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NM: After tasting some of Chalk Hill's white wines as a group, they all seem have a common theme or signature. How would you articulate that into words? And what does Chalk Hill aim to offer the consumer with its portfolio of white wines overall?
JF: White wines are very transparent — literally and figuratively. You're going to be able to pick up where they're grown, I think, more easily than most of the reds (other than maybe Syrah). Having said that, our desire to make the most of this site and its fruit is maximized with our white wines in general. Chalk Hill wants to show consumers what the appellation and what the estate, specifically, can do. And I think they show it very well, because there is that commonality among the whites, too — a 'high-toned' underlying minerality. I also think Chalk Hill Estate aims to create varietally distinct wines, but which are still laced together. Someone may not normally like Sauvignon Blanc, but they're almost sure to like ours if they already like our Chardonnay. In the end, we want to have people trust our product, so that they might say, "I've never heard of Pinot Gris. But, oh, it's a Chalk Hill and I love their Chardonnay, so I'll try it!"
NM: And it's with its white wines that Chalk Hill Estate has built a good deal of its reputation. Which makes perfect sense, given the cooler meso-climate of this appellation. Yet, there's been a recent thrust in your red wine program. Tell me about that. And how much of it stemmed from the planting of the warmer site you mentioned, where reds seem to do very well?
"Chalk Hill Estate aims to create varietally distinct wines, but which are still laced together."
JF: The recent planting of the [warmer site] vineyard marks a huge shift in our red program. We've had three vintages in a row recently that have been fantastic. But having that vineyard now, we'll be able to produce some phenomenal wines even in cool years because it's fantastic for growing red grapes. It's southern-facing and has very intense, cobbly volcanic soils that are just perfect for red grapevines. We've got our Cabernet over there, our Syrah on the lower slope, and then some Malbec.
People sometimes ask how we can grow so many different varieties, both reds and whites, in one single area. And the reason is that the soils are so diverse and the estate is so large, so we can cherry pick, and we've done that through trial and error. There are all these back-hoe pits dug to show the different patterns in the soils, which helped to figure out which way to lay the vineyards. That [warmer site] vineyard is really more like Alexander Valley in terms of its soil makeup, but especially in terms of its temperature. Unlike some of the other (hilltop) vineyards where we have a lot of the white varieties planted, that vineyard is warmer due to its aspect towards the sun and because it doesn't have the constant, cooling breeze coming directly from the ocean. It's amazing how a cool, breezy area will affect ripening.
NM: You mentioned having Malbec planted in that vineyard. Malbec is not at all common and is still relatively unfamiliar to consumers in the marketplace. Tell me about the decision to plant Malbec and about its blending with some of the other red varieties.
JF: The Malbec has been planted for a little over ten years. The decision to plant it was out of a desire to experiment with the property. As a blending wine, it goes really well with the Merlot because of its prominent fruit profile. I always think of Merlot, when it's really good, as having a lot of blue fruit qualities — same with Malbec, so they go really well together. The Malbec really helps the Merlot because of its structure. In fact, our 2006 Merlot is 20% Malbec. Normally you'd want to blend Cabernet Sauvignon into all your reds to give them structure and longevity. But I think Malbec can do that very well for Merlot; it's one of the most structured grapes other than Cabernet. With that said, it's not like we have to add Malbec to our Merlot. We usually pick out our favorite lots of the other varieties and try to blend them in, to make the wine better; Malbec just happens to be the one that, year after year, was a slam dunk. It adds stuffing to the Merlot, and the fruit really pops with the Malbec — plus, it gives the wine more depth. The soft midpalate is really all Merlot, whereas Malbec, again, gives more of the structure.