2008 Oakville Merlot
California: Napa Valley: Oakville
What We Say
SUPERIOR WINE ALERT:
Today’s selection from Swanson Vineyards deserves special recognition as a superior wine from perhaps the benchmark producer of Merlot in Napa. If you love incredible Merlot, this is one to try. We always strive to bring you the best wines we can find, but when one rises above, we issue a special alert, like this one.
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Mission Codename: Four times and counting
Operative: Agent Red
Objective: Return to Swanson Vineyards and secure the next vintage their famed single vineyard Oakville Merlot, a Wine Spies Operative favorite!
Mission Status: Accomplished!
Current Winery: Swanson Vineyards
Wine Subject: 2008 Merlot Oakville – Napa Valley
Winemaker: Chris Phelps
Backgrounder: Today, we are very proud be be showcasing our fourth successive vintage of Swanson’s stunning, signature Merlot. Best known as a ‘Merlot house’, Swanson continues its proud tradition of crafting the finest Merlot in the Napa Valley. Each time we showcase a Swanson Merlot, our Operatives snap it up in record numbers. If you have not yet had the pleasure, don’t miss out.
The Oakville AVA, centrally located and adjacent to Napa Valley’s famous Rutherford AVA, was established in July 1993. Oakville is considered on of the most diverse AVA’s in the Napa area and grows some of the best Merlot in California. Read Agent Red’s tasting notes and mission report below
Wine Spies Tasting Profile:
Look – Dense and dark garnet with purple tints. In its dark but clear core, streaks of ruby and garnet shine through when held up to the light. Along the edges the color retains its dense character and when swirled, medium legs ring the glass and descend at varying speeds.
Smell – Deep and redolent with aromas of spiced and ripe dark black cherry, ripe plum and currants. Earthy undertones blend with bittersweet cocoa, soft savory herbal notes and toasted and spiced oak aromas.
Feel – Very smooth, rich and generous, this full-bodied dry wine warmly expands over the palate with its smooth but sturdy tannins, bright tangy acidity along with its soft earthy and dusty textured minerality lingering in perfect balance.
Taste – Rich and ripe red and black cherry lead the way with notes of ripe plum and other dark ripe fruit blending with soft toasted oak, sweet spice and bittersweet chocolate flavors. The soft earthy undertones found on the nose along with hints of savory herbs adds depth and complexity.
Finish – Warm, rich and long; this wine warming clings to the palate and lasts and lasts with its soft mineral texture lead structure leading the way as the plush and ripe fruit and other flavors linger on and on.
Conclusion – Once again we are blown away by the simply delicious winemaking skills of Chris Phelps. The 2008 Swanson Vineyards Merlot Oakville is yet another successive vintage that defines New World Merlot with plenty of Old World influence. Rich and inviting on the nose, a balanced but sturdy structure, fruit forward but with depth and complexity on the palate. A great wine to pair with roast meats, warm winter stews or simply enjoy in front of a cozy fire.
AGENT RED: Greetings, Chris. We are thrilled to be showing your 2008 Oakville Merlot today. The wine is really fantastic. Thanks so much for the wine, and for taking some time to answer questions for our Operatives today. We are really impressed by your wines!
CHRIS PHELPS: I always appreciate hearing that, Agent Red. It’s a pleasure to go ‘covert’ with you today.
RED: Thanks, Chris. Was there a specific experience in your life that inspired your love of wine?
CHRIS: Well, yes, but more cumulative experience than specific. I grew up in Livermore, CA, a stone’s throw from Cocannon Vineyards. My parents made a barrel or two of Zin or Cab every year when I was a kid. They picked the grapes with friends, and I helped with crushing, racking, etc. when I was old enough. I found it fascinating that the wine quality could vary so much, depending upon variety, grape source and vintage. Wine was often on the family dinner table, so I was able to taste when I was a kid, and I liked it.
RED: So, winemaking was really in your blood. Tell me, where did you learn the most about winemaking?
CHRIS: I learn more about winemaking every day! There is so much nuance in winemaking, which consists of hundreds of details, some of which might seem insignificant, but can really affect the final product. I was fortunate to me mentored by many colleagues along my career path, starting with Mike Martini at Louis M. Martini in 1980. I graduated from UC Davis in Enology, then continued my education at the University of Bordeaux. Those years in academia, coupled with the key internships I did at Martini, Chappellet and in St. Emilion / Pmoerol as I cut my winemaking teeth, were very formative years.
RED: It sounds like it! What is your winemaking style or philosophy?
CHRIS: In a word, minimalist. If the fruit, at the time it is picked, is physiologically ripe and balanced, intervention through winemaking techniques is minimized. Speaking of red Bordeaux varieties, since we are tasting the 2005 Swanson Oakville Merlot today, I’m looking for perfectly ripe fruit, but avoiding super-high Brix levels, which lead to some of the very stylized wines produced today, which need huge doses of input by the winemaker. If the fruit is handled correctly, it is possible to coax the optimum extract out of the must, and produce a wine which honestly reflects the terroir from which it came. My job as a winemaker is precisely this: to form an honest interpretation of what a specific vineyard site in a specific vineyard is trying to tell me. I hope that makes sense to you…
RED: Your focus is on Merlot, and we applaud that. We are really happy to see Merlot doing so wonderfully. Tell me, what makes Merlot so unique?
