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Chenin Blanc Shows Class on Pritchard Hill
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jul 3, 2018
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Chappellet, Napa Valley Chenin Blanc “Signature” 2017 ($38):  Chappellet is a living legend of Napa Valley wine.  Donn and Molly Chappellet established their property on Pritchard Hill, high in the Vaca mountains of eastern Napa Valley, in 1967, with the advice of legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff.  Chappellet became one of Napa Valley’s pioneers of mountain viticulture, and one of the most renowned producers of Cabernet Sauvignon.  Cabernet Sauvignon occupies 65 acres of the family’s 102 planted acres in the Pritchard Hill estate, and most of the remaining acreage grows grapes suitable for blending with Cabernet, such as Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.  And then there’s Chenin Blanc, which to many wine lovers is a secret surprise with the winery’s portfolio.

Chenin Blanc was already growing on the Pritchard Hill property when the Chappellets moved there in 1967.  Eventually, in 2004, the vineyard needed replanting.  According to Dave Pirio, who has been vineyard manager of the Pritchard Hill estate for 35 years, “It would have made the most sense from a purely business standpoint to plant Cabernet.  But Molly Chappellet has always loved the Chenin Blanc from our vineyard, so we continue to grow it.  It’s a labor of love, and also one of the most unique wines we make.”

Chenin Blanc is an uncommon grape variety in California.  Statewide, its acreage is less than 6 percent as much as Chardonnay’s, and much of the production is used for blending.  In Napa Valley Chenin Blanc is rare, claiming 0.2 percent the acreage of Chardonnay.  Labor of love indeed.

Chappellet Chenin Blanc is a world-class rendition of this variety.  It’s made in a dry style (Chenin Blanc makes wines at all sweetness levels, and is most famous for its sweet botrytized wines in France’s Loire Valley), with all the weight and textural richness that the grape is known for in its best examples.  The high acidity of Chenin Blanc coupled with a contrasting richly oily texture is on full display in Chappellet’s wine, marking the wine as a classic for this variety in the dry style.

The aromas of the 2017 Chappellet Chenin Blanc are complex, suggesting ripe lemon, pear, melon and green apple, with a persistent non-fruity mineral note.  In your mouth the wine is nearly full-bodied and dry but fruity.  Its flavors suggest vibrant lemon, lime, honey, and delicate fresh herbs, with a satisfying minerally undercurrent of flavor.  The wine’s acidity is strong, giving backbone and structure to the taste, but the wine is not austere because its unctuous texture surrounds that backbone and creates richness.  And yet that acidity persists through the richness, creating a fascinating counter-play of weight and lightness.  The wine’s long finish echoes the lemon and mineral flavors.

This wine fermented in a combination of neutral French oak barrels and stainless steel tanks, and did not undergo malolatic fermentation, which accounts for its fresh acidity and its vibrancy of flavor.  This wine is quite young now; its high acidity will suit it to age over the next few years.

Unlike Chappellet’s other “Signature” wines, that bear Donn Chappellet’s name, this wine’s signature is that of Molly Chappellet, the wine’s champion.  In the absence of any standardized bottle shape for Chenin Blanc wines, the Chappeliets use an elongated type usually used for aromatic whites such as Riesling; this shape might, for some wine drinkers, convey the impression of sweetness, although the wine is actually dry.

91 Points