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Matthiasson: Rise of the Phoenix

Matthiasson 2017 Napa Valley Phoenix Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon - Inaugural vintage!

We caught up with Steve Matthiasson back in January over the phone (thanks, Covid), after he’d been out in the vines with his team, gearing up for the late winter work of pruning and plotting out the growthways for the yet-to-be 2021 vintage. The crack-hiss of a fresh can of beer sounded over the line. “Most everything sucks about this pandemic, but I’m pretty stoked to find Reality Czech pilsner at the market now,” he said, and then without hesitation started to describe the unusual soil type at Phoenix vineyard.

The vineyard is positioned to the west and uphill from the Linda Vista site that Jill and Steve have managed for several years, and just below the Mayacamas mountain range. 

“Eons ago this site was a seafloor trench,” Steve says. He believes that today it mimics some of the characteristics of much higher elevation vineyards, like mineral and water stress, only it’s positioned much lower on an east-facing rise above the southern end of Napa Valley. At best, you could describe it as a foothills vineyard yet it drinks like mountain fruit. “This is shale that formed in place right here and was then lifted, and then Linda Vista vineyard below us is marine clay.”

Thanks to the relatively high magnesium levels in the soils at Phoenix, the site naturally leans into the higher acid, brisk style that Steve wants to see in some Napa cabernet. Call it a resurrection of classic energy: Phoenix yields red-fruited, structured, highly aromatic cabernet without a lot of the fleshy mid-palate more common throughout the valley. “It’s the nebbiolo of cab,” he says. If you’ve had the chance to enjoy Napa cabernet from the early 1980s, then the Phoenix is your jam. 

A small winery building came with the Phoenix site, so when Steve and Jill started the deep work in the vineyard in early 2017 - rehabbing and cutting back growth, replanting where needed, ripping out irrigation to establish dry-farming, redoing trellising, etc., all work that was done by hand - they also found themselves building out a new cellar. Matthiasson was all moved into the winery, and had already harvested the vineyard, when the devastating wildfires of October 2017 hit Napa and Sonoma. They dodged a bullet as far as smoke taint is concerned, but the history of 2017 is as much a part of the Phoenix terroir as anything else. 

It’s an idiosyncratic wine - Steve believes that they can’t really use the site as part of their Napa Valley Cabernet, which leans more towards the valley’s generous, textural side. “Phoenix is definitely a site-driven wine, I mean, the whole point of a single vineyard wine is to tell the story of a place. A vertical is really going to mean something,” he says. Nervy, lifted, beautifully aromatic and structured to age, this first Matthiasson vintage from Phoenix is a delight to sit with for a couple hours. Here’s to the future of a classic vineyard in the making.