CHRIS: So nice to preach to the choir when it comes to Merlot. Merlot is uniquely a ’winemaker’s wine’. It suits my minimalist approach to winemaking perfectly. Grown in the right climate, in the right soil, with the correct conditions that dictate terroir for Merlot, it is one of the best varieties to work with. Color, aromatic expression of fruit, balanced acidity, silky, ripe tannins – the key attributes we are looking for – come very naturally to Merlot. Even grown under less-than-appropriate conditions, Merlot yields a decent, quaffable wine, and this is also the problem with Merlot, which is part of its uniqueness… there are a number of Merlots, from hot climates, with deep soils better suited to corn or tomatoes, which are not unpleasant, but have nothing to do with great Merlot. We know at Swanson that the clayey-loam soils in Oakville are optimum for this variety, and we take full advantage of this. When it comes to Merlot, terroir is everything. In Napa, there are sites on Howell Mountain, Spring Mountain, in Oakville, in Carneros that are perfectly suited to the production of ultra-premium Merlot.
RED: And you happen to make your Merlot in one of them! What wine or winemaker has most influenced your winemaking style?
CHRIS: Jean-Claude Berrouet, winemaker for Ets. JP Moueix in Libourne, France. After being the winemaker for Petrus and a number of other Moueix properties on the Right Bank of Bordeaux for 44 years, he has ‘retired’, staying on in a consulting role for Petrus in Pomerol, and Dominus, here in Napa. During my 12 years as the first winemaker at Dominus, he had a significant influence upon my approach to winemaking.
RED: In your opinion, what makes the Oakville/Napa region so special?
WINEMAKER: It’s like real estate – location, location, location. I believe Napa Valley, and especially Oakville, rocks as a wine region because of the climate. A big factor is the maritime influence of nearby San Pablo Bay. The ‘refrigerator effect’ of summer fog interspersed with hot spells allows us to grow premium Bordeaux varieties here.
RED: How long have you been making wine?
CHRIS: My first stint was 6 months in 1980 at Martini. I became a ’winemaker ’ in 1984, when I joined the team at Dominus. I remained there for 12 years, before moving to Caymus for 7 years. I have been at Swanson for 6 years.
RED: Who do you make wine for?
CHRIS: Chuck Wagner at Caymus gently reminded me from time to time that I should not make wine for myself, and this was an important lesson. I don’t fixate on ‘who’ the wine is for, per se, but it does get factored into the overall picture. I am conscious of the fact that Clarke Swanson would like me to be producing wines that appeal to consumers, critics, bloggers, etc. At Swanson, as in my previous winemaking roles, I strive to make the absolutely best wine possible, given the fruit sources and other resources I am given to work with. I’m sure this sounds cliché, but it always seems to work out. The wines are not just for the critics, not just for the consumers, not just for me. Wine should be universal. We’ll need to sit down and discuss this question more over another bottle of Merlot…
RED: Any time. It would be a great pleasure. Tell me, what makes the Napa Valley so special?
CHRIS: As I am reminded every time I return to the Valley after being away (I’m sending these notes from Chicago, where I am spending 3 days helping promote Swanson wines), Napa Valley is a place of unique natural beauty. And it is still the Mecca for ultra-premium domestic winegrowing.
RED: Nice to hear someone else call Napa ‘Mecca’. What is one piece of advice that you would give to someone that is considering a career as a winemaker?
CHRIS: Seek a mentor or mentors who are willing to share what they know. Plan on internships in different international wine regions. Study, sure, but not to the exclusion of lots of practical experience. You must be willing to get your hands dirty.
RED: And stained purple. What is occupying your time at the winery these days?
CHRIS: We are totally fixated on final preparations for the bottling of our 2011 Pinot Grigio, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Rosato (Rosé of Sangiovese/Syrah) next week. Oh, and I am supposed to be working on my budget…
RED: Ahead of schedule. I wonder what that’s like. Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today
CHRIS: How did you manage to acquire the 2008 Swanson Oakville Merlot, already??? We have always bottle-aged our Merlot for up to 24 months prior to release. Having bottled this wine in April 2010, it was just released. I think you got it before the winery did! Even with 2 years in the bottle, this wine is very youthful. It’s composed of 90% Merlot, 8% Cabernet Sauvignon and- for the first time – 2% Petit Verdot. It’s a charmer, and reminds me more of a solid Right Bank Bordeaux claret than a Napa Merlot. Black cherry, plum and dried red cherry on the nose, and firm, sweet, mouth-coating tannins on the palate. Definitely a “Cab drinker’s Merlot”.
RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?
CHRIS: We had it last night with rosemary-infused lamb chops cooked over hot coals on the grill. I highly recommend trying this combination. I’m not sure you can enlist my 20-year old son to do the grilling, but he did a perfect job last night. Of course, if the price is right…
RED: Please share one thing about yourself that few people know?
CHRIS: I’m an Indigo Girls (folk-rock duo) groupie. I love to get to as many shows as possible. Emily Saliers (one of the IGs) has become a good friend, and she loves wine.
