The wines of Chimney Rock, Napa Valley, California
Tasting the wines from this Stag's Leap property with winemaker Elizabeth Viannan 

As I meet Elizabeth Vianna, winemaker for Napa winery Chimney Rock, she has just finished vintage. This must be a great time in the year of winemaker: that year's wines are all safe in the winery, and the intensity of the harvest has now receded. Maybe that's why she seemed so relaxed, and happy to be showing her wines.

Chimney Rock is a small winery at the south end of Stag’s Leap district, founded in 1984 by a Pepsi Executive, Hack Wilson. Hack and his wife Stella bought and 18 hole golf course and turned the first 9 holes into a vineyard, as well as building a faux Cape Dutch winery. This love of South African architecture stemmed from his time in Africa, where Hack established 23 Pepsi plants in 19 different countries.

The initial plantings were on AXR rootstock, which is not properly phylloxera-resistant, and so these vines had to be replaced. By this stage Doug Fletcher was in charge, a meticulous viticulturist who planted the right vines in the right places. Currently there are 103 acres planted (40 hectares), the majority of which is Cabernet Sauvignon, but also some Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. As well as the estate vineyards, Chimney Rock also have some vines in Rutherford: 6.8 acres of Sauvignon Blanc and 1.6 acres of Sauvignon Gris.

Elizabeth’s story is an interesting one. She was born in Brazil, and grew up between the East Coast of the USA and Brazil. She speaks three languages – Spanish, Portuguese and English. Her dream was to become a paediatrician, so she decided she wanted to go to medical school. She did premed at Vassar College in upstate New York, and before going to med school she got a job at Cornell Medical School Hospital in New York City working with GC-MS and liquid chromatography. It was then that she began to discover wine, aided by a friend’s dad with a deep cellar. She started going to tastings. At a Christies pre auction tasting, she had a glass of Sociando Mallet 1985 in her hand and was talking to Christian Moeiux when she decided, age 29, that she should go to study winemaking instead. Her expertise with GC-MS proved to be a golden ticket into UC Davis, where she studied viticulture and enology.  She’s now been winemaker at Chimney Rock for 12 years.

In 2001 the Terlato family became partners to the Wilsons. Hack died in 2001, and in 2004 Terlato became sole owners. They planted the rest of the property, the final nine holes: the well-drained volcanic soils made for a mediocre golf course, but a great vineyard.

‘My job is to be an interpreter,’ says Elizabeth. ‘I want to get to know the vineyards and tell their tale in a particular vintage. I’m an opponent of over-engineered wines.’ The only thing she does is to occasionally add a bit of tartaric acid and inoculate with yeasts.

‘I don’t like super-ripe fruit,’ she says. ‘Fruit integrity is an important component of retaining varietal character. Hang time got away from Napa winemakers: now they are moving back towards balance.’

She gives an example from her own work, the Midas block on the property. ‘When I started, we picked it last, waiting for the chalky tannins to evolve. We’d get dehydration and it would make lousy wine. Then one year we decided to pick as soon as it had lost the pyrazines, ignoring the chalky tannins. It has made the best wine since.’

Elizabeth also things that tasting fruit doesn’t always translate to the wine when deciding picking time: you have to get to know the vineyards.

We focused on two of the wines, a white blend called Elevage Blanc, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from the Tomahawk vineyard. Elevage Blanc is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sauvignon Gris, fermented and aged in barrel. Elizabeth wanted to make a Bordeaux style white, but Semillon isn't very good in Napa, so she chose to use Sauvignon Gris, which does much better, as a blending partner for Sauvignon Blanc. Pressing is very gentle, using whole bunches and a Champagne cycle to restrict the phenolics from the skins. She uses 8 different cultured yeasts (she found natural fermentation too unpredictable). ‘It’s remarkable how much impact yeasts can have on acidity, aromatics and body,’ she says. The wine is fermented in a mix of new and used oak, plus stainless steel barrels of 70 gallons, which allow for lees work without any oak impact. The wine goes through malo because she doesn’t want to sterile filter, a process that can lose the texture gained from the battonage.

Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc 2010 Napa, California
88%Sauvignon Blanc, 12% Sauvignon Gris, aged for 5 months on lees. Fresh with lovely definition and very well integrated oak. Notes of pear, quince and citrus, with a floral edge to the nose. Lovely delicate texture with real finesse. This was from a cool vintage by Napa standards. 93/100

Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc 2009 Napa, California
59% Sauvignon Blanc, 41% Sauvignon Gris. Textured and quite broad with lovely white peach and pear fruit, and well integrated oak. There's lovely delicacy and finesse here. Ripe and smooth-textured but with definition,and some subtle nuttiness in the background. 93/100

Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc 2008 Napa, California
70% Sauvignon Blanc, 30% Sauvignon Gris. Ripe and warm with sweet pear and peach fruit as well as some nutty, toasty notes. Broad, full textured and smooth, with depth and richness. 91/100

Chimney Rock Elevage Blanc 2007 Napa, California
Vibrant, fresh grapefruit and tangerine edge to the rich, rounded, slightly nutty fruit. Showing a bit of toasty evolution. Ripe, smooth and satisfying. 92/100

The Tomahawk vineyard is from the southern end of the Stags Leap district, and the fruit is red toned rather than black. All of these wines are youthful, linear and quite pure, still, and could age gracefully. They are 100% Cabernet and made in 500-800 case quantities. US retail is $135.

Chimney Rock Tomahawk Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Napa, California
26 days skin contact, 18 months in 75% new oak. Ripe and sweet with nice density. Bold black cherry and blackberry fruit with some warm spicy oak in the background. Sweetly fruited with nice definition, this wine is currently simple, easy and tasty. 91/100

Chimney Rock Tomahawk Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Napa, California
35 days skin contact, 20 months in French oak, 70% new. Fresh with nice definition to the sweet pastille and red cherry fruit. Good structure with some spiciness. Supple, direct and shows elegance allied to ripeness. 92/100

Chimney Rock Tomahawk Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 Napa, California
30 days skin contact, 70% new oak. 14.7% alcohol. Very attractive sweet, ripe blackberry and blackcurrant fruit. Nice weight and good concentration, but still quite supple with a hint of minty freshness. Nice balance and structure here, with a hint of chocolatey richness. 92/100

Chimney Rock Tomahawk Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 Napa, California
18 months in 75% new French oak. Nice fresh berry fruits here, with some blackcurrant too. Nice purity and balance. Fresh and supple with lovely weight and good definition. It's still youthful and linear. 92/100

Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon 2009 Napa, California
89% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 2% Petit Verdot. Lovely ripe, sweet red berry and blackcurrant fruit with nice definition. There's lovely structure here: it has edges, as well as sweet fruit. Pure and fresh with real potential. 94/100

Chimney Rock Cabernet Franc 2009 Napa, California
Fresh , vivid and bright with red berry and cherry fruit, backed by good acidity. Very lively and pure with vivid tannic structure. I really like the freshness. 93/100

See also:

Visiting Napa (series)
The wines of Silverado, Napa 

Wines tasted 11/13  
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