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Sonoma Winery Perpetuates Its Style Amidst Geographical Diversity
— An Interview with the Winemaker of Chalk Hill Estate —
Very few premium wineries in Northern California can boast of vineyards that lie on a single estate of nearly 1,400 contiguous acres. Even fewer enjoy the advantage to their wine production afforded by an expansive landholding that features widely diverse vineyard soils and sharply varying topography. Chalk Hill Estate, however, proudly claims both. Situated within a small appellation bearing the same name, on the eastern end of Sonoma County, it also benefits from climatic patterns unique to its locale. As if these practical attributes in themselves weren't enough, the estate readily reveals to visitors a natural charm with undulating green hillsides, tranquil lakes, and meandering streams, along with the aesthetic allure of architecture that gracefully blends into the scenery. Following a comprehensive tour of this broad and bucolic landscape, I spoke with Jordan Fiorentini about the significance of Chalk Hill's features to its vineyard management and winemaking.
Because it's nestled in what effectively amounts to a climatic pocket, Chalk Hill's location and topography make for unique grape-growing conditions. Protection by the Mayacamas Mountains from the hotter extremes of neighboring Alexander and Knights valleys (to the north and east) is further compounded by the cool marine air coming through the Russian River Valley (to the west). The result is a climate that's ideal for growing the rich and expressive white wine varieties on which the estate has built its reputation. Recent planting of a warmer hillside area with robust red varieties has augmented the brand's portfolio with red wines that showcase a brighter style that's increasingly drawing market attention while remaining true to the overall brand. I sat down with Fiorentini to taste and discuss the wines of Chalk Hill, experiencing for myself how well they manage to express nuances of the estate's vineyards and maintain wide consumer appeal.
NM: Many consumers might not know this, but Chalk Hill is the name not only for this estate and its winery, but also for this area, this appellation.
JF: It's a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley, but it's also a stand-alone appellation.
NM: I understand that the soils are extremely varied, even just alone here on the Chalk Hill estate. How do you manage that variability in articulating the wines themselves?
"We've been at the forefront of Chardonnay clonal research since we began."
JF: The soil and aspect really dictate what can be planted where. But because we're a 100% estate-produced winery, we're limited to where we can plant our grape varieties. Where those varieties do grow, they start to give you a sense of place, so even though the soils themselves are varied, within each planted variety there's a good deal of consistency. And that's based on a lot of clonal research, since we have so many different clones planted of every variety. In fact, we've actually been at the forefront of Chardonnay clonal research since we began [in the early '80s] — we have one vineyard that has 22 different clones of Chardonnay planted to it, where we do trials and figure out which clones we like. So, if we wanted to change any part of our production over to another clone, not only would we already know what we like, but we'd also have the wood to do it with, since we harvest our own wood and do the grafting and T-budding right there in the [research] vineyard. Based on the evaluation of all the clones from that vineyard, we currently have about twelve of them planted throughout the estate that we've found are really good Chardonnay clones.