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An Aristocrat of Napa Valley Cabernet
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jun 20, 2017
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Chappellet Vineyard, Napa Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill, 2013 ($220):  Napa Valley’s history of grape-growing dates to 1839, and its first commercial winemaking dates to 1861.  The number of wineries grew to 140 by 1889, but the combined setbacks of the first phylloxera scourge and Prohibition brought Napa Valley’s burgeoning wine production to its knees in the early twentieth century.  In 1966, Robert Mondavi Winery became the first new winery in Napa Valley since Prohibition.  One year later, Chappellet Vineyard became the second.

This year Chappellet Vineyard celebrates the 50th anniversary of its founding.  Donn and Molly Chappellet established their Napa Valley estate off the beaten track, high atop Pritchard Hill in the eastern part of the county, where thin volcanic soils, boulders, steep slopes and breathtaking views challenged them to produce wines that reflect their dramatic origin.  Not only have Chappellet wines earned enormous acclaim but also the land they pioneered, Pritchard Hill, has become home to other acclaimed wineries such as Colgin, Tim Mondavi’s Continuum, Ovid, and Bryant Family Vineyards.  Through it all, the winery has remained family owned and operated.

Cabernet Sauvignon is the cornerstone of Chappellet’s estate production, complemented by four other red varieties of Bordeaux heritage -- Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc -- and also Chenin Blanc.  (Having determined that Chardonnay is not suitable for the terroir of Pritchard Hill, the Chappellets source that grape through longstanding partnerships with growers in cooler parts of Napa Valley.)  Of the 48 distinctive vineyard blocks within the estate vineyards, the majority are dedicated to Cabernet Sauvignon.

The pinnacle of Chappellet’s product line is the limited-production Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, currently available in the 2013 vintage.  This is a glorious wine, among the finest Napa Valley Cabs I have tasted.  It is rich in aroma and flavor and rich in body, but it is also surprisingly nuanced.  It is a wine that speaks of its grapes and its vineyard far more than its winemaking, which is a high compliment to longtime Chappellet winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus.

Here’s a rather more literal description of what you can experience from the wine.  The wine’s aroma is pronounced and so complex that its expression can vary every time you nose the wine.  The fundamental fruit aroma of blackberry is supplemented by accents of licorice, black pepper, sweet spices, cedar, and mint.  The wine enters your mouth soft and rich; mouthwatering acidity and grainy tannins emerge on the mid-palate.  The wine’s concentrated ripe fruit surrounds the acid-tannin structure but it is not so dense that you can’t taste through to the wine’s energetic core.  The texture is smooth and easy.  The flavors express the nuances that the aroma promised: high-toned herbal notes, savory mineral tones, soft cocoa accents and classic lead-pencil flavors a la Bordeaux.  Pronounced as these flavors are, in the context of this wine they somehow convey understatement.  This wine is a blend of 83 percent Cabernet Sauvignon with 8 percent Malbec, 6 percent Cabernet Franc and 3 percent Petit Verdot.

Now what if you never have the opportunity to buy a $220 bottle of Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet?  I recommend the 2014 Chappellet “Signature” Cabernet Sauvignon, $65 (so named because the label carries the signature of the late Donn Chappellet).  Any comparison between one wine and another that sells for three times the price is bound to dishonor the less expensive wine, but in this case both wines carry the same lineage, and similar characteristics.  Like the more expensive Cab, the 2014 Signature Cabernet has the ripeness you expect in Napa Valley Cabernet and good aromatic complexity of mountain-grown fruit (red fruit, boysenberry, baking cocoa, coffee) combined with a depth of fine-tuned structure.  It is more straightforward and less nuanced than the pricier wine, and winemaking techniques such as oak aging figure more prominently in its taste, but it is an admirable Napa Valley Cabernet.  The composition of this wine is 76 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 9 percent Petit Verdot, 6 percent Malbec, 5 percent Cabernet Franc and 4 percent Merlot.

2013 Chappellet Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon, 94 Points

2014 Chappellet “Signature” Cabernet Sauvignon, 91 Points