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2010 Best Chardonnay: Chalk Hill Estate

Author: Alexandra Russell
May, 2010 Issue

At Chalk Hill Estate, they know a bit about Chardonnay. Mark Lingenfelder, EVP/director of vineyard operations, calls it “the engine that pulls the train. It doesn’t matter where you are around the country, if you mention Chalk Hill, people will say, ‘I love your Chardonnay.’”

It was the first varietal planted on the estate (in 1980) and, over the years, Lingenfelder, winery founder Fred Furth, and a succession of winemakers have dedicated themselves to perfecting the Chalk Hill Chardonnay offerings. “I just celebrated my 30th anniversary at Chalk Hill,” says Lingenfelder, “and going back to even those early wines, there’s definitely a thread—a ‘Chalk Hill character’—that comes from the vineyards. It’s a fruit character, but there’s also a nice acidity and balance, plus what people call a ‘minerality.’”

“It’s the tie that binds,” says Director of Winemaking Jordan Fiorentini. “When the wines are younger, they’re going to show a little more of the fresh, fruit forward character. As they age, that minerality definitely comes out more. It’s what makes us different from other wineries.”

In the early 1990s, Chalk Hill’s Chardonnay vines became threatened by phylloxera (a nasty little insect, related to aphids, that can quickly decimate entire vineyards). In response, Lingenfelder and Furth embarked on an “extensive and aggressive” clonal evaluation project, planting 17 distinct Chardonnay clones from different regions around the world in one of the estate’s best Chardonnay sites (that had succumbed to phylloxera).

“When the vines were about three years old, we started to make separate wines from each one,” says Lingenfelder. “For five years, we made 17 different wines from that vineyard—separate harvests and separate production, barrel fermentation and bottling. We knew we had to use the same techniques and protocols we use for our full-production estate bottled wines. Only this would tell us how each clone would perform under our specific regime. We found about six clones out of the 17 that really accentuated the Chalk Hill style.”

Since 1992, most of the existing estate vineyards (all varietals) have been replanted—a huge undertaking, but given that Chalk Hill is its own subappellation of the Russian River Valley AVA, there really wasn’t that much choice. “We’ll never go off-estate for grapes,” says Lingenfelder.

“We have consumers who love the wine and have been drinking it for many, many years,” says Fiorentini, who came to Chalk Hill as associate winemaker in 2007 and was promoted in July 2008. “We need it to have some resemblance of itself over time. Luckily, that’s not such a hard task, considering it’s all coming from 100 percent estate grown fruit. I just did a vertical tasting of Chardonnays from 2002 to 2007, and it was amazing. Our Chardonnays are built to last.”

In addition to its Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Chalk Hill produces a Founder’s Block Chardonnay in exceptional years (made most recently in 2007, but 2009 is already showing potential), Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and a Botrytised Semillon. Chalk Hill has also produced Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but, beginning with the 2007 vintage (to be released later this year), will debut Chalk Hill Estate Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petite Verdot.

Fiorentini also creates several special blends (they change with each vintage) that are available only through the wine club or at the tasting room. It’s a stop worth making, as Chalk Hill Estate includes an equestrian center, sustainable gardens and culinary program and offers a variety of tours and tasting options (see “Great Tastes,” Dec. 2009).

www.chalkhill.com

 

 

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