Joseph Phelps, A California Legend
The first Phelps wine to appear in the marketplace was a 1973 Johannisberg Riesling. That it was an immediate success was no surprise; the winemaker was Walter Schug, born and trained in Germany. Schug left the winery in 1983 to devote full time to his new venture, Schug Cellars. (His assistant from almost the beginning, Craig Williams, assumed the reigns as winemaker.) The winery gradually began to produce a wide range of interesting, high-quality varietals - not only from its own ranch, but also from selected growers in the Napa Valley and in Sonoma County as well. In fact, Phelps once made one of California's best Zinfandels from eighty-year-old vines in Sonoma's Alexander Valley. However, the winery gradually began to trim its number of offerings and concentrate primarily on the Napa Valley for fruit sources.
Joseph Phelps was one of the pioneers in the production of the now-fashionable Syrah. After the popularity of Rhône varietals virtually exploded in the late 1980's, the winery launched a separate Vin Du Mistral label concentrating exclusively on Rhône-style wines in the summer of 1990. Under this label the winery now produces a Syrah; a Le Mistral Rhône blend similar to a Châteauneuf-Du-Pape consisting of grenache, mourvèdre, syrah, and carignane; a Grenache Rosé (said by numerous critics to be among the finest rosés produced in California); a Viognier (enchanting for its delicate pear and spice flavors and widely-acclaimed as one of the best in California); a Muscat (with 12% residual sugar); and a Marsanne and Rousanne (dry whites introduced in 1996). Our favorite has been the Vin du Mistral Syrah, which has really come on strong in the last several vintages - the 1993 and 1994 have been exceptional. With the edge in Germanic expertise created years ago by Schug, Joseph Phelps has produced some extraordinary and unusual late harvest dessert wines. The winery's late harvest Johannisberg Riesling, the late harvest Scheurebe (a rare German hybrid) and the Delice du Sémillon (a very sweet Sauternes-styled wine first produced in 1983 and made only for the fourth year in 1995) are often so good they are not to be believed! Presently the winery is working on an experimental "Eisrebe" (made by freezing late harvested scheurebe grapes).
Mention must also be made of the exceptional Chardonnay now being produced at Phelps called Ovation, introduced in the 1993 vintage. Ovation is made in very limited quantities (about 700 cases) and is intended to demonstrate the artistic range of winemaker Craig Williams. The wine comes from estate-grown grapes in Carneros - the Sangiacomo Vineyard in which Joe Phelps is a partner. It is made from the winery's finest barrels, and we feel it is one of the best Chardonnays currently being produced in California.
The winery's truly monumental wines are usually red and are based on the cabernet grape. In each vintage Phelps produces a regular Napa Valley Cabernet from grapes grown on several of the Phelps ranches as well as grapes purchased from independent growers. Some of the Phelps regular Cabs have been outstanding; the 1975 (probably the winery's best ever), the 1977, and the 1980 were at the top of their price class in the Napa Valley. In the middle 1980's Phelps acquired and developed two new vineyards in the Napa Valley - one in Rutherford along Manley Lane in the heart of the bench area and the other in the Stag's Leap District immediately north and adjacent to the historic Fay Vineyard. These two ranches have provided the backbone for the Phelps regular Cabernet as well as a Merlot that was first produced in 1989. Although we felt that the Phelps regular Cabernets had slipped in the years since 1980, beginning with the 1992 they have been again among the best in their price class. In fact, the recent Cabernets are probably the best regular bottlings produced at this winery in nearly twenty years. Although a portion of the fruit is purchased from independent growers, over half comes from the winery's Las Rocas Vineyard in the Stags Leap District and the winery's Manley Lane Vineyard in the Rutherford Bench area. Really special, however, have been the vineyard-designated Cabernets (one from the Backus Vineyard and one from the Eisele Vineyard) and the super special Insignia bottling. The Eisele bottling was discontinued after the 1991 vintage, because - unfortunately for Phelps - Milton Eisele sold his legendary vineyard to Bart Araujo (The Araujo Estate Cabernet has already garnered enormous critical acclaim under its new owners). The Insignia bottling - the flagship of the winery and the first Meritage blend ever made in California (1974) - has been consistently fine for two decades. However, beginning with the 1989 vintage, it has clearly been in the top handful of red wines produced in every vintage
Robert Parker JR.’s The Wine Advocate (96 Points). “The 2002 Insignia is a blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 14% Merlot, 7% Petit Verdot, and 1% Malbec. This wine has put on considerable weight since last year. An exotic nose of spice box, soy, creme de cassis, chocolate, espresso, and various spices is followed by extravagant fruit on the attack, a voluptuous, medium to full-bodied palate, and a long, ripe, concentrated finish with the tannins well-concealed behind significant glycerin and concentration. This beauty is more extroverted than the 2001. Anticipated maturity: 2007-2023.” Wine Advocate #157 (Feb 2005) The outstanding 2002 vintage: For the last few years vintners have been touting the 2002 vintage wines from California. Sure it’s true that a lot of producers tout the positive virtues of every vintage because they have to sell each and every one. You can tell the really great vintages as you see their eyes light up when they talk about the wines in the great vintages. Here is what Robert Parker Jr. had to say about 2002: “As I wrote in issue #150 (12-23-03), 2001 is the finest year for North Coast Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot since 1994 and 1991. Many examples have closed down considerably now that they have been in bottle for over a year, but for the top producers, these are wines of considerable depth, power, richness, and impressive aging potential. 2002 may be an even better vintage, but for different reasons. A classic California vintage, it offers ripe, rich, exuberant, full-throttle, intensely forward wines. The big Cabernet Sauvignons and Bordeaux variety blends possess plenty of tannin, but it is sweet and largely concealed by the extraordinary wealth of fruit and extravagant richness. They are top-notch examples of what California does best.” Wine Advocate #157 (Feb 2005)
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