Phelps Insignia Tasting

Insignia is one of California’s most genuine cult wines, by which I mean that it is produced in appreciable quantities (up to 20,000 cases), roughly comparable to a Bordeaux chateau, as opposed to the tiny production in just a few hundred cases of many cults or garage wines. As a selection of the best cuvées, one expects it to represent the best of the vintage, but at these quantities still to reflect general vintage character. It has been a Cabernet-dominated blend since the 1980s, averaging around 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, with the remainder coming from all the other Bordeaux varieties in varying proportions. It comes from about six vineyard plots, in various parts of Napa Valley. Vintage 2003 was the last year in which any grapes came from growers: today the wine is entirely an estate production. The wine is not easy to judge when young, given the powerful fruits, which take ten years or more, depending on vintage, to resolve enough to allow complexity to show. A recent tasting featured vintages from 2008 to 1997.

There were some especially interesting comparisons between pairs of successive vintages. The 1997 was Bordelais in style, just turning from fruity to savory, whereas the 99 was more New World, driven by the plump up front fruits. The 2001 was restrained, still showing a touch of New World aromatics, but mingling with savory elements, whereas the 2002 was all upfront California fruits. The 2001 was the far more interesting wine, showing some subtlety and complexity, and it’s an interesting comment on different palates that it was the 2002 the Wine Spectator picked out as its wine of the year: forceful and aromatic, interesting to taste, but less sophisticated and less of a food wine than the 2001. There’s no accounting for taste (well, there is, but that’s another story). (The Wine Advocate gave 99 points to the 2001 and have 95 points to the 2002, which is enthusiastic, but places the wines in a more appropriate order.) There was a comparable difference between the most recent vintages, with 2007 showing restraint, and 2008 showing more overt power.

I am inclined to divide the Insignias into two series. There’s a lineage from 1997 to 2001 to 2007 which seems more European in its balance and restraint; there’s an alternative lineage from 1999 to 2002 to 2008 which shows more overt fruit and aromatics in the New World style. As Insignia is a blend with varietal composition changing each year to maintain house style, I wondered whether these series might relate to the proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, but not at all. Cabernet Sauvignon varied from 77% to 89% in these vintages; as a general trend, I found  I preferred the wines where the percentage was higher, but not in every case. There’s been a trend in the past decade to increase the proportion of Petit Verdot, which you might expect to bring more evident aromatics to the blend, but I can’t honestly say I could see a direct influence here either.  I am happy to conclude that the differences reflect vintage character, which is exactly as it should be.

Wines were tasted November 2011 except where otherwise noted.

Phelps Insignia


A relatively stern nose for California, faintly nutty, and generally restrained. On the palate the fruits are more powerful and the aromatics more evident than 2007, with some noticeable vanillin. This is a little too powerful to enjoy right now, but should calm down over the next couple of years.  92 Drink 2014-2023


Warm nose shows cereal notes of semolina. Full fruits of youth on the palate, but aromatics are pleasingly restrained. Blackcurrants and black plums show on the palate, with nicely restrained tannins. This shows better balance that the 2008, where the aromatics are still more evidently powerful. Good balance of fruits, acidity, tannins, promises interesting future development.  93 Drink 2013-2020


Restrained black fruit nose with some influence of butter and vanillin. Smooth full black fruits on palate, some vanillin on the finish showing retronasally. Powerful wine in the Napa cult tradition.  (January 2011) 91 Drink-2020.


Black to purple color, no development apparent. Deep black fruit aromatics dominate nose and palate, with blackcurrants and plums to the fore. Very primary and intense on the palate, but aromatics are not oppressive. Tannic support is evident with a touch bitterness on finish, which is a fraction hot.  91 Drink-2019


Still a dark ruby color, with some purple hues. Lots of primary fruits remain on the nose, with aromatics of black plums and hints of blackcurrants. It’s all upfront California. Forceful primary fruits of blackcurrants supported by vanillin dominate the youthful palate. The vanillin carries  right through to the finish. Tannic structure should support this for years to come, but at present it’s really still too powerful to enjoy except in small tastes.  90 Drink-2022


Dark ruby color still with purple hues. Black primary fruits on the nose are cut by a herbal touch of tarragon. The palate shows less complexity than might be expected from the variety of aromas on the nose. Fruity aromatics come out on the palate, but better balanced than in the rather simple style of the 2000. Overall the impression is that this wine is still too young for its full measure to be taken, but the savory notes intensify slowly on the palate, suggesting that it will mature to an interesting complexity along the lines of 1997.  92 Drink-2021


