A morning at the wine frontier

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It’s rare that a single tasting manages to inspire so many articles and blogs as one held recently in London showcasing a new style of Californian wines. Organised by San Francisco-based journalist Jon Bonné (California chair at this year’s Decanter World Wine Awards, where I caught up with him), the tasting was held to demonstrate a subtler, more restrained and elegant style of wines than those that have been lauded in California – and perhaps especially Napa – over the past few decades.

Image: Morning Fog over Salinas Valley © Robert Cook

Although I didn’t make it over to London in time for the tasting itself, the sentiment was perfect, as I was about to head off for a week in California looking for exactly that style of wine. I spent seven days both to the south and north of San Francisco, in Monterey and Napa, meeting with winemakers and tasting through dozens of wines, many of which had been highlighted by Bonné in London, to see for myself if the New California was more than just a great idea and a handful of young producers looking to change the headlines. I encountered plenty of wonderful bottles, but one of the estates that most impressed me was far from new (as Bonné acknowledges in his excellent book The New California Wine) – and has in fact been steadfastly producing elegant, restrained wines since 1960.

Image: Bobcat (above) and California Condor (below) © Robert Cook

Chalone is pretty much bursting with history. It is, for a start, both the name of the winery and the AVA (American Viticultural Area), and is one of oldest in America, dating back to 1982. It applied for the status before Napa Valley did, and remains the only winery in the Chalone AVA although there are now seven others growing grapes there. Its oldest plot of vines, Chenin Blanc dating back to 1919, has just been granted Historical Vineyard status as the oldest vineyard in Monterey County (at the time of planting called, if anything at all, the Gavilan Ranch after the range of mountains directly behind the property). Not only that, but Chalone was the only Californian wine estate outside of Napa to feature in the 1976 Judgement of Paris tasting organised by Steven Spurrier, where its Chardonnay was ranked third overall. And it was the first wine estate in the US to be publically traded on the stock market, back in 1984. And besides all of these, it had an extra level of resonance for me because, as so often happens in this tiny world of wine, I found links, traces, echoes of Bordeaux during my visit, because from 1988 up until Diageo’s purchase in 2005, Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafite) owned up to 47% of the shares in Chalone. ‘We had some great times there,’ DBR president Christophe Salin remembered when I contacted him about it this week.

I’m not surprised. This is easily one of the most stunning wine estates that I have ever visited. It might not seem like it at first, but it haunts you once you have left. This is wild country, vines interspersed by scrublands, expanses of volcanic rock and limestone covered with chaparral, dizzying escarpments reaching up 600 metres to the limestone fingers of The Pinnacles; America’s newest National Park, signed in by President Obama on January 1, 2013, almost a century after being established as a National Monument in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt.

Robert Cook, winemaker at Chalone, is a wildlife photographer when he is not teasing the best out of Chenin Blanc, Pinot and Chardonnay, and it’s not hard to see what might have attracted him to this particular job. Right outside his winery is a prime habitat for bobcats, falcons and a release site for California Condors, one of the world’s rarest bird species that became extinct in the wild in 1987. There is still only one road in and out of the Pinnacles, but since the announcement of the National Park, visitors have become a little more frequent, and Chalone has reopened its tasting room after five years without one.

‘We are already getting a Pinnacles Traffic Jam on weekends and holidays,’ Cook told me. ‘Quite a change for a place that used to see no one for weeks on end, and that had no electricity or running water until the 1980s’.

Image: Morning Fog over Salinas Valley © Robert Cook

It’s impossible not to be seduced by this place, but it’s the wines that are truly surprising. Monterey County lies right next to the Pacific Ocean, and is cool climate California, but here they are almost entirely above the line of fog that rolls in off the ocean across much of the county. Instead they get hot days and cool nights, with a temperature variation that plunges between 4-5 degrees centrigrade at night, right up to 36-38 degrees in the daytime. This means a long-growing season which combined with the limestone and granite soils of the mountains leads to one thing that is essential to understanding the wines of Chalone; acidity. The youngest vines on the property date back to the 1980s, and most are from original budwood of the older vines, which again adds to the complexity of the finished bottles. These are wines that will age, that have a freshness and lightness of touch without sacrificing flavour or personality. They are remarkable.

Wines to Try
Chalone Vineyard Estate Grown Chenin Blanc 2012

This is a limited-quantity (just over 3000 bottles per year) wine made from the low-yielding 1919 Chenin Blanc vines. So, not easy to find, but truly worth it. From the first sip, this delivers a huge burst of minerality and arresting personality. 14.25%abv, but so well balanced by shooting lemongrass and honeysuckle flavours and citrus zing. The Loire would be thrilled to tease out these flavours from Chenin.

Chalone Vineyard Estate Grown Chardonnay 2011

A bigger production here, of around 185,000 bottles, so the most likely to be found outside of California. Many of the Chardonnay vines date back to 1946, or have come from budwood of those oldest vines. This has a hint of reduction on the initial nose that gives it a true Burgundian character. Grapes have been (hand) picked at night since the 2007 vintage, then whole cluster pressed and aged in French oak barrels. This is rich and round in the mid-palate, with streaks of crème brulée and candied lemon, but with huge verticality and twists of more pointed lemon-lime on the finish.

Columnist Introduction

Jane Anson is Bordeaux correspondent for Decanter, and has lived in the region since 2003. She is author of Bordeaux Legends, a history of the First Growth wines (October 2012 Editions de la Martiniere), the Bordeaux and Southwest France author of The Wine Opus and 1000 Great Wines That Won’t Cost A Fortune (both Dorling Kindersley, 2010 and 2011). Anson is contributing writer of the Michelin Green Guide to the Wine Regions of France (March 2010, Michelin Publications), and writes a monthly wine column for the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, where she lived from 1994 to 1997. Accredited wine teacher at the Bordeaux Ecole du Vin, with a Masters in publishing from University College London.

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