Chappellet isn't the trendiest name in Napa Valley. Their wines are big but not the biggest. The wines around them, over winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus' 22 years, have gotten that much bigger.
But Chappellet has changed a lot over the last two decades, and the results are obvious in comparative tasting. Recently I had a taste for Napa Cabernet so I did what only Bill Koch or people who get free bottles sent to them are privileged to do: Open nearly $2000 worth of wine at once to drink a few glasses. Of the dozen bottles, I had two clear favorites: Heidi Peterson Barrett's Au Sommet 2009 ($250), and Chappellet Signature 2009 -- which, at $49, was the cheapest bottle on my kitchen counter.
At 14.9% alcohol, it isn't a delicate wine, but it is elegant, which is what Corallo-Titus was shooting for. It has ripe cherry fruit with lipsmacking acidity on the finish, and went beautifully with dry-rub pork ribs, a task that's impossible for many very ripe Cabs. A little salt will make unbalanced wines burn your mouth with alcoholic heat. The Chappellet Signature just kept me reaching for another sip.
The next day I called Corallo-Titus to talk about his wines. He's pretty eloquent, so I'm just going to run our conversation from here, edited for length.
Me: Tell me about the '09 Signature.
Corallo-Titus: It's a wine that we have been, in one way or another, making since 1968. Since 1990, we've replanted every vineyard that we own, and added other vineyards from some of our neighbors' properties. We've got all five Bordeaux varieties now. The whole time I've been here, vineyard manager Dave Pirio has been here. We've got a lot of experience with the grapes.
Me: Your vineyard is on Pritchard Hill. Tell me about it.
Corallo-Titus: The lowest vineyards are 1000 feet, up to about 1700 feet. It's a mountain vineyard, but it's not as high in elevation as people who are growing up toward the top of Mount Veeder or Howell Mountain or Diamond Mountain.
We're just above the fog line. So we do get a cooling effect but we're in the sun all day. You don't get high vigor sites up in these hills. You get lower yield, smaller berries. The last four years have been very cool in Napa Valley. We haven't had problems getting the ripeness that we want.
Me: How does that translate into flavor?
Corallo-Titus: There's always this intensity to Pritchard Hill. It's a richness, a bigness, a saturation. But it's never on the herbal side. We get so much sun here. Our job is to get that really good character from Pritchard Hill but not let it go over the top.
Me: How do you achieve that?
Corallo-Titus: It used to be that our wines were 100% Cabernet. But now, most of our Cabernets are 75 to 80% Cabernet. The rest is Petit Verdot, Malbec and Merlot. Those varieties have a very different profile. The Merlot has softer tannins, but when it's good it also has a nice rum raisin sweet character. That can be a very good blender. Malbec can be a very good blender because it has as much tannin as the Merlot but twice as much color. Petit Verdot has this density of blackberry which just folds beautifully into the Cabernet. You don't even know it's there.
We use very little press wine. We make the wines, we macerate them, but our wines are made from free run. Sometimes there can be a little sweet spot in the pressing cycle that we can evaluate and maybe put that in. But we never use that tannic, rustic press wine. That used to go back into everybody's wine. You go back into the '70s and everybody used to use that.
The free run is so much higher quality than the press wine. But that's a huge thing financially because you downgrade a huge part of your wine every year, probably 15% as an average. We've often sold it in bulk. The best part of it can be used in our mountain cuvee. There's many uses for it but it just doesn't belong in those top tiers of wines.
Me: Are you as worried about your '10s and '11s as everybody else in Napa Valley seems to be?
Corallo-Titus: In 2010 we were nervous. We waited and waited, but we had no problem getting the sugars we needed. We were done by the end of October.
2011 is a different story. That's a tough year. When the rains came, we were not as far along in development, so we did not get the mold growth that we saw down on the valley floor. We have well-drained soils. On the valley floor the water just sat on the ground and botrytis just grows.
Our grapes did not get the mold so we were able to let them hang on. We had this heat spell with warm winds in late October. Most people had to pick before that because things were falling apart. Once that mold starts going it grows pretty fast.
We were able to keep the grapes on the vine longer. I don't think we got ideal sugars -- maybe our ideal sugars are higher than they should be -- but we got good sugars.
I don't know why this happened, but it was a great year for Petit Verdot. We have certain blocks as good as anything from a great vintage. We're very lucky to have those. That's part of that diversity. We know that from Bordeaux. Cold years, those are good Malbec years or good Merlot years. Warm years are better for Cabernet. A good vineyard with a lot of diversity, that's what they've done in Bordeaux.
Me: Your vineyards are certified organic. Why not put that on the label?
Corallo-Titus: The problem is, our vineyard is organic, but our neighboring vineyards are not. We're not really trying to do it for that purpose either. It isn't a marketing tool for us. It was a commitment on the Chappellets' part to do this. Getting certified, that means you're jumping through a lot of hoops. A lot of people want to imply that they're farming organically. but they're not. They'll say, they're farmed with organic principles. Or they're sustainable. You can interpret that in many ways. But when you say you're certified organic, that means you're farming organically.
Me: Does organic viticulture make a difference in wine quality?
Corallo-Titus: We don't know. But it's not giving us lower quality. If we thought it was giving us lower quality, we wouldn't be doing it. We're not here to be organic farmers. We're here to make the best wine we can.
The vines are healthier. They tend to withstand adversity much better than vines that are just hanging on with constant irrigation. We used to have to constantly irrigate. But what you do with organic, you build up the soil. The vines just get stronger and more self-regulating.
The vineyards were making great wine before they were farmed organically. Maybe the wines are a little more harmonious. I'm not trying to say there's anything going on on a spiritual level. But maybe the vines are a little more balanced, and that transmits something into the wine. There's no scientific way I can tell you, yes they're better. Empirically, they're as good as they've ever been.
Me: What do you drink when you're not drinking your own wine?
Corallo-Titus: I know a lot of people say they don't like Chardonnay. I think, what's not to love? I love Peter Michael Chardonnay. It's really rich, hedonistic Chardonnay.
Having done this a long time, I only really like wines that are on a certain level of quality. If a wine is just a glass of wine, I don't see any reason to drink it.
I used to drink a lot more Burgundy. Now I drink a lot of Napa Valley Cabernets, Peter Michael Chardonnay, Russian River Pinot.
When you're not drinking European wines, and I'm not alone in this, and you're drinking California wines, you lose your taste for those (European) wines. They don't give me the thrill they once gave me. I like the richness of California wines. I like Washington Syrahs, I like Oregon Pinots, in a good year. Burgundy, it's a long way away. It's a hard thing to figure out.
One of the beauties of California wines is that the wines don't vary so much from year to year. You have certain producers who if you like their wines, you can depend on them without the annual variations.