Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Wines of Joseph Phelps

I was fortunate enough to be able to taste through a portion of the Joseph Phelps Vineyards portfolio with Damian Parker, their Director of Winemaking, as part of a seminar during the Grand Tasting at Bern’s Winefest in Tampa.

Joseph Phelps Vineyards was founded in the early 1970s by – you guessed it – Joseph Phelps, a construction company owner from Chicago. Mr. Phelps, who grew up on a farm, studied engineering in college, and later served during the Korean War, helped his father take a local home renovation firm and turn it into a prominent national construction company. Mr. Phelps’ company built several well-known wineries in both Napa and Sonoma.

The Phelps winery, located outside of St. Helena on the east side of the Silverado Trail, was crafted in part from redwood salvaged from bridge timbers. Although he initially started with white wine (Johannisberg Riesling), Mr. Phelps used France as his model, having fallen in love with the wines of Bordeaux and the Rhone while vacationing there years prior. Phelps rapidly added red wines to the portfolio, primarily Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but he also made a series of Rhone-style wines, and spearheaded a resurgence in the interest in Syrah, which had not been bottled as a “labeled varietal” in California since the late 1800s. In 1974, Mr. Phelps sought to create a wine that was styled like the wines of Bordeaux, but reflected the Napa Valley. What he created was Insignia, the first “meritage” wine; a blend of traditional Bordeaux grape varietals bottled under a proprietary name.

Mr. Parker began his wine career at Souverain Winery in Sonoma that, ironically, was built by Mr. Phelps’ construction company. Damian began working at Joseph Phelps Vineyards in 1981, starting as a bottling line supervisor, and held several positions before becoming VP of Production in 1997. Although he has years of on-the-job training, he does not have a formal degree in enology. But when Craig Williams left the head winemaker position a few years ago, Damian stepped into his current role of Director of Winemaking, with Ashley Hepworth serving as Winemaker.

The tasting began with the 2008 Sauvignon Blanc, a 100% estate grown wine. The wine sees about 1/3 new oak in puncheon (a little more than twice the size of a standard barrel, so less wine to oak interaction), and 2/3 one to two year old French oak barrels and puncheons. The grapes come from three distinct blocks within the vineyard, each chosen for a particular characteristic. One provides a lemon tone, another grapefruit, and the third - planted to the Sauvignon Musque clone, provides roundness and some hints of honeydew melon. The wine is light and extremely aromatic (IMHO due to the Musque clone), with bright acidity and a long finish.

We then moved to the 2006 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. This wine is sourced from the Stags Leap and Rutherford AVAs, and is 2/3 estate grown. It is aged in 50% new oak (French and American) and 50% two-year-old oak (the prior vintage’s Insignia barrels). This bottling has always been a favorite of mine, and in the early ‘90’s was (along with Beaulieu Vineyard's “Rutherford” bottling) the first wine I bought by the case. The wine showed blackberry, cassis, and tobacco on the nose, followed by cassis, black cherry, and raspberry on the palate. The tannins are very fine grained (perhaps showing some of its Rutherford heritage) and the wine is very well balanced.

Next came the flagship – the 2006 Insignia. 95% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot. This wine has been 100% estate grown since 2004. A blend from six (6) estate owned vineyards in Stags Leap and the Rutherford Bench. Each vineyard adds something specific to the blend – the Home Ranch supplies bright fruit, the Suscol Vineyard adds texture, color, and weight, and on down the line. Aged for 24 months in 100% new French oak. Opaque purple black with aromas of graphite, black fruit, spicebox, and oak vanillin. Mouthfilling with blackberry and blueberry fruit, chocolaty tannins, and a long finish.

We soldiered on to the 2005 Backus Cabernet Sauvignon. Planted in the early ‘70s by the Backus family, Phelps began sourcing fruit in 1977, began farming the vineyard in 1983, and eventually bought the vineyard in 1996. The vineyard was re-developed by Phelps from 1997 through 1999, and it holds the distinction of being the last vineyard permitted in the Napa Valley with a greater than 25% slope. Given the steep grade, all of the work throughout the year and the harvesting on the upper slope is done by hand. Cabernet is planted on the steep slopes, while an acre each of Petit Verdot and Malbec are planted on the plateau at the top of the vineyard. Aged for 24 months in new French oak. This wine comes across as a Pauillac – deep ruby color with aromas of cassis, graphite, espresso, and mineral. Palate is consistent with the nose, and there is sufficient tannic structure and acidity to suggest that this wine may be a crowd pleaser for many years.

Closing the tasting was Phelps’ dessert wine, Eisrebe, the 2008 vintage. Made from 100% estate grown Scheurebe, which is harvested when ripe (around 24° brix), and then the grapes are frozen and pressed, with a resulting sugar content of 35° brix. The juice is then fermented in stainless steel tanks to 8% alcohol (and 21% residual sugar!!). The grapes do occasionally become botrytis-affected prior to harvest, which, according to the winemaker, was evidenced in this wine by a predominant aroma of apricot (I typically sense the presence of botrytis as a smell of Mattel plastic – but that story is for another venue). Rich, ripe, mouth coating peach and apricot, but balanced by good acidity. A nice “sticky” if that is your thing.

All told, an hour well spent, with a bit of education, an entertaining speaker, and great wines.

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