Annual Coverage of California's North Coast

It's a little disconcerting to be salivating over new releases from California while the winemaker sitting across the table is practically apologizing for how difficult it was to get the fruit ripe.  But I have to say that despite the misgivings of some producers, during my March tour of some of Napa Valley's top producers and in extensive subsequent tastings of additional wines in New York, I found a rare aromatic freshness and clearer-than-normal terroir character in many of the wines I tasted, often at relatively moderate octane levels (and especially low in 2011).  The three consecutive cool, late harvests of 2011, 2010 and 2009 all produced many successful wines, even though all three vintages brought their own challenges--including significant October rainfall.

And while we're on the subject of well-delineated wines with vigor, here's hoping that the next hot year for the North Coast won't bring a return to the dried-berry chocolate bombs of years past.  We will learn a lot from the 2012s, which were made from a more classic California growing season with plenty of warm weather.  It's possible that even long-time fans of outsized California wines will come to appreciate--and demand--the comparative restraint and energy shown by so many 2011s and 2010s.  Or perhaps it will be the producers who lead the way to better-balanced wines at more manageable alcohol levels.

As in recent years, I shared this spring's coverage of the North Coast with Josh Raynolds.  We each tasted with many producers in March (Josh visited wineries based in Sonoma County while I handled the Napa side) and we both followed up by tasting hundreds more wines back home.  Producers whose wines Josh reviewed are indicated with a (JR) following the last note under each producer.  Note that there are a number of exceptions to this general rule, as some winemakers who make wine in Sonoma County and points north are based in Napa Valley, and vice-versa.  Then too, producers do not always send their samples to the appropriate reviewer.  (You may also find a few wineries included in this issue which are not located on the North Coast.)

The conditions in 2011.  The consistently cool 2011 growing season ("the summer that basically never was," as Bob Cabral of Williams-Selyem described it), which featured a tricky flowering and rainy spells arriving in October before the fruit was ripe in many sites, was by all accounts a challenging year that produced widely varying quality.  But the better wines of the vintage are sufficiently vibrant and aromatically expressive to capture the interest of even the most incurable Europhiles.  Only the normally early-ripening varieties were likely to have come in before the rains commenced, and indeed many growers on both the Napa and Sonoma sides consider 2011 to be a terrific vintage for white grapes harvested before the rains.

Two thousand eleven began with a wet, late and cool spring.  Rainfall was especially heavy in February and March but there was also significant precipitation in May and a rare heavy rainfall during very cool weather on June 3 and 4, the latter the day of the Napa Valley Vintners' Auction, which is held on the lawn of Meadowood Resort in St. Helena and had not previously been affected by rain in its 31-year history.  This rain seriously affected fruit that was flowering then, cutting yields drastically for some later-ripening high-altitude sites and cabernet sauvignon in particular, and resulting in a spotty set in many other vineyards, with many seedless "shot" berries.  There was another rainy spell in late June.  By that point, vine development was literally weeks behind normal and the seeds for rot and mildew had been planted.  

Cool and frequently foggy weather during July and August exacerbated mildew pressures, especially in parts of Sonoma County, and many growers dropped affected crop via passes through the vines.  There were none of the heat spikes that had occurred in late summer of 2010.  September then turned warmer and remained dry, making for a very good ripening period.  But then substantial rain fell between October 3 and 6:  some areas reported as little as an inch, but I also heard totals as high as five or six inches.  Many growers picked adequately ripe fruit prior to this rainy spell but others jumped the gun--and the late-ripening varieties were not yet ready.  Further rain fell on the 10th and was followed by mild and often foggy conditions that resulted in quickly spreading botrytis.  The second half of the month then brought favorable harvesting conditions, but temperatures fell sharply at the beginning of November and more rain arrived on November 3.

Of course, the lower crop levels in 2011 helped the remaining fruit ripen and gain in concentration.  This was a year that required strict sorting in the vines and on sorting tables in the wineries.  Growers who waited for good ripeness, especially in pinot noir and chardonnay, needed to brutally eliminate rot-affected fruit, while those who picked too early because of the weather often brought in underripe fruit.  Many growers who told me they did not chaptalize expressed the opinion that a lot of their colleagues did, as potential alcohol levels in the grapes were often very low.

It was also a year that widely brought good phenolic ripeness at unusually low grape sugars, and here is the main similarity to wines from more temperate climates.  But there was a fine line between just enough and not enough ripeness:  some wines, especially from the Burgundy varieties, can be spine-tingling in their high-pitched aromas, vibrant acidity and taut middle palates, while those that did not reach adequate ripeness come off as lean or tart, and ultimately unsatisfying.  These latter wines are unlikely ever to blossom in the bottle.  Although well-drained mountain sites above the fog line may have been less affected by rot in October, it was still a challenge to ripen the fruit because the beginning of November brought more rain and sharply colder temperatures.  It's also worth noting that while some growers were forced to pick before their fruit had reached good ripeness, others thought they were picking too early, at insufficient grape sugars, but may have made better-balanced wines as a result.

