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Tasting notes from California

© 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


Elizabeth I met up with the Elizabeth Vianna (right), winemaker for Chimney Rock Winery, at the excellent Goose & Gander Restaurant in St Helena for a tasting before a very good lunch. Like several winemakers I met on this trip, Elizabeth did not start out wanting to be a winemaker, and in fact studied medicine in New York before deciding "I was a little too artistic for medicine," and transferring to complete a postgraduate winemaking degree at UC Davies in California. As a child, Brazilian born Elizabeth split her time between Brazil and the US, but she married an American (whose grandfather, she told me as an aside, once played football for Arsenal).

Chimney rock was established 30 years ago in the Stag's Leap district of Napa. "Stag's Leap is in the south of the Napa Valley," says Elizabeth, "and is one of the cooler areas. And we are against the Eastern hills, where our soils are mostly volcanic, and pretty wonderful for Cabernet." Indeed the estate is focused on Cabernet and the other Bordeaux varieties, including Sauvignon Blanc for white wines and with recent plantings of Malbec giving all five red wine grapes. "We're an estate winery," Elizabeth tells me, "using only our own fruit which we farm sustainably. The winery is 100% solar powered, and we use recycled water from Yountville for vineyard irrigation - we've being doing that for over a decade."

Learning that I had recently returned from a trip to South Africa, Elizabeth also surprises me by revealing the Chimney Rock's winery is built in the traditional Cape Dutch style of architecture, the dream of the original founders Hack and Stella Wilson, who brought their love of wine and South African winery architecture to the Napa Valley in 1980. Elizabeth has been here as winemaker since 2002, surviving the change of ownership in 2004 when the estate was bought by the Terlato family, significant players in Napa, California and further afield with their Terlato Family label and various other brands including joint ventures with Michel Chapoutier in Australia and with Il Poggione in Italy.


the wines

Chimney Rock is imported by Matthew Clark. See all stockists on wine-searcher.

Chimney Rock, Elevage Blanc 2007, California
It was at first surprising to see a 2007 white on the table, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris. But Elizabeth explained it was "Made to the European palate," and "somewhat modelled after Bordeaux's Haut-Brion Blanc," which is apparently the favourite white wine of the estate's owner. The wine is fermented one third in new barrels, one third in used barrels and one third in stainless steel barrels, with eight different yeasts employed to build complexity. Nice wild ferment character and a touch of complex herb and wild, gently earthy character. Lovely. Juicy quite serious palate, fantastic texture in the mouth with a palate coating dry, savoury character, the juicy lemon and nutty apple coming through. 90/100. Sells for around $39 locally.

Chimney Rock, Elevage Blanc 2008, California
The blend was 72% Sauvignon Blanc in this vintage. A touch of mineral saltiness, a touch orange. Very juicy, with a sweet fruit intensity and character. Juicy, quite serious palate, fantastic texture in the mouth with a palate-coating dry, savoury appeal, the juicy lemon and nutty apple character pushes through to a long finish. 90/100.

Chimney Rock, Stag's Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
This is the estate's biggest production and comes from parcels across the estate. Very attractive nose with a sprinkle of cedar and pepper, of gaminess too before very direct black fruit. A real cassis intensity and then coffee comes through against a big, fresh juicy fruitiness. The refined smoky oak is lovely too - well tempered and settles nicely with the structure of the wine - very good balance here, the tannins noticeable but refined. 91/100 $65.

Chimney Rock, Tomahawk Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, California
100% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged in 70% new French oak "But I'm not big on too much oak," says Elizabeth, "I tend to use three-year air-dried wood." This has a delightfully softened edge to the aromatics, just a meaty touch to plummy, ripe fruit. The oak very nicely judged, sitting in the background. Fantastic black fruit intensity, a really creamy concentration with a sharpening tug of acid and supple tannins giving structure. Lovely, and very fine. 93/100. $160 locally.

Chimney Rock, Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon 2005, California
One of the coolest vintages of the decade, "Originally dismissed by critics," according to Elizabeth, "but has turned out some great wines." This has 8% Merlot but the vintage was too cool for the other Bordeaux varieties. Delightfully cool and racy, plenty of cedar and tobacco and a real raciness to the black fruit. Tight and mineral flecked cassis drives this. Bursts with juicy life on the palate, silky fruit and tannins, the juicy black cherry acidity is beautifully resolved. The wine is drinking perfectly and is elegant whilst revelling in black fruit intensity. 92-93/100. $85 locally.

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