A Chalone vertical
Somehow or other, I’d never managed to visit the Chalone estate winery in all these years. It is of course a very historic property, and I was well familiar with the story of how the late Richard Graff—a true Renaissance man—and, a bit later, Phil Woodward had founded the winery in the oddest of places: the wild heights of the Gavilan Mountains, in Monterey County, nearly 2,000 feet above the Salinas Valley floor, just beneath the operatically dramatic jagged spires of the Pinnacles.
But, as I say, I’d never been there, until yesterday, when winemaker Robert Cook invited me to a vertical. We tasted through 20 wines: 4 Chenin Blancs, 4 Pinot Blancs, 6 Chardonnays and 6 Pinot Noirs. These four varieties have been Chalone’s specialties over the years. All grapes were grown on the estate, which is in the Chalone appellation. Here are my notes. In general, I was surprised how well the wines are holding up, although it must be said the older ones certainly were made in an older style, with lower alcohol, higher acidity and less oak than today’s versions.
1978 – Smells sherry-like, maderized. Clean, still showing sweetness, good acidity, with roasted hazelnut and dried fruit flavors. A lovely old wine and amazingly interesting for being more than 32 years of age. 90 points.
1986 Reserve – Old gold color. Drier than the ’78, tastes older and less fresh, with peanut brittle flavors. 85 points.
1994 Late Harvest Reserve – Somehow this sweetie made it into the tasting. Robert said he hadn’t even known there was any left. Dark old color. Maderized, but saved by the sugar. Clean, racy with honey and coconut macaroon sweetness. 92 points.
1996 Reserve – Maderized, like a fino sherry. Getting tired and brittle. 87 points.
1979 – From magnum. Pretty golden hue. A bit heavy, but surprisingly rich for 32 years. Shows honey, dried apricot, sautéed banana and citrus flavors, with a hint of petrol. Bone dry. Worth 92 points for being so fresh and clean, with just a hint of maderization.
1981 – A first bottle was corked. The second bottle was clean, elegant and lively, but getting maderized. Showing lots of honey and dried apricot and tangerine fruit. A lovely, interesting, fino-like wine. 91 points.
1992 Reserve – Dry, sour, Sherry-like. Not much richness. An interesting old wine to talk about if you know the property and history. 87 points for sheer longevity.
1994 – Interesting and complex, a little soft, but very dry, showing dried lemon and apricot fruit, spice and toffee flavors. A connoisseur’s wine. 90 points.
1977 – From magnum. Old Chardonnay, if you like that. Roasted macadamia nut, dried citrus and pear, fino yeast. Tired, but clean. 87 points.
1981 Reserve – From magnum. Corked, maderized. No second bottle.
1992 Reserve – From magnum. Old Chardonnay, Rather threadbare, with alcohol showing through. Yeasty, tired. Some orange macaroon. 87 points.
1994 Reserve – From magnum. A bigger style, gooey in the modern way, oaky. Seems obvious a stylistic change was ensuing. Buttery, ripe citrus and tropical fruit. Tiring and drying out, but still an interesting wine. 87 points.
1995 – Turning gold color, an old Chardonnay, with dried pineapple and apricot flavors. Fino sherry yeastiness. Some honey and minerals. Drying out, but complex and pleasant. 88 points.
1995 Reserve – Similar to the above wine, but bigger in every respect. Lots of sweetness: vanilla, pineapple. Drying out and a little tired, but another intellectually interesting wine to talk and think about. 89 points.
1976 – Dark, opaque. Aromas of cherry pie, heavy, baked. Spicy, very tannic. Sweet cherry-blackberry fruit, orange, fruit punch, toffee. But totally dry, and very tannic. For a 35 year old wine, pretty good. 87 points.
1980 – Very dry, with mulling spices, dried fruit. Extremely tannic still. Tired, but another wine to talk about, especially with the winemaker, on the premises, in the context of a vertical.
1981 Reserve – Lots of sweet cherry liqueur, cola, leather, beef jerky and spice flavors. Drying out, with big, astringent tannins. A little coarse and rustic, almost like an old Grenache. But savory and complex for a 30-year old Pinot. 92 points.
1983 – Dark and impenetrable. Feels heavy, dense and tannic, but quite rich in cherries and beef jerky. Turning the corner, starting to show mushroom and dried fruit complexities, funky and earthy. Burgundian, if you will. The wine of the flight in terms of vitality and interest. Really superb, but best now before it slides downhill. 95 points.
1989 – A little moldy, with a vinyl smell. Dry, tannic, sour cherry candy flavor. 86 points.
1992 Reserve – Opens with a blast of new oak. Again, that stylistic change of the period is evident. Very rich, young, fresh, flashy. Oodles of cherries, cola, raspberries, licorice, bacon, rosehip tea. Drying out, but so sweet in fruit. A wonderful Pinot for 19 years of age, but it’s very tannic. 93 points.
With wines of this age, you have to give them credit for sheer longevity. They’re showing some white hairs, but are still elegant, cavalier, intellectually interesting—an enthusiast’s wines, especially tasted in context. It would be patently absurd to taste these wines blind, without any explanation, and expect a coherent interpretation. The question—and I don’t know the answer—is if modern era Chalone wines (the company has been owned by Diageo since 2005) will show the same estate quality and longevity. We can only hope so.