Dining | Wine: Montelena Magic 

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Winding one’s way up from the town of Sonoma via the twisting Petrified Forest Road to the town of Calistoga is a beautiful way—for those who don’t succumb to car sickness—of spending part of a day in California’s wine country. That’s especially true if you spend part of that day at Chateau Montelena, one of the most beautiful wineries in Napa County—or in the world, for that matter. It’s a 100-plus-year-old stone castle carved into a hillside overlooking a Chinese garden, Jade Lake and sprawling vineyards. The fact that some of the planet’s finest wines are made at Chateau Montelena is almost just a bonus.

The Chateau Montelena story begins in 1882 when Alfred L. Tubbs first planted vine cuttings two miles north of Calistoga at the base of Mount Saint Helena. The winery and eventual chateau—named Montelena—is a contraction of Mount St. Helena. Following prohibition, no wine was made at Montelena until 1972, when the 120-acre vineyard was cleared and replanted under the leadership of James Barrett. Only four years later, Chateau Montelena would turn the wine world topsy-turvy at the infamous 1976 Paris tasting, where Barrett’s 1973 Chardonnay won out as the top-rated wine, beating out four French white Burgundies and six other California Chardonnays.

Fast forward to 2008 and some recent releases I was able to taste at the winery: Chateau Montelena Riesling Potter Valley ($21.70) is a nicely balanced Riesling with 0.55 percent residual sugar, made from Mendocino County grapes (Napa’s climate is a little too warm for growing Riesling). It’s a friendly honeysuckle-white, peach-infused wine to sip on a summer day, serve as an aperitif or pair with spicy foods. Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Chardonnay ($37.80) is produced with the same process (including no malolactation) as the famous 1973 Judgment in Paris Chardonnay. The current vintage (2006) is a little bit tight—as expected from a classic Montelena Chardonnay—so, while it’s quite tasty right now, you might want to give it some time in the cellar to really develop.

Oddly enough, the first Chateau Montelena wine at the winery tasting to really knock me out was Montelena Estate 2005 Zinfandel ($27.60). This is a gorgeous wine, and “gorgeous” isn’t an adjective normally associated with Zin. It’s definitely not a high-alcohol punch-you-in-the-face California Zinfandel, but rather a very elegant, balanced and nuanced Zin with high acidity that helps to pull the berry and briar flavors forward. The wine is made from 50-50 old/new vines, planted in 1972 and 1994. This is a surprisingly elegant Zin that will play well with food partners.

It was a perfect weather year in 2005 for Cabernet in Napa, and Chateau Montelena Napa Valley Cabernet ($41.30) is already showing signs of being a classic California Cabernet, with berry and licorice scents, concentrated fruit and fine tannins, all in a well-balanced, silky-smooth package. My biggest Chateau Montelena surprise, however, was a 1997 Montelena Estate Merlot ($65). This was the only year Montelena ever bottled a Merlot, and … well, it’s stunning. If you’ve been brainwashed by Sideways and other wine writers into believing that Merlot isn’t worthy of your time and money, just pick up a bottle of this stuff. Unfortunately, you’ll have to travel to Chateau Montelena to do so, since it’s sold only at the winery.

Note: Visionary vintner and California wine pioneer Robert Mondavi passed away on Friday. Our condolences to the Mondavi family.

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