Making the 2011s.  Because winemakers were generally less confident than usual about the health of the grape skins and did not expect that the 2011s would have powerful structures, they were careful with extraction during vinification.  Many reported cutting back on their normal length of cuvaison, reducing fermentation temperatures or minimizing pre-fermentation cold soaks or post-fermentation maceration.  Consulting enologist Philippe Melka told me he did gentle winemaking as he thought the grapes in 2011 were sensitive to oxidation.  "It's a very French vintage," he explained.

A number of growers felt that grapes that were able to hang for a long time due to low sugar levels when the rains arrived were able to shed their greenness on the vines but at the expense of some of their tannins.  So edgy tannins in the 2011 reds may be attributable to several different factors, including incomplete phenolic ripeness, a lack of sufficient buffering mid-palate material, or green elements or underripe acidity that clash with the tannins.
A number of winemakers told me they added tannins to their 2011s, not necessarily because they felt the wines lacked structure but because the tannins could help to eliminate the highly oxidative enzyme laccase, which is formed by mold on grapes.  Tannins react with proteins (enzymes are proteins) and thus these winemakers felt they could precipitate the laccase out of their wines.

Many winemakers I spoke to in March were still considering back-blending some 2012 wine into their 2011s in an attempt to sweeten and fill in the middle palates of the leaner vintage (up to 5% is permissible for bottlings that use specific AVAs and up to 15% for so-called county wines).  On the face of it, this would appear to be a sensible strategy--commercially as well, since production in 2012 was healthy following two short years.  But it's worth noting that the winemakers who admitted to having done trials already were not particularly happy with the way the two vintages were combining, so it remains to be seen how many will actually use this technique.  And since a number of winemakers reported that the 2011s were putting on weight in barrel, perhaps they will feel that the wines can perfectly well stand on their own.

On the Sonoma side, it was a challenge to wait for ripe fruit and growers were obliged to eliminate rotten grapes--or simply to harvest earlier in an attempt to limit the spread of rot.  Although there are plenty of pinots and chardonnays that lack stuffing, the best wines from 2011 offer captivating high-pitched aromatics, bright acidity and taut middle palates.  According to Michael Browne of Kosta-Browne, "2011 was a good year for chardonnay if you want to make a tighter style. The guys who make a Burgundian chardonnay got healthy fruit because their grapes were in pretty well before the rain came and did its damage. If you're after the buttered popcorn type of chardonnay it wasn't good at all."  Ehren Jordan of Failla described the best 2011 chardonnays as "electric."
According to Ryan Zepaltas, who makes mostly cool-zone pinot noirs at Siduri as well as under his own label, 2011 and 2010 were classic "be-careful-what-you-wish-for vintages.  We want long, cool seasons so that we can make elegant wines but what that means is working at the edge of ripeness, and that can be pretty scary.  Now we know how people in Burgundy and the northern Rhone must feel all the time."  According to Andy Peay, "Anybody who still had fruit hanging when the October 10 storm came had to deal with serious rot pressure because it happened during the Indian summer, so low yields got even lower."

The 2010s in bottle.  This is an outstanding vintage across the board on the North Coast, despite a few major climatic hiccups along the way.  As the season was late and the summer cool, many growers were tempted to pull leaves to expose their grapes to more sunlight.  Many did this just days before a brutal heat wave began on August 24.

The good news, according to most winemakers, is that the sunburned or desiccated berries either fell off the vines or were easy to eliminate at harvest-time, and surprisingly few wines I tasted show evidence of a heat spike.  Still, a good bit of merlot was compromised by the heat, and some producers reported significant losses in cabernet franc too.  (On the other hand, I tasted some very fresh and aromatic merlots from 2011, especially in the southern half of Napa Valley and wherever this variety came in largely before the early-October rains.)  Crop losses from heat were especially severe in parts of Dry Creek Valley.

Almost miraculously, in light of the severe late-August heat wave, 2010 produced a set of wines with lively natural acidity, high-pitched aromas and flavors, and pronounced site specificity.  Winemaker Mike Hirby (Relic Wines, D. R. Stephens) noted that 2011 brought "more delicate red fruits and minerals" while 2010 is characterized by "blackberry, black pepper and even a meaty quality."  Philippe Melka calls it "a great vintage for ripeness and structure, with black fruits and complex earth notes."

Heavy rains that began on October 23 often compromised fruit that was still hanging; this was clearly an issue for some mountain vineyards. Oddly, in light of all the ballyhoo for 2010, I would not describe this year as a classic California vintage:  it will be appreciated more by fans of European wines, as well as by a newer generation of wine drinkers who don't require their California wines to be huge and powerful.  Tannins are mostly fine-grained and ripe, and the firm spine of many wines depends as much on acidity as tannins.  Some wines show a positive herbal aspect (this element is generally more pronounced in the 2011s), so tasters who are allergic to even a whisper of greenness in their big reds may want to proceed carefully.  But I am a major fan of this vintage.