“For us the holy grail is a wine that technically has a lot of tannin but tastes soft,” winemaker Philip Titus says as we taste the flagship Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon. In fact, when he returned to Chappellet as chief winemaker in 1990 (he had previously been at the winery as assistant winemaker) his first mandate from Don Chappellet was to soften the mountain tannins in Chappellet Cabernet.
Chappellet is venerable as one of the first wineries to be built in Napa after Prohibition, in 1967 (one year after Mondavi). Driving up the narrow access road from Lake Hennessy, deep into the woods, it feels quite isolated. Covering 700 acres, the estate extends well beyond the 100 acres of vineyards, which range from 1000 to 1700 feet, just above the fog line. The winery was in the shape of a striking pyramid, but a new winery was built just behind it in 2014, and now the pyramid is mostly filled with barriques. There were already vines on the property when it was purchased, but there was a lot of Chenin Blanc. Following a replanting program in the nineties, most of the vineyard today is Cabernet Sauvignon, the variety for which Chappellet is best known.
Some Chenin Blanc was restored in 2006 and now makes the one white wine from the estate. “There was Chardonnay here, but in the early 90s I was aware it was too warm for Chardonnay. We pulled it out and went farther south. Eventually we ended up in Petaluma Gap in Sonoma.” The Chardonnay is one of the Grower Collection series of wines, which come from named vineyards aside from the Chappellet estate. The series also includes Pinot Noir from Russian River Valley. It’s fair to say these wines show a different character from the bold fruity style of Cabernet for which Chappellet is known, and reflect a cooler-climate style.
“The Signature Cabernet really gets back to what we’ve been doing for the last 54 years, Philip says. “It should be ready to drink, has to be stylistically approachable, but needs the ability to age.” It started out as 100% varietal, but now is a blend with 75-85% Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot and Malbec. “We didn’t find that blending with Cabernet Franc improved the wine,” Philips says, but he had gained experience with Petit Verdot and Malbec when his father planted them at his family vineyard in the 1970s. (Philip and his brother were skeptical, but their father said: you’ll need them one day.) Signature comes mostly from the estate, but also includes grapes from neighbors, and reflects its mountain origins in a sense of tension. Current vintages seem to have a more mineral style than the bolder vintages of the past.
The latest Cabernet Sauvignon cuvée is the 100% varietal Hideaway Vineyard, which comes from a plot just on the other side of Pritchard Hill. The first vintage was 2016. The terroir is different from the rest of the Chappellet vineyards, and has very shallow, rocky, red volcanic soil. It shows great purity of Cabernet fruits, with slightly lifted aromatics conveying a sense of precision.
“Pritchard Hill is the top wine. Everything we do revolves around this wine,” Philip says. It’s a vineyard selection followed by a barrel selection. A bigger wine, with long aging potential, it ages in 100% new oak compared to Signature’s 50%. Like Signature, it started as a varietal but now is a blend. It has impressive depth and density and needs several years to begin to show its quality.
An updated profile will be included in the 2022 edition of the Guide to Napa.
2019 Signature Chenin Blanc
Fruity nose, citrus overtones, ripe fruits but with slightly tart finish. Smooth and full of flavor, lives up to its name as a signature wine. “This is a very simply made wine,” Philip Titus says, “to keep brightness and minerality.” It’s aged half in neutral barriques and half in tank. 13.7% Chappellet 89 Drink -2025
2019 Petaluma Gap Calesa Vineyard Chardonnay
Barrel fermented with 30% new oak and going 100% through MLF. Nose gives a lean mineral impression with only faint traces of oak. More aromatic on the palate than expected from the nose, although stopping short of exotic fruits (this was fermented at low temperature). The palate is more phenolic than mineral with a long finish. The phenolic or floral impressions are due to the range of clones in the vineyard, which tend to high production of terpenes. 90 Drink -2026
2018 Russian River Valley, Apple Lane Vineyard Pinot Noir
This comes from the cool area of Green Valley. Nose opens with hints of earthy notes and red cherry fruits. It’s earthy on the palate, which shows quite bright red cherry fruits with just a touch of tannic bitterness at the end to show the structure. It’s a very clear, precise style for Russian River, with well-delineated fruits. It’s full of flavor and beginning to develop. “This is what I like about Russian River Valley,” Philip Titus says, “a richer deeper style of Pinot Noir.” It ages in 45% new barriques. 90 Drink -2028
2018 Napa Cabernet Franc (Cabernet Franc 75%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%, Malbec 6%, Petit Verdot 4%)
Nose offers sense of chocolate and tobacco, following to palate which shows some breadth with furry tannins on the finish–softer than the precision and structure of the Cabernet Sauvignon. Starts out quite primary but Philip Titus says it should start to develop secondary characters after 6-8 years. 91 Drink -2033.
2018 Signature Cabernet Sauvignon (Cabernet Sauvignon 85%%, Petit Verdot 10%, Malbec 5%)
Quite a restrained nose leads into smooth palate with tannins giving a chocolaty texture and just a touch of bitter chocolate at the end. The lean character of the fruits shows the influence of volcanic soils and the elevation of the vineyards. Palate inclines towards herbal or mineral notes. This can be enjoyed now but will really come out in a few years. 92 Drink -2034
2018 Hideaway Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (100%)
Chocolate notes overlay very pure black Cabernet fruits, with tannins showing as bitter chocolate on the finish. Aromatics are a little more lifted compared with the Signature Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s still very young, flavor variety has yet to develop, but it conveys a great sense of volcanic tension and purity of Cabernet fruits. It shows a mountain structure now but will become smooth and silky as it ages. It ages in 100% new oak. 94 Drink 2024-2039
2017 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon
Black inky color. Stern nose shows deep black fruits. This is a rich, big wine, with a chocolaty texture that carries its high tannins well. Fruits show as blackberries with hints of blueberries, but aromatics haven’t come out fully yet. Finish is very long with some breadth on the palate. Already it shows a seamless quality that I expect to be reflected in layers of flavor as it develops 94 Drink 2027-2045