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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.

  1. Hmmmm.

    Are any of those wines available to wholesalers or retailers?

    I’ve had a couple of opportunities to sample some older vintages and they were a treat but mostly in an historical way as they were not available or were only available at the winery for big $.

    That local is not far from the old Paul Masson location, I think, across the road and up the hills.

    Personally I am glad they had some older Chenin Blanc and they seem to have held up rather well. (drooling at the thought)

    I may be mistaken but I do recall there was a style of PN that was bigger several years ago. Reads like these fit the bill.

  2. gdfo, you could contact Chalone and see if anything is available. I just thought it would be interesting to share notes on these historical old curiosities.

  3. Steve,
    Did you get a chance to try anything newer? I really liked the 2007 Pinot from Chalone and half expected Raj Parr or someone else to talk about it, as it’s an exercise in balance, imho.

  4. Raley, I have not had the 07 Pinot. I understand they’re sending it to me. Thanks.

  5. I always wondered why Mr. Graff chose Chalone to grow Pinot Noir; besides the limestone soils, of course.
    During summer, average daily high temperatures are scorching: around 95°F; and solar radiation levels are among the highest in CA (both increase the risk of damaging – or cooking – Pinot Noir’s thin skins). The place has no water at all and receives less than 15 inches of rain per year; which makes dry farming impossible. October highs are in the (low) eighties. The growing season has a median length of 190-200 days: enough to ripen Syrah, Tempranillo, Malbec; even Cab (marginally).
    The greatest surprise of all is that Chalone’s “Estate Pinots” can be remarkably good (especially in cooler years) but also austere, earthy and idiosyncratic; quite the opposite from what one would expect from such a clime.

  6. TomHill says:

    Very nice notes; thanks for taking the time to write them up. Most of them are pretty much about where I would expect them to be.
    My impression that the Chalone (Estate) wines are not what they used to be since being under Diageo.
    Their whites used to be amazingly long lived. I tended to think the PinotBlancs outlived the Chards.
    DarrellCorti bought the entirity of their original vines CheninBlanc. In his latest newsletter:
    Had it a few days ago and it is quite a pretty CB, one of the best I’ve had from Calif in many yrs. But the oak is way down from what they used to be. However, I think this ’07 should have a pretty long life ahead of it.

  7. Ah, Mr. Hill. A man with a memory.

    Too bad that so few ever had the opportunity to know Chalone at its best. I have a pretty wide ranging collection of older Chalones. Sure the whites are pretty dead, but amazingly, hot entirely, and yes, the CBs and PBs have shown well over the years.

    And so too have the Pinot Noirs from that era. As Steve has pointed out, it must be the soils because the dry conditions up on that bench should, by all rights, produce softer wines than what we have seen.

    Incidentally, Tom, if you stop by this response, I would invite you to comment on the CGCW blog today, which addresses some issues of wines going back to the 1970s.

  8. My introduction to Chalone was via a bottle of 1976 Pinot Noir that I had in the late 1980’s. It was one of those rare wines that stops time.

    Since then I have drunk quite a few bottles from Chalone both whites and red. The vertical here drove me to inventory what remains: a magnum each of the Pinot Noir 80 and 84. a mostly intact vertical decade of the 1980’s Chenin Blanc. I have some Chardonnays from the 90’s.About five years ago I had three Pinot Blanc magnums — 84, 85 and 88, I think, and they were superb with the 84 a bit of a disappointment.

  9. DF Bentson says:

    Steve, thanks for these tasting notes. I was around Chalone in the 70’s and 80’s. The Graff wines were phenomenal. All four varietals were aged in French oak. The chenin blanc was the best chenin blanc I’ve ever tasted. The superb pinot blanc was often mistaken for chardonnay but the finish was a tad shorter. The chardonnay and pinot noir were simply the best in California at the time. While the climate could be hot, it wasn’t hot everyday, and the amount of sunshine was tremendous. Water, in the early days, was trucked up the mountain and emptied into a small reservoir, not the big one you saw, and drip irrigated. The plaque on the winery was the hallmark of the operation.”In order to make a great wine, the vines must suffer.” They suffered, struggled, but yielded small tight clusters of superior grapes. Dick, Peter, and John Graff performed the magic in the barrel.

  10. doug wilder says:

    I just saw this Chalone thread and recall I first bought the Chardonnay in 1985 when living in San Luis Obispo years before I started working in wine. I think I was attracted by the classic label and the numbered bottles. I know they impressed my boss. The Chenin was always pretty special.

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