The Swanson Late Bloomers: A Late Harvest Wine Trend in Napa Valley
Napa Valley is an environment committed to preservation, populated with those who perfect the essence of multi-layered taste -- be it food, wine or both.
French Laundry and Bouchon are in Yountville, also known as nirvana for Thomas Keller pilgrims. Exceptional wineries are tucked away, often from highway view, in Rutherford, Saint Helena, Oakville, and Calistoga. Resorts are also hidden: The Inn at Carneros (up a side road, behind a garden wall), Calistoga Ranch (in a private canyon), Meadowood (at the end of Meadowood Lane and near the base of Howell Mountain) all removed from plain sight, all worthy of joyous discovery.
Those who retreat to Napa that often engage in wine tastings also discover trends. On a recent journey, I uncovered the emergence of late harvest wines that are becoming increasingly well-known and more appreciated than ever before. Swanson Vineyards makes three exceptional late harvest wines, and has evolved into one of the leaders in this field.
I should first define some terms for those who are not wine drinkers, much less late harvest wine consumer. A late harvest wine is made from grapes left on the vine longer than usual. Late harvest is usually an indication of a sweeter wine. Thus, many late harvest wines are called dessert wines, an appellation that is not quite true anymore.
"The trend is now evolving," said Heidi Godoff, Swanson Vineyard's Director of Consumer Marketing and Sales, "because we are seeing people drink these late harvests now as aperitifs, at the meal's beginning, with artisanal blue cheese, local pistachios, and crackers, as well as at the end of a meal, with some form or dessert or actually by itself. It is a fascinating evolution, that started in Europe, but has certain caught on here."
In the video above, Swanson Vintner Marco Capelli, discusses the history of the Mission grape -- the one that produces the Swanson Angelica ($140 a bottle) late harvest wine. It is wine produced with hardly any fermentation, by a grape variety known as Mission. It was brought from Spain by Spanish priests in the 1800's, and served as altar wine during early mission days in California. Surely, another good reason, perhaps, to have gone to church.
Another Swanson late harvest is the Crepescule 2006 ($90 a bottle), a Semillon that dates back to the Swanson first vintage 22 years ago. Swanson has made this wine only eight times since then, needing exactly the environmental conditions for harvesting. Crépescule, French for twilight, is a wine to be consumed at the interlude between close of day and the emergence of evening. The Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc grapes for the 2006 Crepescule come from a vineyard high above Napa Valley, in the Clear Lake area of Lake County. This wine has been called the American Chateau d'Yquem -- and for myself, having the privilege to taste some Chateau d'Yquem '48, this is a substantial compliment.
The fruit for Tardif 2007 ($80 a bottle) wine comes from three small micro-blocks on the Estate Oakville Cross Road vineyard. Small amounts of Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat grapes were left on the vine after harvest. Botrytis Cinerea, also known as "noble rot," tends to flourish in these small blocks between late October and mid-December. Often, post-harvest weather is often conducive to the growth of Botrytis: foggy, damp periods, followed by warm spells.