Deep color just beginning to lighten to show some garnet. It’s more restrained on the nose than the vintages immediately before or after it, but with hints of savory development cutting the fruits. Some vanillin shows and the wine seems about ready to start development. At the moment the fruit and aromatic notes seem a bit obvious; slowly more herbal and savory notes should begin to take over. This was a lighter year in California, and some tasters felt that the wine was too soft to show Cabernet typicity.  90 Drink-2018


Dark color with some garnet hues. The nose is driven by black fruit aromatics although there are hints of savory notes beginning to develop. Dense black fruits on the palate are accompanied by strong aromatics and a touch of  vanillin. This is a fruit-driven palate in the New World style. It’s impressive that the fruits are still primary, but with acidity just a touch on the low side, it’s not evident that the wine will develop as well as the 1997 before it.  88 Drink-2019


Dark color with garnet hues, showing just a touch more development in its appearance than the 99. A faint touch of gunflint on the nose leads into a palate that is more savory than fruit-driven. The overall impression is that the wine is at that delicious point where it is just beginning to turn from fruity to savory. Tannic support is in the background. The general style is Bordelais, although there is just a touch of vanillin on the finish.  92 drink-2021


Cults and Icons: Cabernet versus Merlot

I’ve just started the research for a book on Cabernet Sauvignon, which I’m calling Claret & Cabs to emphasize the comparison between the classic style of Bordeaux and the New World style. A large part of the book will focus on Bordeaux and Napa Valley, but I plan to try to identify interesting Cabernet Sauvignons made elsewhere, especially from regions that aren’t well known. I suspect that this will be a more difficult task than it was for Pinot Noir in my last book, and I wonder whether that is because Cabernet is less of a terroir grape than Pinot, so style is more determined by the winemaker, giving power to the big battalions rather than to small producers exploiting unusual terroir niches. Anyway, that’s a topic for a future blog.

Another difference between Pinot and Cabernet is that cult wines are much less a feature of the world of Pinot. Are cult wines concentrated on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah, rather than Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese because the first group can give heavily extracted, powerfully intense wines, whereas the second group is more about delicacy? (Is this a metaphor for the state of the modern world?)

Claret & Cabs will conclude with a chapter on Cults and Icons, and I’ve spent the last few days trying to decide what makes a wine qualify. The First Growths of Bordeaux clearly have iconic status, in fact they’ve had it ever since, indeed before, the 1855 classification. One question I will ask is whether that has always been justified. The other question is which other chateaux should be included – the super-seconds perhaps? One noticeable feature of the list, however it exactly comes out, is likely to be that it consists exclusively of major chateaux.

This is a big contrast with the situation in Napa Valley, where the majority of cult wines are based on the managed scarcity of tiny production runs. It’s not quite so easy to define the cult wines here. In Bordeaux, you can pretty much rely on the relative pricing, which has a structure firmed up by the last couple of centuries of distribution through the restrictive practices of the Place de Bordeaux (essentially the local market of negociants).  Consistent pricing is not so readily available for Napa Valley, but whether you define cult wines by taking a slice at the top price tier, say over $250 per bottle, or in terms of Parker points, a feature in either case is that production is often under 1000 cases, sometimes only 300-500 cases. (The correlation between pricing and critics’ scores, for which I take the Wine Advocate as definitive, is more distant for Bordeaux than it is for Napa, presumably because the 1855 classification and other historical factors have a greater influence, and indeed I shall look at this in a future blog.)

In any case, the fairest comparison for the cult wines of Napa Valley might be more with the limited production garage wines of the right bank of Bordeaux than with the great chateaux of the left bank. But the garage wines are virtually all Merlot, either monovarietal or heavily dominated by it. (Is the lack of garage wines on the left bank due to the fact that the chateaux there are so successful already they feel no need for them?) Since the book is specifically on Cabernet Sauvignon, however, I’m going to have to compare the top wines of the left bank with top wines of Napa. Should I use simple criteria of price or critical scores or should I filter the results by demanding a certain scale of production? At the height of the craze for garage wines, a producer on the right bank who was not participating, said to me, “it’s easy enough to produce high quality wine on a miniscule scale by using all the tricks of viticulture and vinification, but the real issue is to get quality wine when you have tens of hectares to cultivate.” I’m still struggling with the issue of whether wines that are only available on limited mailing lists, indeed where you can see the inheritance of a place on the list being fought over, should be regarded in the same light as wines in general distribution that anyone can buy. Some time in the next few months I have to decide on my criteria for including wines in the final chapter: all suggestions welcome.