What We Say 2005 Salon Petite Sirah
SUPERIOR WINE ALERT:
Today’s selection from Swanson Vineyards is truly a wine of elegance and distinction. If you are a fan of the great Petite Sirah, this wine belongs in your cellar.
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Mission Codename: Le Petite Salon
Operative: Agent White
Objective: Infiltrate Swanson Vineyards and secure their famed single vineyard Oakville Petite Sirah
Mission Status: Accomplished!
Current Winery: Swanson Vineyards
Wine Subject: 2005 Salon Wine Selection Petite Sirah Oakville – Napa Valley
Winemaker: Chris Phelps
Backgrounder: 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.
Petite Sirah’s California roots dates back to when it was believed to be a close relative of the Syrah grape. Later it would be found to be genetically identical to the Durif, named for its after French discoverer François Durif who found that the varietal was a Syrah grape pollinated with Peloursin flowers. Its smaller berries with higher skin to pulp ratio leads to more intense flavors. Another benefit of the smaller berries are tighter clusters that are more resistant to mildew. Currently Petite Sirah is less popular in France and increasingly popular in the United States
Wine Spies Tasting Profile:
Look – Dark and intense purple and almost black in color with a deep but clear core that barely let’s light escape its grasp. Along the edges, the color lightens ever so slightly to a dark garnet-purple. When swirled alternating fast and slow legs ring the glass descending with trace color.
Smell – Bold and ripe aromas of blackberry and blueberry that are layered over a framework of exotic spice and black licorice. Hints of earthy herbs, black pepper and floral notes add to the intense complexity of this wine’s nose.
Feel – A surprisingly round initial attack that is immediately followed by firm-textured tannins, spice and bright acidity at mid-palate that coats the entire tongue and becomes chewy as it reaches the far corners of your mouth.
Taste – Ripe and rich flavors of spiced dark fruit including wild bramble blackberries and a touch of plum are tightly interlaced with aromatic spice, herbs and a floral component. A backbone of oak, black-pepper and black-licorice meld with the bold fruit linger in this intense wine.
Finish – Extremely long with lingering ripe and redolent fruit that are framed by a solid structure of textured tannins, leaving your mouth watering and craving another sip.
Conclusion – The 2005 Swanson Vineyards Salon Petite Sirah is a bold and aromatic wine that packs a flavorful punch but does so with rich and elegant manner. This wine stands on its own but also has the complexity of flavors that will allow you to pair it with an array of barbecue or kitchen creations. Pick up a couple bottles, one or two for now, and a few for the cellar as this wine will definitely age over the next ten-plus years.
Continuing our ongoing series of winemaker interviews, we are very happy today to present the following interview with Chris Phelps, winemaker for Swanson Vineyards:
AGENT RED: Greetings, Chris. We are thrilled to have scooped your 2005 Salon-only Petite Sirah today, and honored that we are the only place – outside of the winery – to make it available. 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 again 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 Vinyeards. 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: 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: 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 cliche, 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: 2009 is a critical year for winemakers to help with promotion. We’ve completed bottling for the year, and are fine-tuning 2008 blends. I’m taking advantage of the fact that we are ahead of normal schedule in the winery to spend a little more time on the road, sharing the wines with consumers and trade. All wineries are affected by the domestic financial situation, but folks enjoy meeting the winemaker, so I am happy to help out when I can.
RED: Please tell me a little bit about the wine we are featuring today?
CHRIS: The 2005 Swanson Petite Sirah is not for the faint of heart. This wine has super-ripe blackberry fruit, with lots of clove, black pepper and black licorice in both the aroma and on the palate. 2005 was a long, cool season, which was key for this wine. In a hot year, our Petite Sirah can sometimes ripen too quickly, and the aroma and flavor of the wine can lack complexity. We used only a small percentage of new oak, since the wine was so expressive, we did not want to obscure the generous fruit. After swallowing, the flavors continue to unfold for several minutes in your mouth
RED: What is your favorite pairing with today’s wine?
CHRIS: A one-inch Ribeye or New York steak, cooked over coals made from aged grapevine canes. Some nice marble in the meat assures success here; sauteed shallots and garlic are nice, too. But don’t take my word for it, you need to try it yourself!
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:
“Sourced from 11 short rows on our Oakville Cross Road Estate Vineyard, these 814 vines are some of our most consistent producers… creating a Petite Sirah that is not “Petite” – it is a blockbuster! So, get some ribs on the BBQ and open this wine for your best friends."
- Chris Phelps, Swanson Vineyards winemaker
This riveting example of Petite Sirah is for the strong of heart. Intense ripe blackberries, clove, and black licorice compete for attention, and the full mid-palate leads to a very long aromatic finish. Ripe and hefty enough to stand up to almost any cuisine.
VINTAGE: The 2005 growing season began with wet weather, followed by a relatively dry March. Ample rainfall extended well into spring, which led to a relatively late bloom and fruit set. Unseasonable precipition in early June led to a relatively cool, pleasant summer, with very few heat spikes. Initially, there was concern in September that cool weather and morning fog would not allow adequate time for a somewhat larger than normal crop to mature fully. A seemingly endless Indian summer resulted in optimum conditions for complete ripening of our Petite Sirah. This long growing season resulted in very ripe aromas and favors at perfect sugar and acid levels.
VINEYARD: Fruit for this wine was sourced exclusively from our Oakville Cross Road Estate vineyard, located along the central corridor of the valley. The alluvial soils are well-suited to the production of a small crop of intense, concentrated fruit.
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.
ORIGIN: Oakville Cross Road Estate
HARVEST: October 10, 2005
BRIX at HARVEST: 25.1
WINEMAKING: Fermentated in small open-top tanks Malolactic fermentation in barrel 20 months in French oak (50% new)
BOTTLING: June 29, 2007
RELEASE DATE: March 2008