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Texture and Class
By Mary Ewing-Mulligan
Jan 12, 2010
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Swanson Vineyards, Oakville-Napa Valley Merlot 2005 ($36):  In the past year, I reviewed two fine Merlots from California, the 2005 Matanzas Creek and the 2006 Duckhorn.  I wish that I could time-travel back to the occasions when I tasted each of those wines and try this Swanson 2005 Merlot side by side.  Which of the three Merlots would be my favorite at that moment?  All three are classic Merlots and excellent wines.  Today, this Swanson is so satisfying that I can’t imagine it could be trumped.

Swanson Vineyards is a family-owned estate winery in Napa Valley that has earned the enduring respect of critics over the past twenty-something years.  Its main wines are Pinot Grigio (truly dry and very Grigio style, unlike many California wines using that name), a fine Cabernet Sauvignon called “Alexis,” and this Merlot.  Of the three, the Merlot is the flagship; it has larger production than the other two (17,000 cases in 2005) and it is the wine on which Swanson built its reputation.  The winery has a vested interest in Merlot, because it is one of Napa Valley’s largest producers of estate-grown Merlot, if not the largest.  It was the legendary Andre Tchelistcheff who, in 1985, recommended planting Merlot in the Swanson earth.

The grapes for this Merlot came from two estate vineyards in Oakville, one on the Oakville Cross Road and the other, the Schmidt Ranch, on the western benchland (a property that Christian Mouiex purchased from Clarke Swanson in 2008).  The wine contains 15% Syrah and 5% Cabernet Sauvignon.  Before tasting the wine, I was concerned about that Syrah component because I find that the juicy character of Syrah can conflict with Merlot’s subtle, sedate style.  But my concern was unfounded.  Winemaker Chris Phelps explained that “the Syrah used…was not so much ‘juicy’ as it was long on the palate.  In addition to adding length in the mouth, it contributed some very nice black licorice and clove to the aroma.”

The wine’s aging involved 18 months in oak, about 40% of it new, and about one-third French and two-thirds American.  This is a shorter period of oak aging than in previous vintages, and it also involves more French oak and a lighter toast-level (medium rather than heavy) than in the past.  For subsequent vintages, Phelps has increased the French oak to fifty percent.

This is a very classy Merlot, as well as a classic one.  Its aroma is broad and full with notes of dark plum and blackberry, dusty earth, inky minerality, an herbal licorice nuance and vanilla -- an aroma that’s not intense or even particularly fruity as much as it is complex.  In the mouth the wine is dry and full-bodied with a significant measure of tannin, both ripe, soft tannin from the fruit and fine-grained oak tannin.  The tannin in no way overpowers the wine but instead it blends seamlessly with the ripe fruit character to create a rich, velvety whole.  The flavors of plum, ink, licorice and oak spice are fairly sedate and yet they are rich.

This wine is admirably supple, which is one of the highest compliments I can give to a Bordeaux-style red wine.  Its key characteristic and virtue is its texture: velvety, well-knit, even and consistent across the whole length and breadth of your mouth.  The wine is ample in structure and low-key in its rich flavor: classic Merlot.

92 Points