2009 Napa Valley harvest: an interview with Swanson Vineyards’ winemaker Chris Phelps

by TrevR on October 13, 2009

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With harvest in full swing and rain pouring from the skies, we were able to track down Chris Phelps, Swanson Vineyards’ winemaker, for a quick interview on a variety of harvest-related topics.

Phelps shared details on overall volumes, Swanson’s process for handling the fruit once it’s brought in from the vineyard and what today’s torrential rains may or may not mean for any fruit that’s still hanging on vines throughout the valley…

CB: How is overall volume looking? Can you provide tonnage details and comparisons to last year?

Phelps: For Swanson’s white grape sources: Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay 10 – 20% less than normal crop size. Red varieties just a little light – Merlot and Cab off about 10%. Less crop usually means more concentration, which so far appears to be the case.

CB: Talk a bit about what, specifically, happens to the fruit after it is brought in from the vineyards. Give us some details on the process…

Phelps: We cool all fruit down to about 50 degrees F if it didn’t arrive cold. This helps slow oxidation, keeping the fruit and resulting juice (whites) and must (reds) fresh, and preserving color and flavor. We whole-cluster press all whites immediately and chill down to 45 degrees.F. We settle overnight and do a very, very slow fermentation, which preserves varietal character, especially for Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and freshness.

The body of the resulting wines benefits hugely from a month of lees contact during fermentation. We continue to stir the wine on the lees for 10 weeks after fermentation to build up the body. All of these 3 white wines at Swanson have reasonable alcohol levels, which we think is critical for balance: SB around 13%, Pinot Grigio around 13.5%, Chardonnay just a touch over 14%. No oak contact except for Chardonnay, which gets barrels but no new barrels. We honor the varietal character of each.

On to the reds: Merlot and Cab are both cold-soaked for 48-72 hours before they are warmed up and fermentation is kicked off. We run about 20 days on the skins for Merlot, 30+ for Cab. We do not make red wine by numbers, we do it by daily sensory evaluation.

Deciding when to pick a red is the biggest decision by far.

We are picking reds at slightly lower Brix than normal, which is fantastic, since we are achieving excellent tannin maturity at a lower potential alcohol. The 2009 reds will be balanced and complex.

CB: Our first big winter storm is here and we’ve been hearing reports that many in the valley were scrambling to finish off the harvest before the rains arrived. Talk to us about what this storm means for you and why there was a scramble this time around (whereas a few weeks back we had a bit of rain and it was generally seen as no big deal).

Phelps: Yes, many Napa Valley producers were indeed scrambling to get fruit in the barn before this storm hit. If they were bringing in Cabernet before it was fully ripe, however, my personal feeling is that it may not have been a good idea. It is very critical that grapes be physiologicaly ripe – that is, that the tannins be ripe – prior to harvest. Grapes that are not fully mature will not make top-flight wine, period.

Several weeks ago, we had a very slight sprinkle (no measurable rainfall at our winery). The current storm, with lots of tropical moisture, is the first storm of the season, and has already dropped 2.75 inches at the winery since it started last night. Like many Napa area wineries, we just have a minor percentage of our crop out – and it’s all Cabernet Sauvignon. Cab is very resistant to Botrytis, a mold which can grow rapidly this time of year, given the humidity following a good rain. Chardonnay, Pinot, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah, however, can be very susceptible to mold and breakdown of the skins. Cabernet on well-drained soils like we have here in Oakville is not a problem. Warm, dry weather is predicted in our agricultural weather forecast. We are gambling that our last few tons of Cab will attain the last little bit of physiological maturity we are looking for as the nice weather returns. It was awfully close to perfection before the storm. Worse case, it will be right where it was before the storm, which would not be bad news, by any means.

We are an agricultural business, and there’s always a little bit of gambling to be done when we need to decide on when to harvest. Christian Moueix, producer of Dominus and many famous Bordeaux wines, and one of my mentors, likes to say that the greatest wines are always made when we need to wrestle with tough decisions. Deciding to wait to pick is difficult, but – depending upon where the vineyard is located, the state of the vines and fruit, and the potential for the fruit to continue to improve – it can be the best possible way to guarantee that the resulting wine will be of the best possible quality.

So, ‘scrambling’ was perhaps a good idea for some varieties/producers/vineyards, but may have been a mistake for others.

CB: Thanks Chris!

[techtags: Napa, Napa Valley, wine, winery, 2009 napa harvest, Swanson Vineyards, Chris Phelps Swanson]

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has written 725 posts on The Cork Board. He was born and aged in the Napa Valley and has a passion for wine, writing and social media, which led him to co-found this blog in early 2007. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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