Joseph Phelps:
2007 Insignia, 2007 Backus, and Other Releases

Joseph Phelps Vineyards is one of California’s preeminent wineries. Founded in 1972, Joseph Phelps along with Robert Mondavi, Andre Tschelistcheff and a few others made Napa Valley world famous, especially for its Cabernet Sauvignon. In 1974 Phelps Vineyards introduced its iconic Bordeaux blend Insignia. In the same year, it also produced California’s first varietal bottling of Syrah.

Initially making his wine from mainly purchased grapes, Phelps has purchased and developed his own vineyards over the years and now owns some of Napa Valley’s most famous—Backus, Las Rocas, Banca Dorada, Suscol and Barboza. Estate vineyards have allowed Phelps to ensure greater consistency in the quality of its grapes. It has also permitted the conversion of his vineyards to biodynamic viticulture. In 1999, Phelps purchased Freestone Vineyards in the Russian River Valley, which is now the winery’s locus for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. (see our Tasting article on Freestone Vineyards at www.i-winereview.com)

We recently joined lead winemaker Damian Parker at the Phelps winery off Silverado Trail for a tasting of the winery’s current and new releases. We tasted three vintages of Insignia, Backus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, and Phelp’s regular Cabernet Sauvignon. For the years 2005, 2006, and 2007. There are some variations in the three growing seasons. The year 2005 saw a wet spring, larger than normal clusters, and higher than normal yields. The 2006 vintage saw a cool spring but also a ten day heat spike in late July, followed by a long veraison. The year 2007 was one of mild drought and unusually low crop yields with small clusters and berries.

Joseph Phelp’s wines are quintessential California in style. They are ripe-tasting and pure Napa Cabernet Sauvignon in flavor and style. They are dark, rich, plush and deeply concentrated wines that consistently show layers of black currant, black cherry, cassis, minerals, mint, and cedar. Phelps’ Insignia exhibits opulence and elegance while the Backus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon has unique intense, earth, mineral and muscular qualities. Phelp’s regular Cabernet Sauvignon is a beautifully crafted wine that is affordable and drinkable young. Tasting each of these wines across three vintages was a treat and it showed how nuanced in flavor these wines can be from year to year while still maintaining their style and individuality.

Insignia

The blend of grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and Merlot—in Insignia has varied over time reflecting both vintage variations and changes in sources of fruit. Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominant grape in the blend, accounting for 95 percent of the total in 2006. The 2009 vintage is the first to be made entirely from estate grapes. The fruit comes mainly from the Suscol, Barboza, Banca Dorada, and Las Rocas vineyards. The wine is aged 24 months in new French oak. Its suggested retail price is $200.

Joseph Phelps 2005 Insignia Napa 93

The 2005 Insignia is a big wine in every respect. Its bouquet shows effusive aromas of spicy, dark fruit, while its softly textured palate is very ripe and intensely flavored. Finishes very long with a pot-pourri of flavors. Predominantly (92%) Cabernet Sauvignon.

Joseph Phelps 2006 Insignia Napa 95

The 2006 Insignia is a big, earthy wine of considerable weight and tannic structure. It has a nose of smoke and meaty dark fruit and a rich, velvet palate that is superbly balanced and layered with red and black fruit.

Joseph Phelps 2007 Insignia Napa 94-96

While this is the final blend, it had not yet been bottled at the time of casting. It’s showing meaty, savory aromas with sweet liqueur like notes of black raspberry. The deeply flavored palate has an elegant, silky texture to it. Finishes long and full-fruited with a chalky note and fine-grained tannins.

Backus

Backus is predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon (93% in 2005) with small amounts of Petit Verdot and Malbec. The fruit comes from the 6.75 acre Backus Vineyard off the Silverado Trail in Oakville. The wine is aged 24 months in new French oak. The first vintage of Backus was in 1977. Its retail price is $ 250.

Joseph Phelps 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Backus Vineyard Oakville 93

The 2005 Backus has an earthy nose that gives way to a soft and generous palate with big cassis and berry fruit showing through. The temperate summer resulted in a wine that is somewhat reticent compared to other vintages. It’s highly concentrated with still firm tannins, showing mineral and graphite notes on the finish.

Joseph Phelps 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Backus Vineyard Oakville 93

The 2006 Backus is a big-shouldered wine that still needs time to fully reveal itself. The savory bouquet is fabulous with black currant, earth, tobacco, and cedar notes. It has a velvet smooth attack with pure flavors of cassis and black raspberry fruit on the palate and a long, refined finish.

Joseph Phelps 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Backus Vineyard Oakville 94

The 2007 Backus is round and sensual with incredible purity of flavor on the palate. It shows aromas of cassis and black raspberry with a faint eucalyptus note. Very full in the mouth, it is both velvet smooth and densely flavored. Needs time to fully come together, but the experience of earlier vintages suggests it surely will. The eucalyptus note suggests the vines still pick up remnants of oil in the soil from trees cut down over a decade ago.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The Phelps Cabernet Sauvignon is mostly Cabernet Sauvignon (85%) with some Merlot, Petit Verdot and Malbec, and is mainly sourced from estate-owned vineyards. The current suggested retail price is $54.

 

Joseph Phelps 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 91

The 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon is rich with pure cassis on the nose and deeply flavored compote-like dark plum and cassis on the palate. A muscular wine from an excellent vintage. Sees 50 percent new oak, half French and half American, and it’s very well integrated.

Joseph Phelps 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 92

Compared to the 2005, the 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon is more complex and layered with flavors of blackberries, blueberries, violets and minerals. It’s very well balanced with a velvet smooth texture and a more savory than up-front fruit character.

Joseph Phelps 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 91+

The 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon is richly aromatic with cassis, herbs, mint and even smoke notes showing on the nose. There are fabulously concentrated flavors on an elegantly textured palate. Shows youthful tannins at this young age. Just bottled when we tasted it, the wine will probably show even better in a few weeks time.

Other Wines

Phelps produces terrific white wines and a Syrah that are reviewed below:

Joseph Phelps 2008 Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley 90+

This is a beautiful example of the rich, semi-tropical style of Sauvignon Blanc made with the just the right amount of oak (500 liter barrels, 1/3 new) to give a note of flint and smoke to the wine. The low yields (< 4 tons/acre) in 2008 contribute to the richness of the wine, while the low percent of malo contributes to its brisk acidity. Ripe melon, white flowers, and minerals show on the nose and palate. Beautifully done! Retail price is $32.

Joseph Phelps 2007 Viognier Napa Valley 89

This is a soft wine with a perfume of apricot and white flowers on the nose and a creamy palate of ripe stone fruit. Shows good acidity despite the 50 percent malo treatment. Sees some oak and time on the lees, but these are well integrated and don’t show as distinct flavor elements. Extended hang time contributes to the apricot and orange zest flavors of the wine. Sells for $50.

Joseph Phelps 2007 Syrah Napa Valley 91

A gorgeous and elegant Napa Valley Syrah with a powerful, aromatic bouquet and a savory, well-structured palate that’s generous with its flavors of blackberry, herbs, smoke, and roasted meat, finishing with chalky, ripe tannins. The wine is about 40 percent whole cluster, and it is aged 19 months in a mix of new and two year old used medium toast French oak. This is 100% Syrah from the Hyde Vineyard. Priced at about $50.