Napa’s Grand Cru

Chappellet Vineyards on Pritchard Hill

Chappellet Vineyards on Pritchard Hill

Way back in 2002, Wine Spectator labeled Prichard Hill, the mountain vineyard site east of St. Helena, “Napa’s Grand Cru.”

Ten years later, the magazine noted that while “this wild and rocky terrain produces profound Cabernets,” the proliferation of high-end wineries and homes make it feel a little bit more like “Napa Valley’s Rodeo Drive.” Who is up on Prichard Hill? Try Bryant Family, Colgin, David Arthur, and Tim Mondavi’s Continuum project.

Discovery of a Great Site. But the first winery on the hill, the estate that showed and realized the promise of this steep, rocky hillside was Donn and Molly Chappellet’s winery, started in 1967. After an initial flirtation with off-dry Chenin Blanc and Riesling, Chappellet discovered its true calling: intense, structured, and incredibly cellar-worthy mountainside Cabernet Sauvignon.

Donn & Molly Chappellet

Donn & Molly Chappellet

The 1969 Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon Pritchard Hill put the winery on the map and that wine has now achieved legendary status as one of Napa’s greatest. As Robert Parker said back in 2009, “Brilliant wines have emerged from this showcase estate high on Pritchard Hill, which is producing some of the most exciting Cabernets coming out of Napa. As for my estimated aging curves, readers should keep in mind that the 1969 Chappellet made by Philip Togni, at age 40, remains a remarkably young, vibrant wine!”

A Supple Second Wine. Over the years, Chappellet has turned out one majestic Pritchard Hill Cabernet after another and added the equally outstanding, if slightly less forbidding, Signature Cabernet. Great wines, expensive growing conditions (Pritchard Hill is steep), and lots of demand quickly pushed both these wines out of the everyday price category. And so, Donn, Molly, and the family introduced the Mountain Cuvee, a wine using younger vines and selected barrels from the Estate vineyard, plus fruit from lower elevations by trusted growers.

One of the secrets to Chappellet’s success in its top wines has been the skillful use of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot to complement the often very intense structure of high-elevation Cabernet Sauvignon. They bring that same blending approach to the Mountain Cuvee 2012. Cabernet Sauvignon makes up about 40% of the blend, providing ripe currant fruit flavors, a touch of tobacco, and sleek tannic structure. About 35% Merlot rounds out the mid-palate with plump plum, black cherry notes, and softer tannins.

Like many Napa Cabernet winemakers, Chappellet uses smaller doses of Petite Verdot (8%) and Cabernet Franc (3%) to bolster the wine’s aromatics, add some lifting acidity, and contribute notes of fresh crushed herb and flowers. But the surprise – and what just might make the wine – is a whopping 12% Malbec, Bordeaux’s forgotten blending grape. I suspect the Malbec is the key to Mountain Cuvee 2012’s ability to stay so fresh despite all the rich, creamy fruit.

I’m guessing about Malbec’s influence here, but you don’t need to guess whether it’s a great value (it is) or whether you’ll love it, because we have it open in the store right now and through Friday. We think Chappellet Mountain Cuvee 2012 will quickly become your go-to Cab for solo sipping, entertaining, and – especially – for enjoying with grilled beef or lamb. A winner.

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