Over the weekend, I opened up the last bottle for my classic California series – a 2011 Chalone Monterey County Pinot Noir. All I can say is, wow. This wine was so much more than I expected. This isn’t even their top-of-the-line Pinot Noir. But seeing as how Chardonnay from Chalone, along with Chateau Montelena, surround a Mersault Charmes Roulot in the Top 3 whites at the infamous upset the Judgement of Paris, I kinda figured I’d be pleased by the quality. Rent “Bottle Shock” if you want to see an entertaining take on that event.
If you don’t know this about me, I’m also a sucker for Pinot Noir. It is my favorite grape. I’m a bit of a Pinot elitest and I don’t just grant any Pinot a ‘wow’ designation. I’ve had a lot. This is a seriously good Pinot Noir. I excitedly shared a small glass with my sister-in-law and father-in-law, the one who introduced me to my favorite grape. But only a small glass mind you. I wanted this one all for myself. I moved on later to a Super Tuscan – another favorite – so I could save the last glass of this for dinner tonight. But I did manage to put down a tasting note before plowing through a large percentage of the contents smacking my lips at every sip. It was the perfect marriage for my BBQ chicken kebabs and couscous.
Savory black and red cherry and raspberry on the nose and palate are beautifully integrated with a peppery edge, medium body and some baking spice hints from the French oak aging of its Burgundian counterparts. Some say tobacco but I wasn’t picking that out. An incredibly supple mouthfeel and a perfect reminder of why I love Pinot Noir so much. When it is done right it is done RIGHT. Usually I’m drinking Willamette, Russian River Valley, Carneros or of course Burgundy. This is my first Monterey County Pinot. Chalone is the oldest running vineyard in the county, with vineyards high up on Chalone peak from which it derives its name as does the AVA in which the vineyards lie. They are also the only vineyard in the Chalone appellation, one of many smaller ones in the larger Central Coast AVA. The name for the peak and hence the vineyard is Native American, named after the local tribe that first inhabited the region, the “Chollen”.
With Pinot this good and award-winning Chardonnay, its not surprising that the first vineyard on this land was begun by a Burgundian winemaker, Charles L. Tamm in the turn of the last century. The limestone and calcium and granite soil were just like those of his homeland and he sought them out for this very reason. When the new owners aquired it in the 1960’s, additional lower vineyards and varietals were added. This purchase and the Chalone label as it is now known began with former Harvard music grad and Naval officer – Dick Graff and his family. He was so impressed by the results he tasted at this vineyard he was working at after his service, that he took oenology classes at UC Davis and bought the vineyard with a family loan. With the help of his brothers he set out to make a Burgundy-style top Chardonnay, among other great wines. In 1976, they made good.
In the process of making their fantastic new wines, he also helped spread the technique of malolactic fermentation and the fermentation of white wine in small oak barrels as they do in Burgundy, around California. He also was one of the first to import and sell Burgundian oak barrels in the state. Their modern wine group now owns other vineyards in California as well as partly owning Chateau Duhart-Milon in France, while they themselves are owned by wine giant Diageo. Dick Graff passed away in 1998 when he crashed piloting his single engine plane. But not without leaving a legacy behind him. He also founded the American Institute of Wine and Food with Julia Child and Robert Mondavi.
They also have an estate-grown heritage Pinot Noir (higher-priced at $45) I plan to go right out and try, as well as their Chardonnays for obvious reasons. I’d give this around 90 points. Wine Enthusiast gave the 2010 88 points and Cellar Tracker 87 points. So I’m in good company there.
At an average price of $15-$20 this is a steal and can go up against far more expensive examples without a doubt. Nice to know I’ve found a Pinot Noir that won’t cost me $35+ every time I want a good one.
Visit them at chalonevineyard.com