January 7, 2019 – The 8,640-acre Chalone wine region, first planted to Chenin Blanc in 1919 and established as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1982, is largely a bone-dry desert east of Soledad, about 15 minutes drive from Highway 101. You definitely feel the ascent off the valley floor, as you climb to an elevation of 1,800 ft. and suddenly find yourself in the shadow of the Pinnacles.
It’s a trip in so many ways, especially considering the journey the rocks that form the Pinnacles itself, which are part of a volcanic field that originated some 200 miles to the south and took over 23 million years ago to get here. It’s still moving northwards to this day.
Michael Michaud, long-time Chalone resident and winemaker, has been making wine from here for over 33 years. He originally intended for the AVA to be called “The Pinnacles,” but the gorilla-sized influence of Chalone, the brand, prevailed.
It’s important to note the distinction between Chalone, the AVA, and Chalone Vineyards, the brand. Wine has been made under the Chalone Vineyards label since 1966, originally by winemaker and founder, Dick Graff, and presently by winemaker Gianni Abate. The Chalone Vineyard at 450 acres is the largest in the AVA. A handful of other vineyards together make up the remaining 100 acres planted, including Brosseau, Antle, Boer, Graff Family and Michaud. Although Chardonnay and Pinot dominate, Grenache, Mourvedre and Syrah are also planted here, and all are capable of making extraordinary, head-turning wines.
The distinctive geology of the Chalone AVA, a volcanic area covered with granite and limestone, produces wines of prodigious age-worthiness and quiet power. So profound are the older Chalone Vineyard Reserve wines, that they often fool somms into thinking they are from the great houses of Burgundy.
Those of us who attended the Chalone AVA panel tasting at Big Sur Food & Wine festival in November were treated to an amazing overview of the region, largely courtesy of Michaud and treasures from his cellar. He was joined on the panel by Ian Brand of I. Brand and La Marea, Ed Kurtzman of Sandler Cellars and August West, and Scott Shapley, who makes wine for ROAR and Flywheel, his personal quest to reveal the soul of Chalone.
Michaud kicked off the panel tasting by describing the Chalone AVA as a mountain of limestone at the edge of the Pacific plate. “It is moving north at a rate of 1.5 inches per year. It’s reducing my commute to the Bay Area by milliseconds. In fact, we had three earthquakes just this morning,” he said.
Michaud was winemaker at Chalone from 1979 until 1997, at which point Diageo took over, beginning the brand’s rapid decline from the pinnacle of quality to the depths of disappointment. What once was lauded as a standard of measure for old world reminiscent Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir, beguiling for their soulful minerality, chalky tannins and ethereal texture, became generically blah, as fruit from outside the area watered the wine down like a reverse Jesus miracle at Cana.
But now, things are changing. Well-revered winemakers, spanning several generations, are demonstrating the prowess of this special piece of sand.
Ed Kurtzman, who got his first job in the wine industry at Chalone by following Michaud’s advice to go to Fresno for his wine education, is making kick-ass Grenache and Pinot Noir from the Boer Vineyard. The 2011 Sandler Boer Grenache is stunning, an eruption of white pepper, fern, marjoram, rosemary and sandalwood. Lean and ferocious, but abundantly fascinating.
Shapley’s 2012 Flywheel Chardonnay from Brosseau Vineyard is a lime jolly rancher joy with ginger and nutmeg, broaching a silky satiny mouthfeel oozing quince, lime mousse and honey. This beauty is age-worthy.
Ian Brand’s 2105 La Marea Brosseau Vineyard Grenache is so wild and crazy, it’s like trying to harness wild mustangs to a wagon carrying hand grenades. Give it time and it’s going to be sensational.
Dipping once again into the Boer Vineyard, the 2016 Sandler Pinot Noir from Ed Kurtzman tempts with incense, pomegranate, raspberry rose petals and cocoa, moving to flavors of root beer and sarsaparilla, with a velvety and lovely texture. Wonderful now and for the long haul.
The 2014 Flywheel Mourvedre from Boer Vineyards spotlights Scott Shapley’s knack with this tricky grape. In fact, it may be one of the best Mourvedre’s I’ve had in recent memory. Underpinned by salinity, this wine offers an unbelievably gorgeous, velveteen texture, replete with strawberry licorice vines and aromas of prosciutto, cherry, roasted meat and strawberry candy.
From the last parcel of the Graff Family Vineyard, Ian Brand’s 2014 Consensus combines Syrah and Mourvedre for a wine that smells of iron, tomato granita, pomegranate, cranberry and sumac. It explodes like a volcano with grippy plum apricot jam, sassafrass and rosemary, superb of tannin and dense as tar.
All these wines are still available for purchase and would be great cellar selections.
Michaud, who returned to Chalone Vineyards as consulting winemaker after Diageo sold it to Bill Foley, has a tasting room in the vicinity, with a stunning view of The Pinnacles. It’s open Friday through Sunday from noon to 5pm. Go there. His wines are all made from his own estate vineyard, and he still has some older vintages. He poured us the 2005 Michaud Pinot Noir, which is still lean, tannic and filled with pine and tarragon, with aromatics of daffodils and earth. It’s quite possible this wine will outlive me.
The 2000 Michaud Chardonnay he shared with us is pure jasmine and lemon curd, a sensual delight you literally cannot stop drinking. We couldn’t believe he parted company with a bottle of this, but that’s one of the benefits of attending the always fabulous seminars in the Big Sur Food & Wine lineup each year.
The oldest library Chardonnay Michaud presently offers is 2010, which garnered 92 points from Wine Enthusiast. The 2013 and 2014 Michaud Pinot Noirs rated 93 points, and I wouldn’t hesitate to buy cases of any of them to lay down as long as you can manage. If the 1984 Chalone Chenin Blanc, the 1991 Chalone Vineyards Chardonnay Reserve Select and the 1993 Chalone Pinot Noir we sampled as part of the panel tasting are any indication of how well these wines stand the test of time, your cellar, your palate, and perhaps your grandchildren, will thank you exceedingly.
Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist, columnist and judge who contributes regularly to Edible Monterey Bay, Spirited, WineOh.Tv, Los Gatos Magazine and Wine Industry Network, and a variety of consumer publications. Her passion is telling stories about the intriguing characters who inhabit the fascinating world of wine and food.