Chateau Montelena dates back to 1882 when San Francisco entrepeneur Alfred Tubbs bought 254 acres of land at the narrow northern end of the Napa Valley at the base of Mount Saint Helena, which in a contracted form, gives its name to the chateau. By 1896, Chateau Montelena was the seventh largest in the Napa Valley. After an interruption due to prohibition, the Tubbs family continued to farm the vines, make some wines and sell grapes to other producers. The winery was sold in 1958 to Yort and Jeanie Frank who were responsible for much of the landscaping of the Chateau’s grounds. Winemaking restarted in earnest under Jim Barrett in 1972 with the replanting of much of the vineyards. From the start, quality was paramount, and one mark of this was that the new vines were planted on the St George rootstock, which is lower yielding than other rootstocks commonly planted at the time. As well as the lower yields, the use of the St George rootstock had the felicitous benefit that the vines survived the phylloxera outbreak that afflicted Napa in the 1980s and 1990s, meaning that Chateau Montelena has some of the oldest Cabernet vines in the Napa Valley.
The vineyards of the Montelena Estate lie immediately to the north west of the winery and chateau and are planted mainly with cabernet sauvignon, some zinfandel and then smaller amounts of cabernet franc and merlot on largely alluvial soils, though smaller amounts are planted on volcanic soils, while a small plot immediately next to the winery has richer sedimentary soils. The different soil types combine with a varied terrain, from the steep hillsides (primarily the volcanic soils) to the flat valley bottom, and a climate heavily influenced by Mount St Helena, as cold air descends from the mountain at night to cool the vineyard: the diurnal temperature swing is commonly between 95°F during the day and 45°F at night. These vineyards are the source for the Montelena Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and the Montelena Estate Zinfandel. In addition, Montelena produces a riesling, sourced from vineyards in the Potter Valley in Mendocino County, a Napa Valley chardonnay from vineyards in the Oak Knoll District of south-central Napa Valley and a Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from vineyards in and around Calistoga.
Chateau Montelena uses sustainable farming practices in the vineyards, for example by growing cover crops and releasing ladybirds into the vineyard. The vineyards are dry farmed and a combination of the rocky soils, the rootstocks and crop thinning keeps yields low. Grapes are normally harvested by hand at night and then quickly transferred to the winery where they are crushed, de-stemmed and pressed before slow fermentation in temperature controlled stainless steel. After fermentation, the wines are transferred to a mix of old and new French oak barriques.
Riesling, Potter Valley, Mendocino,
Chateau Montelena Winery
This has a big, very minerally, very Alsatian riesling nose and makes a very nice welcoming aperitif. 88/100
Chardonnay, Napa Valley,
Chateau Montelena Winery, served en
2001 proved a meagre harvest, with only two-thirds of the normal crop. The grapes were harvested at night, which keeps the juice temperature 10-15 degrees lower than if they were picked during the day. Over 70% of the crop was whole-cluster pressed. The resulting wine was aged in oak for 6-8 months.
This has a very fragrant eau de vie de poire nose. Full and very dry on the palate, feeling just a touch oxidised. It’s also slightly warm on the palate and has a big, spicy, woody finish. 85/100
A second magnum showed was much fresher on the nose with lots of attractive peach and pear fruit. The palate was very similar, but without the hint of oxidation. 87/100
Zinfandel, The Montelena
Estate, Napa Valley, Chateau Montelena Winery
2003 looked like it was going to be a good year, but a heat wave in September caused problems for the Zinfandel, as apparently its large berry size, thin skin and relatively high water content make it prone to shrivelling: as a result the grapes had to be harvested quickly before they turned to raisins. The grapes were harvested, as usual, at night to try to avoid very high sugars and the alcohol levels that would result from that.
It has a very black cherry nose with some plums and cigar box notes. Very precise on the attack, it has a clean elegance, but with some significant spiciness building on the finish. Very Good+. 87/100
Montelena Estate, Napa Valley, Chateau Montelena Winery
This is a blend of 98% cabernet sauvignon and 2% cabernet franc and was aged for 22 months in French oak, one quarter of which were new barrels.
There’s minty black fruit on the nose. Very generous on the palate, yet it also has a lovely elegance. Very open and attractive, but lacking a great deal of depth. This is perhaps for the shorter term, maybe within five years. Very Good Indeed. 91/100
Montelena Estate, Napa Valley, Chateau Montelena Winery, 13.9%
A precise nose with minty black fruit and a marked soft elegance with a lift of fragrant violets. The palate is precise and focussed with very good balance: it has a good solid structure, but all is nicely balanced. Lovely elegance. Very Good Indeed. 92/100
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Last updated: 8 January 2008