Chalone Vineyard is the sole winery in the Chalone American Viticultural Area (AVA), a federally designated area that has climatic, geologic and geographic features that distinguish it from the land surrounding it.
Dramatic climate changes occur at Chalone Vineyard not only from season to season but hour to hour. Temperatures can swing from intensely hot during the day (90 degrees F) to considerably cooler at night (50 degrees F) over much of the growing season. Grapes need these cold nights to maintain their acidity while fully developing their flavors.
The appellation is dry, with an average rainfall of fewer than 15 inches annually, and Climatological Data Reports from the US. Weather Bureau classifies the Chalone appellation as Region I in some years and Region IV in others. Despite such variation, we see very little difference in wine quality from year to year. We feel Chalone Vineyard’s unique character is not based on weather, but on its unique soils.
Terroir may not be tangible, but its presence is undeniable in the wines of Chalone Vineyard. A French word that has no direct English translation, terroir can be loosely interpreted as a sense of place conveyed through wine. The earliest known use of the word comes from the medieval writings of the Cistercian monks of Burgundy. It is believed the monks literally tasted the dirt to understand its influence on wine production. Often misused, even in the wine industry, the idea of terroir encompasses not only the soil but also the subsoil, drainage, degree of slope, soil temperature, orientation to the sun and the influence of climate on all of these factors.
Into the 1980s, most California winegrowers didn’t pay much attention to terroir because it was believed that the desired Old World characteristics could be achieved through winemaking technology. Back then, and even today, the major concern in considering a site was climate, but Dick Graft searched for soils. Recognizing that Chalone Vineyard’s soil composition was significantly similar to that of Burgundy, Graff set out to produce great wines in which true terroir could be tasted.
Although the Chalone appellation is part of Monterey, it sits above the fog that shrouds the Salinas Valley for much of the day. During the growing season, the fog usually burns off by 8:00 am to 10:00 am at Chalone, leaving intense sunlight in its wake. This warming effect is greatly tempered by the mists and cool air from the Pacific Ocean, which swirl around the Pinnacles and its neighbor, Chalone Peak. These afternoon cooling influences can provide for daily temperature variations of 40 degrees to 60 degrees during the growing season. If it were not for the upwelling of very cold Pacific Ocean water in Monterey Bay, the local climate would be more constant but much hotter.
These environmental elements combine to produce vividly flavored grapes and wines with pronounced varietal character, a great deal of complexity, and a pronounced “terroir”, a French concept which describes those flavors unique to a specifically defined locality and derived from the soil, microclimate, and other environmental phenomena.