Thursday, February 15, 2001
When a winemaker says, "I am not a historian, I am a hedonist," chances are his wines will have "the yummy factor." And noted Chalone Vineyard winemaker Dan Karlsen delivers just that. For a winery that boasts the fourth largest number of stockholders in the world--Ben and Jerry is third--the wines produced here are incredibly personal and hand crafted. (By the way, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild owns close to 50 percent of the Chalone Wine Group, and 12,000 shareholders own the rest).
Karlsen credits his well-drained soils, high altitudes and mature vines, not his talents, for the benchmark chenin blanc, viognier, chardonnay, pinot blanc and pinot noir he cultivates. He believes the limestone-based soils give a mineral component to his wines that is missing in many warm climate (California or Australia) wines.
Despite his challenges--his remote vineyards are susceptible to gophers, birds, snakes and wild boar--Karlsen manages to turn out wines that are recognized around the world as, yes, yummy, but very serious at the same time.
All Chalone wines are estate bottled, meaning only fruit grown on the property goes into the wine. And all Chalone wines are rich. European wines are only this rich when the grapes at their core have been allowed to fully mature--which, because of weather and other factors, places odds against that happening.
The grapes here are struggling to ripen, too, but sunshine is not lacking. The combination of a little struggle and a lot of sunshine gives Chalone wines their rare combination of decadently rich, ripe fruit with elusive undercurrents of minerality.
Think of it as curry. You take a bite, and then another. By about the third bite, you realize there is something else there. It starts to grab your attention, and in this case, your sensors start to register it--heat. It never overpowers the dish. It just makes it a little more interesting, a little bit more--here comes a wine descriptor--complex.
While you may not be able to put your finger on exactly what you taste, chances are you will recognize that there is something there besides fruit. And chances are you will agree that the wines are yummy. Current releases to try at the tasting room include the 1999 Chenin Blanc, 1999 Pinot Blanc, 1998 Chardonnay and 1999 Pinot Noir.
Karlsen is excited about his new syrah vineyard. He feels the combination of good clonal material, a steep terraced hillside, and 100 percent decomposed granite soil will produce a "benchmark syrah for California." The syrah will be released in 2002.
He is also experimenting with other varietals from France''s Rhone Valley, including grenache noir and viognier. He likes to add a bit of these two varietals to the syrah because "syrah tends to be ponderous and monochromatic." He also is aging his syrah in French oak, whereas many current California releases are aged in American, perhaps contributing to their sweet expression.
Karlsen has some new pinot noir clones going in, too, and says "our vineyard is like an archaeology experiment in the California wine industry. We have pinot noir vines from 82 years to eight months old."
Chalone Vineyard, the oldest producing vineyard in Monterey County, is located 1,800 feet above the Salinas Valley floor on the Chalone Peak in the Gavilan Mountains just north of a dormant volcano--Pinnacles National Monument. It even has its own AVA, or officially recognized American Viticultural Area.
Chalone Vineyards is located at the intersection of Highway 146 and Stonewall Canyon Road, 9 miles east of Soledad. For more info, call 678-1717 or click on www.chalonewinegroup.com.
Weekly Wine Recommendations
Covey Run Chenin Blanc 1999 Washington State
Chenin blanc has a bad reputation (OK, I like to think it even has a reputation). Most of the chenin blanc we once saw from California was bland and sickly sweet but conveniently packaged in a resealable box. Times are changing and, for $9 or so, some delicious versions are coming out of Sonoma and other selected zones. And a Chalone Vineyards Chenin Blanc from right here in Monterey is one of the best in the country. But for $6, this invigorating, juicy version from Washington is a deal. It is slightly sweet, like a really ripe cantaloupe or honeydew. $6
Bernardus Chardonnay 1998 Monterey County
It is not often that I get this excited about chardonnay. I found it one-third in your face exotic with mango and tangerine fruit, one-third restrained yeasty and minerally, and one-third toasty with butterscotch and crme brulée notes. Barrel tannins and vibrant acidity balanced out its voluptuous, silky texture. $20
Rosemount Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Show Reserve 1998 Coonawarra
At times sultry and exotic like a great Cote Rotie or Chambolle-Musigny, the core of this wine says, "I am emulating Bordeaux"--and it does! Tobacco, cedar chest, lead pencil (are you salivating yet? I know, these descriptors are, like, so out there, but work with me) black currant and vanilla aromas and flavors are deliciously French, but the wallop of sweet oak on the finish reminds you that this is from OZ, the land of the not-so-subtle. $24