What to Drink Now: Chalk Hill and a Visit with Winemaker Lisa Bishop Forbes

The early morning sun shines on vineyard covered hillsides of Sonoma County, California at Chalk Hill Estate.  Winemaker Lisa Bishop Forbes is with Mark Lingenfelder, EVP of Vineyard Operations, walking amongst the vines early, checking the grapes to see how they are ripening on this day in late August. It has been a cooler than normal year so far, troubling as the previous year was as well, and hopes for warmer days are constant among everyone’s thoughts.

Lucky for Lisa, this is not her first rodeo with Chalk Hill.  The young winemaker is preparing for her second solo vintage at Chalk Hill, having just been named their Director of Winemaking in 2010, recruited from Dry Creek Vineyard, where she held the same position.  However, prior to joining Dry Creek, Lisa had worked at Chalk Hill from 1995 – 2004 as Assistant Winemaker to first David Ramey then Bill Knuttel.  Coming back to Chalk Hill as Head Winemaker was an easy decision as she had been in love with the Estate since the first moment she saw it in the 1990′s.

Secluded, beautiful, rustic and comfortable with various micro-climates, soil types, row structures, root stocks, etc.  The Estate is a true example of how terroir can affect a wines aromas, flavors and structure.  The present cooler than normal climate confirms that, as the grapes will likely be late to ripen, pushing harvest to later than normal, changing the profile of the wine slightly, and proving that the art of winemaking at Chalk Hill relies more on Mother Nature than anything else.

What you can be sure of though, is that these Chalk Hill wines will be good, with many varietals from the Estate earning 90+ points consistently from the various wine reviewers.  Impressive as the winery has gone through much change in the past few years.

Chalk Hill Winery was founded in the early 1970′s by Fred Furth in Healdsburg, Sonoma County, California.  In 2010 Bill Foley, owner and operator of Foley Family Wines and Chairman of the Board of Directors for Fidelity National Inc., purchased the property, making a few key changes including bringing Lisa back to the Estate as Head Winemaker.  Though changes have been made, they remain focused on maintaining the reputation of Chalk Hill.  An Estate known for their vibrant, lively Sauvignon Blanc; their crisp, elegant Chardonnay; their intense, bold Estate Red Blend; and their varietally correct Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Though wine each is very different, there is a similar style across the portfolio; a hands off approach, letting the fruit shine in the wine and an overall delicate touch.

I had an opportunity to visit with Lisa a few weeks ago and taste through the portfolio.  Visiting with her you immediately understand why she was brought back to Chalk Hill. There is an obvious dedication to the winery and producing wine from these vines.  Her tone exudes passion, her calm demeanor reflects her professionalism, and her laughter exudes the love she has for her job and the wine she is making.

We started our tasting with the 2008 Pinot Gris, a wine harvested from the coolest vines on the Chalk Hill Estate, is created from five different Pinot Gris clones which is then barrel fermented and aged sur-lie (on its natural yeast) for 9 months, then bottled without fining or filtration.  This makes it a much more full bodied, well rounded Pinot Gris with good depth of flavor and texture with broad flavors and aromas.  The straw colored wine is filled with honeysuckle, baked apples, sweet spices and fresh pear with a slight creamy note on the end.

2009 Chalk Hill Sauvignon Blanc is the kind of Sauvignon Blanc that I love, filled with balanced mineral and grassy notes with hints of citrus and fruit, without being overwhelming.  Barrel fermented and aged for 10 months, this is a complex wine filled with ripe peach, mango, lemon peel and passion fruit with layers of herbal and grassy notes.

The Chalk Hill Chardonnay is probably the white wine the Estate is most known for.  100% Chardonnay, hand harvested, native yeast fermented, with 100% malolactic fermentation and aged 13 months in French oak and bottled without filtration….this is a big California Chardonnay.  But, it is not a buttery, oaky wine that this description would often lead you to believe, there is still a delicate touch with good acidity and bright fruit flavors.  White peach, golden delicious apple, ripe pear and vanilla cream with a toasty, caramel and spice finish.  A good food wine that can pair well with anything from baked white fish to rich, butter sauces.

The 2008 Chalk Hill Estate Red blends Cabernet Sauvignon with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Carmenere to produce a dense, inky and concentrated red wine.  Aged 20 months in 54% new French oak, this lush blend exudes aromas of blackberry, black cherry, currant and cedar with flavors of black and blueberry, chocolate, cherry and a bit of spicy pepper on the finish.  2008 was only the second vintage of the Estate Red, creating a true proprietary blend for the winery of Bordeaux varietals, and was created from select individual lots of each varietal hand selected throughout the vineyards.

For those that love a dessert wine, which I do, the Chalk Hill Estate Vineyard Selection Botrytised Semillon is a nice surprise.

In 2006 botrytis hit the Chalk Hill Semillion grapes, stemming from a combination of wet weather followed by dry, creating “noble rot” on the mature Semillion grapes.  Though somewhat unexpected, these grapes hit with botrytis actually produce a sweet, succulent nectur, that is then fermented and aged for 21 total months to produce a dessert wine with intense aromas of honey, apricot, mango and toasted hazelnuts.

2 comments on “What to Drink Now: Chalk Hill and a Visit with Winemaker Lisa Bishop Forbes

  1. What a nice article. You really grasped what I’m trying to accomplish. Sorry I missed you and hopefully I’ll be around for your next visit.