Over 40 years ago, Donn and Molly Chappellet fell in love with the serenity and vistas on Napa’s Pritchard Hill. They purchased their homestead overlooking Lake Hennessey, planted vineyards, and received their winery license at the same time as Robert Mondavi in 1965. Today, Chappellet produces around 40,000 cases of handcrafted wine each year (Mondavi’s output hovers between 9 and 10 million).
The estate is now in the hands of the second generation, headed by Cyril and Jon-Mark. Winemaking is supervised by Phillip Corallo-Titus, who joined the Chappellet team in 1981. Under the direction of vineyard manager Dave Pirio, the 34 vineyard blocks are farmed separately and vinified as distinct entities before the final blend is made.
Pritchard Hill is Cabernet country, and 25 of Chappellet’s 34 blocks are devoted to that variety. It is one of the top vineyard sites in Napa, a place noted for turning out bold, dramatic and richly-flavored wines. Chappellet’s neighbors—notably Ann Colgin, David Arthur and Bryant Family—produce some of the most sought-after wines in California.
Unlike the stratospheric prices charged by their famous neighbors, Chappellet has kept their wines within the reach of the average consumer. The entry-level offering is Mountain Cuvee, a blend which varies in style and composition from year to year. The newly-released 2008 ($30) is a blend of 52% Cabernet and 43% Merlot, with small amounts of Malbec, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. It is ripe and approachable, with succulent black cherry and blackberry fruit framed in a spicy texture.
Most fans of California wine associate Chappellet with their Signature Cabernet. The 2008 ($48) is composed and elegant, marked by serious tannins and a rush of ripe blackberry flavors; given a year to settle down, this will be a beautiful wine. I recently had the opportunity to sample several older vintages. The 1999, in particular, showed perfect integration between acidity, tannins and ripe, plump fruit. These are Cabernets which will benefit from five to ten years of cellaring, and which will last for a decade or two after that.
At the top of the pyramid is the Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. The 2007 ($140) was aged in barrel for twenty months, and received another eight months of bottle age before release. Full-bodied and powerful, yet seamless at the same time, it displays a ripe and lush texture, along with flavors of spiced plums and dark berries in a rich, appealing style. Like the Signature Cabernet, this is a wine that needs several years of aging to show its full potential.