WHEN MARK LINGENGELDER looks over the Chalk Hill Estate, it doesn't seem like a big estate to him; instead it's a lot of small ones. Mark, Chalk Hill's VP of Vineyard Operations, considers each plot individually, and strives to match each plot with not only the right grape, but the right clone of that grape, and the right treatment of that grape in that location. He has identified 60 individual sites on the estate, with 13 different soil types. It's the kind of subdivision of land that makes Burgundy fans pull their hair out as they try to keep track of the Grand Crus, and the Premier Crus, and the lieu dits. But as is ideally the case in Burgundy, this attention to individual sites means he can provide the winery with the best grapes possible.
Many California vineyards were not originally planted so conscientiously, requiring constant replantings if a high standard of wine is to be achieved. Lingenfelder is fortunate that when Frederick and Peggy Furth, the founders of the estate, first bought land here in 1972 they were determined to live in touch with the land, to be owned by the land as much as they own it. Fred planted his first vines in 1974, employing vertical planting -rows of vines going up the hills, rather than across them - which he remembered from the hillside vineyards of Germany. Since then their vineyard techniques remain innovative; Mark loves tweaking the details of rootstocks, trellising, and spacing, and is devoted to maintaining the environmental integrity of the vineyards. Among other things, he allows no tilling and cultivates two kinds of grass along with a subterranean clover between the vines to prevent erosion. He calls this approach "low input, sustainable viticulture." For Mark, this kind of concern is not an obstacle to producing good wine grapes; it's liberating. This careful and scientific evaluation of the environment allows the estate to catch up with many Old World vineyards who have had centuries to develop the same kind of perfect match of vine, microclimate, and treatment.
Mark hands over the grapes to winemaker Steven Leveque but remains involved by serving on the tasting panel. Steven also possesses the same feeling for the land that motivates Mark and the Furths. Steven began his winemaking career in Napa Valley after working in a genetics laboratory, work he found interesting, but unrewarding- no end product. Moving to Sonoma was another step forward for him; the climatic diversity offered even more opportunities to create a number of different wines, each of great complexity and character.
In the winery Steven employs a host of techniques, many Burgundian in origin, and shares Mark's passion for detail. The Chardonnay, for example, undergoes malolactic fermentation, barrel-fermenting and aging, batonnage - all applied with an eye to bringing out the best of what the grapes have to offer. Each wine is assembled on a clone-by-clone, barrel-by-barrel basis, so even a 100% Chardonnay is a subtle blend.
Growing grapes and winemaking are not the only activities at Chalk Hill Estate. Fred and Peggy Furth modeled the estate on the venerable wine estates of Europe, bringing together winery, vineyards, their residence, and stables - Peggy is a passionate dressage rider - in one location. They are the first winery in Sonoma to employ an in-house, certified sommelier, Yves Sauboua (last month's Featured Sommelier) who, together with executive chef Didier Ageorges, presents their wines at events at the estate as well as on tours to introduce people around the world to their wines.
The Chalk Hill AVA is slightly warmer than other parts of the Russian River Valley which are closer to the ocean, but still not as warm as many other grape-growing areas in Sonoma. Chalk Hill Estate takes advantage of this to grow Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Gris for whites as well as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for reds. They also grow some less well-known varietals for blending purposes, of which Semillon makes a solo appearance as a botrytised dessert wine when conditions allow. Chalk Hill's current releases include:
2000 Chardonnay - Estate Bottled
2000 Estate Vineyard Selection Chardonnay - a medium to full-bodied wine of tangerine and pineapple aromas resting over chalk, butterscotch, and fresh bread. Very well-balanced and round in the mouth, with some oaky notes returning on the long finish.
2001 Sauvignon Blanc - Estate Bottled
2000 Estate Vineyard Selection Pinot Gris - a dry "late harvest" wine in the Alsace tradition. On the nose it is floral and a bit bready, like a Champagne, and in the mouth notes of poached apple, quince, and hazelnut appear as well. Very full, and evenly balanced throughout.
1997 Estate Vineyard Selection Botrytised Semillon
2000 Merlot - Estate Bottled
1998 Adele's Vineyard Merlot
2000 Cabernet Sauvignon - Estate Bottled