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Tasting notes from California

text and photographs © 2013 Tom Cannavan

These notes accompany our in-depth feature on California.


Danielle Chris Phelps is the perfect man for the job at Swanson, Napa's true believer in the Merlot grape. After working at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux and then spending 12 years at Dominus in Napa under the tutelage of Christian Moueix, he certainly straddles Old and New World philosophies, and the Merlot grape has been a constant companion.

The Swanson story began in 1985, when Clarke Swanson purchased a 100-acre property on Oakville in the heart of the Napa Valley. Swanson obtained the services of the 84-year-old André Tchelistcheff as a consultant. Tchelistcheff is an almost legendary figure in Californian winemaking, having been born in Russia, studied winemaking in France, and then coming to the USA in 1938 to take over as winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyards. With Tchelistcheff's advice they planted Merlot in the heart of Cabernet country, but the strategy seems to have been correct, as Swanson carved out an excellent reputation for its red wines.

Chris Phelps joined Swanson in 2003, via a seven year spell at Caymus that followed his time as winemaker for Dominus. He says "Merlot was a big reason to move to Swanson, bringing me back to my Bordeaux roots. Merlot is the biggest red variety in Bordeaux. It is a winemaker's grape, with natural acidity, lots of tannin, but the gentle kind that makes drinking red wines pleasurable." Swanson does make a little white wine. "When I arrived I'd never made a white wine before," he tells me. "But I've changed the style. Our Pinot Grigio is lower in alcohol and has a sharper focus, mainly by making the wine in steel instead of older barrels."

Chris does not adjust the acidity of his wines, and says "If the fruit is picked when it is physiologically ripe and balanced, intervention through winemaking techniques is minimized." Swanson's vineyards are on the valley floor, with clay loam that is alluvial in nature, laid down as sediment from frequent historical flooding from the San Pablo Bay. The vineyards are planted using "a variety of rootstock, clones, spacing and trellis systems," and as well as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, there is a wide variety of plantings, from Sangiovese to Semillon and from Petite Sirah to Pinot Grigio.

the wines

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Swanson Vineyards, Pinot Grigio 2011, California
A Napa Valley designation for this wine which has 10% Chardonnay in the blend, all fermented in stainless steel. It has appetising, fresh pear and apple aromas and a touch of yeasty quality. The palate has a hint of apparent sweetness, but that's just ripe fruit hinting at the tropical. Fine textural palate and good length and a crisp, lemony, moreish finish. 88/100.

Swanson Vineyards, Cygnet Merlot 2011, California
Napa Valley designated again, this is a brand new wine designed to pour by the glass on premise. As well as Swanson's own Merlot, is has 22% Cabernet Sauvignon from Howell Mountain and Calistoga in the blend. Very attractive nose, with a touch of ash and cedar, the light earthiness is there against very good fruit. Plenty of spice from the oak. Lots of smooth chocolate richness, with cedar and gentle tobacco. Cherry and savoury flavours on the palate, the juiciness is there along with spice and cedar. 89/100.

Swanson Vineyards, Oakville Merlot 2009, California
Deeper aromatically than the Cygnet, this has 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot in the blend, a beautifully silky character, sonorous black cherry and plum and there is such gorgeous fruit and roundness, but real precision too. 91/100. Around $38 locally.

Swanson Vineyards, Alexis Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
This has 7% Merlot in the blend but no Petit Verdot which there is in some years. All French oak, 60% of which is new. Fabulous fragrance, with such beautiful fruit and a roundness, but there's a pristine black cherry juiciness as well as copious bittersweet notes of cocoa. It's a big wine on the palate, but with real suppleness and smooth cocoa dusted dry tannins, a wonderfully juicy squirt of acidity balancing too. 93/100. $75 locally

Swanson Vineyards, Instant Napa Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, California
So named because "tasting it transports you straight to Napa wherever it is drunk." Blended with 11% Merlot and 7% Petit Verdot, aged 22 months in all French oak, 50% new. Signature nose, smoky, tobacco again and that pencil shaving, graphite sophistication. The Petit Verdot adds spice and touch of something peppery. On the palate that beautiful balance a little grainier and more linear than the Alexis, but so nicely done. 91-92/100. $60 locally.

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