A Vertical Tasting of Swanson Vineyards Salon Chardonnay, Vintages 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008

Once upon a time I was ready to give up on New World Chardonnay. More than anything though it was really California Chardonnay I’d grown weary of. So many of the wines I tasted were overburdened with oak to the point of blunting the fruit. The litany of jokes made in tasting rooms and elsewhere about these wines could easily fill a book. I’m not sure anyone is printing joke books these days. If they were though there’s lots of material. It got to the point where I found it tiresome to even try new Chardonnays. Many of them, were high scored, and well regarded, yet there was a seeming avalanche of sawdust in my mouth. So I drank mostly Chablis, when I had the chance, and when I felt adventurous I’d try one from California. Then one incredibly fateful day I made my first visit to Swanson Vineyards Salon in Napa Valley. While I liked the first wine they poured Rosato, I was dubious when then Salonnier Shawn Larue said the next wine was Chardonnay. I must have made a face because Shawn assured me that what I was about to taste was not a typical over oaked wine that was in fashion for many years. I thanked him for mentioning it but inside I thought “we’ll see about that.” From the first sip the Swanson Chardonnay was nothing short of a revelation. The fruit starred gloriously and there was complexity to spare. “That’s amazing,” were the first words I recall uttering after the very first sips I ever took of Swanson Chardonnay. More than anything it reminded me of a fine Chablis. I  Joined their wine club soon after in large part so I could have guaranteed access to the Chardonnay. It’s only made in small quantities and if there’s any left after the wine club gets their allotment you can get some through the Salon. I wasn’t taking that chance. I’ve come to love the Swanson portfolio of wines in general. The Chardonnay though, for my money, there isn’t a finer one in Napa Valley.

I was recently going through my cellar and realized I had four vintages of the Chardonnay on hand. It was obvious that the only thing to do was invite some friends over for a vertical tasting. What follows are some of my impressions about these wines and how they’re currently tasting.

The Swanson Chardonnay is available through the Salon in Rutherford. The suggested retail price for the current vintage (2008) is $36.

Swanson Vineyards 2005 Salon Chardonnay – This wine has changed remarkably in the time since it was released. Much of the fruit has dropped off at this point. The spice and mineral elements which were always present have pushed to the fore front. This now lean, mineral laden wine turned out to be the favorite of most during the vertical tasting. A nice showcase for the potential longevity of well made, balanced, white wines.

Swanson Vineyards 2006 Salon Chardonnay – This wine is definitely transitioning at this time. The spice component is present as are hints of minerals. However they’re not as prominent as on the 2005. There is more fruit present right now. I’ll be curious to see how it develops further over the next year and if it gets to the second life the 2005 is currently enjoying.

Swanson Vineyards 2007 Salon Chardonnay – Of the four vintages this is probably the one drinking at closest to its peak efficacy right now. It’s all about personal taste of course but the 2007 still now has all the glorious fruit this Chardonnay features in its youth. There’s plenty of complexity as well with spice, mineral notes and the great length this wine traditionally features. An excellent vintage of a very consistent wine in its peak drinking window.

Swanson Vineyards 2008 Salon Chardonnay – This is the current vintage of this wine, released this past August. Not surprisingly this vintage currently has the biggest fruit of the bunch. Gentle hints of butter are present along with the classic spice elements. Mineral notes are just starting to eek out of this wine and I suspect they’ll become much more prominent over time. While it’s delicious now, history tells me that to my taste I’m going to like this wine even more in about 5-6 months.

Vertical tastings can be fascinating and instructive. This one was no different. While everyone had their favorites, for a variety of reasons, there was some consensus. Regardless of how much the older vintages have evolved, the house style, we agreed was evident throughout. While age and of course vintage variation play a strong role, the consistent quality of the Swanson Salon Chardonnay from year to year was on display.

So the moral of the story here is two-fold. First of all if you like a varietal, don’t give up on it if you run across some examples you don’t like. You may eventually find one you love. The tide may also shift as it has with California Chardonnay. Of course the oak laden butter bombs are still out there. Thankfully though there are less then of them than before. The other part of the story? If you like excellent Chardonnay, that has fruit, complexity, and a good bit of longevity, do what you have to and get your hands on a bottle of Swanson Salon Chardonnay.

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