Loeb wines with Cyril Chappellet. The following include some details of the wines plus my impressions:
2014 Signature Chenin Blanc ($32): Although Chappellet’s flagship wine is its Cabernet Sauvignon, the winery is really well-known for its very good Chenin Blanc. It makes 800 to 1,000 cases a year of this wine, and sells it all, mainly to restaurants. If you do not have a high opinion of California Chenin Blanc, try Chappellet’s. You will be surprised. The combination of having mountain-grown grapes plus a long growing season at Pritchard Hill has yielded a beautiful Chenin Blanc, redolent of lime, orange blossom, and melon. Plus its excellent acidity overcomes a typical problem of many California Chenin Blancs--being too soft. I am a fan of Chappellet’s Chenin Blanc, and have been for a long time. 90
2014 Sonoma-Loeb Chardonnay, Sangiacomo Vineyard, Carneros ($27): I find the fact that Sonoma-Loeb can make this fine Chardonnay at one of California’s best vineyards for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and sell it at this price to be remarkable. The renowned Sangiacomo Vineyard in Carneros receives cool winds from San Pablo Bay, creating an ideal environment for Chardonnay. The 2014 is lean and lively, with citrus notes, perfect for drinking now. 90
2014 Chappellet Chardonnay, Napa Valley ($31): Chappellet’s Chardonnay is made from three cool-climate vineyard sites: two in Napa-Carneros and one in Oak Knoll. The Winery’s style of Chardonnay tends towards the lean, lively style that I particularly admire. Yet, it is more full-bodied than its Sonoma-Loeb, Chardonnay, with a longer finish. Both Chardonnays are quite good, but I give a slight edge to the Sonoma-Loeb Chardonnay. 89
2014 Sonoma-Loeb Pinot Noir, Dutton Ranch, Russian River Valley ($40): Sonoma-Loeb produces three different Pinot Noirs, but its star is its Pinot from the highly regarded Dutton Ranch, located in Green Valley, the coolest part of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. I had two opportunities to taste this wine, once with Cyril, and again three days later at home, when the wine was at least 10°F. cooler. My advice is to serve it cool (55°F. would not be too cool). I taste lots of Pinot Noirs, but I cannot recall one under $50 that has impressed me this much. It shows vibrant black cherry aromas and intense, complex berry flavors. It is a rich wine, with some tannin and good acidity, and it will improve with age. Not shy and delicate; this is a powerful, well-balanced Pinot Noir with a structure that will carry it for many years. A wine to cellar--but it does taste very good right now. 95
2013 Chappellet Mountain Cuveé, Proprietor’s Blend ($28): Chappellet’s Mountain Cuvée, made from all five Bordeaux varieties, is its big-production wine (20,000 cases), and is a wine to enjoy now. I am sure it will age well for a few years, but there is no reason to hold it because it is showing so well right now. It’s a “can’t miss” wine, because it is so flavorful, and is a great wine-by-the-glass for restaurants. The Mountain Cuvée sums up Chappellet’s appeal: fine wine at reasonable prices. Its aroma is primarily blueberry, which carries into its rich, appealing flavor. Its blend is 43 percent Merlot, 34 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 11 percent Petit Verdot, 7 percent Malbec, and 5 percent Cabernet Franc. For me, I would have liked the wine to be slightly less ripe; on the other hand, its ripeness will make it appealing to many wine drinkers. And its price is great! 91
2013 Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon ($60): Cyril Chappellet told me that his 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon sold out very quickly, and tasting it for the second time today, I can understand why (average production: 8,000 to 12,000 cases). Chappellet’s wines seem to be really well-known only to its followers, of which there are many. There’s a long waiting list to join the Chappellet Wine Club. I have become a convert. The 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon I am tasting has been open for three days, and it is better now than when it was first opened. It shows the classic cassis aroma of great Cabernet Sauvignons. The blend is 79 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 percent Malbec, 5 percent Merlot, and 4 percent Petit Verdot. Blackberry flavors dominate; the winery literature describes it as having “a deft balance between elegance and power,” and I can’t improve on that description. It has a very long finish--always a sign of a great wine. I would not doubt that it will prove to be one of the great Cabernet Sauvignons in Chappellet’s history. 96
Since Cyril Chappellet and I both agreed that the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon we were drinking when it was first opened was too young to appreciate then, I asked Cyril what vintage Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon he would open now for his enjoyment. He said, “The 1986. It’s perfect now; I drank it last week.” I loved that answer. Yes, great California Cabernet Sauvignons can age well for 30 years or more. I know that from my own experience. I am so happy to have re-discovered Chappellet’s wines with this tasting. Cyril did tell me that his wine merchant friends have been advising him to raise his prices. My advice: Buy them now. They represent some of the best values in California wines today.