The Napa Valley was a different place when Donn and Molly Chappellet launched their winery on Pritchard Hill a half-century ago. The Judgment of Paris, a blind tasting in Paris where a handful of Napa Valley wineries shocked the world by besting the finest wines France could put forward, was yet to happen. Hillside vineyards were a novelty at the time, and on the valley floor, grapes competed for space with other agricultural crops.
The legendary winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff recommended the site. It was just off the Silverado Trail on the heavily wooded eastern slopes of the valley, where the vineyards would catch the late-afternoon sun before it dipped behind the Mayacamas Mountains to the west.
From the beginning, cabernet sauvignon was Chappellet's money grape. On Pritchard Hill, cabernet produced long-lived red wines that often didn't reach peak maturity until 20 years old and beyond. The beautiful cabs of Chappellet helped launch the careers of storied winemakers Tony Soter and Cathy Corison.
Phillip Corallo-Titus has been the winemaker since 1990. And that brings us to the latest release of Chappellet's Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon from the 2014 vintage. The vintage pales in comparison to the extraordinary 2013 harvest, but no one would ever guess from this bottle. It is a monumental wine from the winery I have long thought to be the cradle of cabernet sauvignon in the Napa Valley.
Years ago, when I turned the attention of my wine collection from Bordeaux to Napa Valley cabernet, Chappellet was at the top of my list. Chappellet cabernet reminded me of my favorite Bordeaux, the first-growth Chateau Haut-Brion, which had the ability to age magnificently. If the Napa Valley were to have a classification, I have no doubt Pritchard Hill would be assigned first-growth status.
If the price gives you pause, consider that this is a collector's wine in a league with top-notch Bordeaux that would cost three to five times more. It is a special wine that deserves a special price.
Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer's enthusiasm for the recommended wine.
Chappellet 2013 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon ($220) -- The Pritchard Hill is Chappellet's benchmark cab, and the 2013 is another masterpiece. Richly layered with impressive depth and length, this wine offers up succulent notes of ripe blackberry, currant and blueberry, with subtle notes of wood spice. The tannins are ample but supple, suggesting a bright future. It's clearly one of the stars of the exceptional 2013 vintage. Rating: 98.
Franciscan Estate 2014 Magnificat, Napa Valley ($55) -- Franciscan's Magnificat has long been one of the more underrated red meritage wines from the Napa Valley, and the 2014 vintage is no exception. It is loaded with ripe dark-berry fruit that has enough oomph to handle the generous use of new oak. The bright side to this underrated gem is the price. It is every bit as good as many wines that sell for double what Magnificat fetches. Rating: 93.
Arrowood 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($40) -- The 2014 Arrowood cab delivers a huge burst of ripe blackberry and cassis fruit and has notes of wood vanillin. It is equipped with smooth, supple tannins that make for easy drinking now, although another two to four years in the cellar would benefit this wine tremendously. Rating: 92.
Jackson Estate 2014 Pinot Noir, Outland Ridge, Anderson Valley ($35) -- Jackson Estate's 2014 Outland Ridge is a meaty pinot noir from the Anderson Valley. Showing savory notes of wood smoke and somewhat rustic tannins, this wine is also packed with dark cherry and raspberry fruit. It drinks well now but will be best in another two to three years. Rating: 91.
La Crema 2015 Chardonnay, Kelli Ann Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($40) -- La Crema's Kelli Ann Vineyard chard embraces the new style that seems to be catching on throughout California. The wine is rich and oily, but not heavy, retaining the balance that chardonnay aficionados increasingly demand. This wine shows notes of lemon creme and pear, with a solid dose of wood spice. Rating: 90.
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