The Chalone appellation is a quiet, remote place in Monterey County that receives modest attention today, but it was a hot, trending region many moons ago. Michael Michaud, winemaker in the appellation for decades (25 years with his brand Michaud Vineyard Winery, and 19 vintages with Chalone Vineyard Winery), remembers when winemakers from Burgundy would come to visit Chalone (motivated by the impressive showing a Chalone Vineyard Chardonnay in the now-famous Judgement of Paris Tasting in 1976). “Back in the 1980’s,” explains Michaud, “we would have busloads of winemakers from Burgundy coming to visit Chalone—they were curious about how this American vineyard made wines of such elegance and purity, very much like the ones they knew and loved back in France.” Those same elegant, mouth-watering wines are still being made today, which is why this appellation deserves your attention.
Just south of San Francisco, the Chalone region was officially recognized by the government in the early 1980s as an AVA but its grape growing history stretches back to the turn of the last century. Curtis Tamm, a French immigrant, has been credited with establishing the first vineyard on the Chalone bench around 1919. Today the AVA is home to seven different vineyards, comprising 360 acres of vinifera.
What makes the Chalone region so unique? Simply put, says Michaud, “it is a desert, high up on a granite and limestone mountain with an ocean influenced climate. The prime thing that makes the wine so flavorful and interesting at our elevation we are getting a lot of sunlight which lends great flavor and sugar, optimal ripening a –key.”
The whole Chalone appellation is formed by a once undersea volcano. The basic soil is granite, but because on ocean bottom the sea shells and fossils infiltrate into granite cracks, which yields a soil like a marble cake of granite and limestone. The soil is quite uncommon; we have scientists come and examine it. It’s well-drained and holds no moisture so it limits the vine vigor, which is good for flavor concentration.”
Geologic activity is ongoing, as the San Andreas fault is about two miles west of the appellation. Michaud’s vineyards are on the “creeping section” of the fault. “The land is always moving a bit, we get tremors often—they sound like a freight train coming, and you feel the shake and they pass you by. I have an app that tells you where they are and some weeks it just a bunch at one time and then it gets quiet,” says Michaud. One thing he does note, his vineyard shifts 1.5 inches north per year, in the process water sources tend to disappear and then new ones appear—the tectonic activity keeps things interesting for winemaking.
Elevation and ocean cooling are also in play in this appellation. Michaud’s vineyards are at about 1600 feet, and the cold air from the ocean (they are about 30 miles due east of Big Sur) descends over swales and valleys, delivering 40 to 60 degree temperature swings daily.
We have 28 ½ under cultivation—but only 18.8 producing only now, replanted because of water and frost issues. The water challenges are significant, here; Michaud cites his $21,000 water bill from last year. He continues to experiment with his land—pulling up vines like Chardonnay and replanting with Grenache Blanc, Grenache, Tempranillo, Barbera and Cabernet Franc, to see how they would do on the site. Notes Michaud, “I’m especially fond of the Tempranillo; it has really nice flavor. But you’ll have to wait a year or two, as he holds his wines for five years “to ensure the customer has the best experience with the wine.”
Today you’ll find his ethereal Syrah, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. “Pinot Noir is my favorite grape and what we are making here embodies the same characteristics as a nice Burgundy.” However, it’s his Syrah that just delights, (made from cuttings that the legendary French winemaker Jean Louis-Chave gave to him during a visit decades ago). Says Michaud, “I fell in love with Syrah while visiting the Jean Louis-Chave family with my wife during our honeymoon. It was a very illuminating experience and he gave me some cuttings to take back home, and those are the wines that grow in my vineyard.”
Michaud would most like to see the Chalone Appellation get back to the notoriety it once had. With only seven vineyards, the appellation is precious and small, but clearly worth the bother. As is often the case, struggle builds character—most especially in wine.
Chalone Wines and Wineries to Try Now
- 2016 Michaud Vineyard Chardonnay, $45
- 2015 Michaud Vineyard Syrah, 2015, $42
- 2013 Michaud Vineyard Pinot Noir, $40
- Brosseau Vineyard
- Chalone Vineyards