An Extraordinary Night (Part One)

A couple of months ago, I got a text from a PR friend of mine, saying that he needed to chat with me a bit. As I texted him back, I, of course, wondered what on earth it could mean–rarely does anyone actually use the telephone for communication these days.

Had I made an egregious error in one of my posts? Possible. Was a producer that he represented angry about something I wrote (or didn’t write)? Probably. Or was it more mundane?

It turns out, he was coming to Houston with Elizabeth Vianna, the longtime winemaker at Chimney Rock Winery, on the southern part of the Silverado Trail in Napa Valley. He wanted to know if I wanted to host a winetasting of several vintages of Chimney Rock’s famed Cabernet Sauvignon in our humble abode.

Uh, yeah. Was that a trick question? Chimney Rock is one of those wineries that seems to have been around forever and consistently produces one of the best Cabs in the Valley. But as the date for the tasting in early December approached, I decided I needed to do a little more research.

Chimney Rock dates back to 1980 when a long time Pepsi executive, Hack Wilson and his wife Stella purchased a golf course on the east side of the Silverado Trail. They promptly planted vines on the back nine of the course (keeping the other nine holes open, at least initially), mostly to Cabernet Sauvignon.

The first vintage was four years later, in 1984, and the wine received instant accolades. The winery and tasting room were built in the early 1990s and in 2000, the Terlato family joined as investors in Chimney Rock. A few years later, when the Wilson were ready to retire, the Terlatos became sole owners of the estate and have since strived to maintain its position as one of the top Cabernet producers in Napa Valley.

Elizabeth walked us through 12 different wines that night in our dining room, starting with a relatively new project, the Elevage Blanc, a white wine blend that, at least in my mind, does not get nearly enough attention from the wine critics.

2020 Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc, Napa Valley, CA: Retail $50. 78.5% Sauvignon Gris, 21.5% Sauvignon Blanc. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, the first vintage of Elevage Blanc was back in 2004, shortly before Elizabeth Vianna was named head winemaker. According to Elizabeth, this is a wine meant to age at least 5-15 years, and it is not until at least a few years out that it really starts hitting its stride. Aged 1/3 new French oak, 1/3 neutral oak, and 1/3 stainless steel, there is nice lemon fruit with a hint of oak in the glass along with lovely mineral notes. Wonderful fruit on the palate with a nice roundness but also brilliant acidity. Lengthy finish. Yowza. Outstanding. 93 Points.

2016 Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc, Napa Valley, CA: Retail $50. Heavy Bottle. 79% Sauvignon Blanc, 21% Sauvignon Gris. Tasted alongside the 2020 Elevage Blanc and while the 2016 has more of a muted nose, holy cow, this is quite expressive. As it warmed a touch, I picked up a panoply of fruit aromas: peach, pear, citrus. There was also a mineral aspect and a slight honeyed, caramel note. The palate is so complex, with great fruit and weight and the mid-palate is just amazing. Rich, on the verge of unctuous but completely stunning. While this is not labeled as such, it technically is a Sauvignon Blanc and I can count on one hand the list of other SBs I have tasted in the class of this 2016 Elevage Blanc. Outstanding Plus. 96 Points.

While I would have been perfectly happy to delve a bit deeper into the Elevage Blancs, the focus of the night was what put Chimney Rock on the map, so to speak, Cabernet Sauvignon. We started with the very first vintages of the winery, which are approaching forty years old.

1984 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley, CA: Retail $200? The very first vintage of Chimney Rock. Clearly, the color has faded a bit but the nose is stunning. While most of the fruit has faded there is some dark fruit but you have to search for it behind the tobacco, an oaky component, and a slight herbal quality (rosemary?). It is also a bit meaty with a leathery aspect; all quite compelling. Whoa. The palate is elegant, tart, leathery, and layered. For a forty-year-old wine? Holy cow. This is gangbusters. Excellent. 92 Points.

1985 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, CA: Retail $200? Fruitier perhaps than the 1984, with black pepper and clove, a hint of tobacco. Mocha. The palate is tart and lovely perhaps not as layered, but amazing. Another wine to drink up as I doubt this will improve. Outstanding. 93 Points.

1992 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, CA: Retail $180? Darker in both color and aromas than both the 1984 and 1984, which is not surprising, at least from a color standpoint, given the age discrepancy. This vintage is also more peppery, with a decided herbal aspect, which is lovely. Abundant fruit on the palate, which is surprising seeing that the wine is thirty years old, has great balance, and silky tannins. Lovely. Outstanding. 94 Points.

1998 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon Stags Leap District, Napa Valley, CA: Retail $100? This wine comes from the near-universally panned 1998 vintage in Napa Valley. I was actually living in the Bay Area then and 1998 was an El Niño year, quite wet and, well, not very pleasant. So I get the vintage assessment. But. This wine, today? In the glass, nearly 25 years later? Yeah, giddy-up. Surprisingly darker in both color and aromas than the previous vintages in this tasting (even given the rough year) with peppery and herbal notes. While not much fruit on the nose, there is lovely fruit on the palate, along with great balance and silky, integrated tannins. Outstanding. 93 Points.


About the drunken cyclist

I have been an occasional cycling tour guide in Europe for the past 20 years, visiting most of the wine regions of France. Through this "job" I developed a love for wine and the stories that often accompany the pulling of a cork. I live in Houston with my lovely wife and two wonderful sons.
This entry was posted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Sauvignon Gris, Wine. Bookmark the permalink.

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