Chappellet pioneered mountain planting in Napa Valley

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Chappellet’s pyramid-shaped winery dominates the landscape along with its solar system that generates enough energy to offset 100 percent of the electricity costs. (Images courtesy of chappellet.com)

DONN CHAPPELLET took the advice of Andre Tchelistcheff back in the 1960s and built his iconic winery up in the mountains in eastern Napa at a site he would name Pritchard Hill. According to James Conaway’s book, “The Far Side of Eden,” the famed winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard told Donn that high elevation planting would cost 40 percent more, and the yield would be half of what you get on the valley floor, but the grapes would earn twice the price.

Donn’s gamble on Pritchard Hill worked as he built the second significant post-Prohibition winery in Napa Valley — following Robert Mondavi. Mondavi would make its first Cabernet Sauvignon in 1966, Chappellet in 1969. The striking architecture of Chappellet’s pyramid-shaped winery would endure — as would Mondavi’s Mission style. And Chappellet Vineyards would keep its family-owned status — unlike Mondavi.

Donn Chappellet died last month at the age of 84. His legacy includes the powerful “Signature” Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the mountain and his loyalty to dry, well-made Chenin Blancs and single-varietal Cabernet Francs — a grape he has grown on the slopes of Pritchard Hill since the 1980s.

He leaves behind his family members at the helm, and the talent-laden wine team of Phillip Corallo-Titus, who took the position of winemaker in 1990 (after previously working there four years), and assistant winemaker Daniel Docher, who came on board in 2004 from Sonoma’s Hanzell and other impressive properties. Vineyard manager Dave Pirio has been farming grapes on Pritchard Hill for more than 30 years.

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Chappellet’s mountain-grown Signature Cabernet Sauvignon has been the winery’s flagship for decades. The late Donn Chappellet has his signature on the label.

Chappellet Signature Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013, $60: Let the air get to this wine — for an hour or so — to help this beauty unfurl its flavors, which are dense enough to almost chew. It’s a young, powerful wine from the terrific 2013 vintage. Fruit is intense and concentrated, tannins are silky and dry. Aromas of dark berry, cherry, plum, dark roast coffee, spice and cedar press every sensory button in your head. It should age well for many, many years. This wine has been the winery’s flagship for more than 30 years. Winemaker Phillip Corallo-Titus says the 2013 growing season yielded one of their finest Signature Cabernets in memory.

Chappellet Signature Chenin Blanc Napa Valley 2014, $32: Chappellet’s Chenin is dry and intense, with lovely aromas of tropical fruit and white floral tones followed by flavors of pineapple, melon, clementine and white flowers. It finishes with tart grapefruit and lime zest. It’s a full-bodied wine with generous alcohol. Fermentation in a combination of neutral French oak and stainless steel barrels, stainless steel tanks and a concrete “egg” adds to the character. There were chenin blanc vines on the property when the Chappellets bought the land in the 1960s; the three-acre block was only replanted in 2004. It’s a unique wine for the Chappellet portfolio.

Chappellet Cabernet Franc Napa Valley 2012, $70: Produced from another terrific vintage, this smooth, accessible Cabernet Franc is filled out with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec. It’s so dark and intense, it’s like an essence with flavors of dark berries, cherry, dried cranberry, cedar, clove and coffee. The tannins are soft and juicy, the acidity is firm, the character is robust and earthy. It was bottled after spending 22 months in French oak, 60 percent new. The Chappellets planted Cabernet Franc on the mountain in 1989 and have a track record for producing a single varietal wine.

Chappellet Chardonnay Napa Valley 2014, $35: Crisp fruit, a spicy infusion of oak, sturdy acidity and good weight characterize this wine. Green apple, pear, brown spices, vanilla and Meyer lemon lift up the aromas. Flavors are crisp and fresh, with mineral tones that add to the complexity and provide a nice counterpoint to flavors of green apple, pear, citrus and cream. The fruit is from vineyards in cooler areas of Napa Valley.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at ssilfven@hotmail.com.