RED: What is your favorite ‘everyday’ or table wine?
CHRIS: Over the past 15 years or so, I’ve made a barrel or two of home wine every year, kind of like my folks did. In addition to being the communion wine at our church in St. Helena, this is our everyday table wine.
RED: You’ll have to tell me your secret formula one day. How would you recommend that people approach your wines, or wine in general?
CHRIS: Keep an open mind. Minds are like parachutes, they function best when open. Drink what really appeals to you, not what someone else thinks you should like. Always be open to trying new wines.
RED: If you could choose any one wine to drink (regardless of price or availability), what would it be?
CHRIS: I would love to try the 1961 Petrus again; I’ve tasted it out of both 6 liter and 750 ml format, and it was phenomenal.
RED: If I come across a bottle, I promise to share! What is the one question that I should have asked you, and what is your answer to that question?
CHRIS: What are my favorite Napa Valley producers? It’s actually a tough question, and my answer varies, but Joseph Phelps, Chappellet, Provenance, and Honig are always on the list.
RED: Thank you so much for your time, Chris, and for the extensive answers. Our Operatives love getting to know our winemakers and I appreciate that you spent this much time with me today.
CHRIS: Thank you for spending time with me, and for your insightful questions. Is your name really Agent Red?
RED: I could tell you, but, you know…
Wine Spies Vineyard Check:
The location of Swanson Vineyards can be seen in this satellite photo.
What the Winery Says
About This Wine:
The 2008 Swanson Oakville Merlot is a charming wine, reminiscent more of the Right Bank of Bordeaux than Napa Valley. The nose offers black cherry, plum, and dried red cherry with notes of well-integrated sweet oak and mocha. Firm, ripe tannins characteristic of our Oakville Estate vineyard fill the palate nicely. In the mouth look for raspberry, black cherry, and red licorice. The Petite Verdot contributes a graceful top note of verve and spice. Velvet-smooth and long on the finish. Should continue to improve in the bottle with the optimum drinkability continuing through 2017.
Winemaker Notes: 2008 in Napa Valley was a low-yielding vintage in terms of pounds of fruit per vine. It should come as no surprise then that the wines show focus and very good concentration. Spring was exceptionally dry and cold with 24 days of frost — one of the first steps on the path to a small crop. Summer was cool with a few heat spikes in August. Harvest for Merlot came in a rush, taking place during a short 3-week period from September 8th to September 30th. Ripeness in both flavors and tannins was very even and acid balance was superb.
Vineyard: Merlot: Entirely from Oakville vineyards owned or controlled by Swanson. Fifty percent from our mid-valley Oakville Cross Road Estate, 50% from two small vineyards near the flank of the Mayacamas range in Oakville. Contributes flesh and velvety texture to the blend. Cabernet Sauvignon: Exclusively from a small vineyard estate in the center of Rutherford appellation. Provides a core of ripe tannin for structure. Petit Verdot: A very small block in the Oak Knoll district just south of Yountville on the valley’s eastern edge. Low-yielding vines provide fruit with excellent acidity, color, and spice.
About The Winery:
We are a family winery founded on a passion for evolving the existing standards of wine and food. In the 1950s, long before founding Swanson Vineyards, the Swanson family introduced the first lifestyle product, Swanson frozen dinners, which helped women get out of the kitchen and enjoy life.
In 1985, at his 25th Stanford University reunion, W. Clarke Swanson, Jr. was inspired by a tip from a fraternity brother and successful vintner to purchase a parcel of vineyard land on the Oakville Cross Road in the heart of Napa Valley.
Clarke immediately hired André Tchelistcheff, one of the century’s most influential winemakers, as a consultant to help determine how to make the best use of the vineyards. For André the answer was to plant the then relatively unknown variety merlot—a move that would shape the future of Swanson Vineyards.
The family continues to expand the simple and sensual pleasures of life through Swanson Vineyards. With an eye toward quality, relevance and innovation, the next generation is enticing a whole new audience with a progressive approach to wine, food and the good life.
About The Winemakers:
By the summer of 1987 the vineyards were replanted, and André made another influential suggestion—to hire the young novice talent Marco Cappelli to oversee winemaking. Marco, a first-generation Italian-American, was 26 and hired based on André’s gut instinct. It was a wise decision; Marco’s distinctive wines became the founding flavors of Swanson Vineyards.
For the rest of his life André lent his visionary talents to our winemaking pursuits, meeting with Marco biweekly and consulting on matters of the vine and winery. Marco remained Swanson’s winemaker for seventeen years, after which he purchased his own vineyard in the California Foothills. Marco is currently making four dessert wines for Swanson, which include Angelica, Crepuscule, Arsene, and Les Trois Filles.
In 2003, Swanson Vineyards was fortunate to obtain the talent of Chris Phelps as its new winemaker. Chris has had an illustrious career in the wine industry, first as winemaker at Dominus for twelve years and at Caymus Vineyards for six years. His wines are more refined and sophisticated than ever, yet they remain delightfully accessible and approachable—the perfect embodiment of our trademark decadence with a wink.