Merlot on My Mind

An impromptu invitation took me to Walnut Creek the other night with the chance to taste some high-caliber Napa merlot with roots in Russia, Bordeaux and Livermore.

Swanson Vineyards Merlot

The Swanson Vineyards 2007 Oakville merlot ($38 at the winery) feels firm in the mouth. It opens up on approach, revealing a core of silken fruits — black cherry and raspberry.

There’s a generous dose of mocha on the palate and a not unpleasant whiff of red bell pepper. Tannins were present, proper and not intrusive, thanks to the addition of 20 percent cabernet from the nearby Schmidt Ranch vineyard.

I tasted the wine at Il Fornaio in Walnut Creek where the restaurant hosted a wine dinner featuring Swanson selections and an appearance by winemaker Chris Phelps.

Muscular Merlot

Swanson is a merlot specialist operating in prime cabernet sauvignon territory where neighbors like Opus One, Silver Oak Cellars and Caymus take center stage.

When winemaker/consultant Andre Tchelistchef, whose expertise helped lift quality standards for the California wine industry, advised winery owner W. Clarke Swanson Jr. to purchase the 100-acre vineyard property in 1985, he  followed his advice.

When the Russian told Swanson the property — in the heart of Napa’s world-renowned cabernet corridor — was better suited for merlot, he took up the challenge, replanted the vineyards and set a course to be one of the premier producers of merlot in the state.

It’s the Clay

The soil composition at Swanson is a good match for some of the top vineyards of Pomerol, home to Bordeaux’s finest merlot-based wines that thrive in loamy soil with a healthy clay component. The Napa River, which runs along one edge of the Swanson property, left clay deposits that today help retain moisture and also serve to cool the vineyard soil when summer temperatures heat up.

Bordeaux Background

Phelps, who grew up in Livermore, cut his teeth in the winemaking trade in Bordeaux. He made wine at Château des Laurets after completing oenology studies at the University of Bordeaux. He got his undergraduate degree (in French) at UC-Davis, where he also studied winemaking.

Chris Phelps, Swanson Winemaker

While in France, Phelps worked for the Moueix family, owners of Chateau Petrus — Pomerol’s premier winery. He later returned to California to work at their Napa Valley outpost — Dominus Estate — where he spent a decade as winemaker. He then went to Caymus for several years before setting up shop at Swanson in 2003.

His approach with merlot is definitely Bordeaux-inspired. Phelps uses 30 percent new oak. Half the wine ages in French barrels and half in American oak.

The 2007 merlot is approachable upon release, but I think it would benefit from short-term aging. The 2006 Swanson merlot, served at dinner with a lamb entree, was a bit more open than it’s sibling, but just a shade less complex.

More Swanson Selections

Swanson is not a one-note melody. They make a wide range of small production wines, including a good $75 sangiovese, a delightful pinot grigio for summertime sipping plus a lovely estate chardonnay.

At the tasting, I enjoyed Swanson’s 2007 Alexis ($75), which is 90 percent cabernet and 10 percent merlot.

The cab comes from the Schmidt Ranch Vineyard on the western side of the valley, near the famed To Kalon vineyard pioneered by Robert Mondavi Winery. The wine — which sees only French oak — showed nice cherry fruit on the nose and a lush mouthfeel spiked with cassis and finely integrated tannins.

Winery visits can be arranged by appointment. One-hour formal tasting sessions are $60.

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