Focus on California's Central Coast

The 2011 and 2010 vintages, with their overall cool nature, forced even the most diehard Central Coast producers of shock-and-awe wines to adjust their expectations and practices, with the happy result (to me, at least) that a large number of lively, pure wines were made up and down this vast region.  That's a virtual replay of my experience with these two vintages up in the North Coast, which experienced similar weather challenges but produced many graceful, worthy and even fantastic wines. 

While the overall trend throughout the Central Coast has been toward making wines with greater restraint and vivacity than those of years past, in '11 and 10 winemakers didn't really have much choice.  Two thousand ten was the coldest vintage ever here, growers and winemakers point out, until the next one came along.  Greg Brewer described 2011 as "the year that only had three seasons: spring, fall and winter," adding that even the old-timers (a group that he thinks includes him at this point) were getting stressed out and worrying whether their fruit would ever actually ripen.  If ever there was an example, or two examples, of nature holding the winemaking cards, these two vintages were prime cases.

Two thousand eleven in the Santa Rita Hills, said Rick Longoria, witnessed "the lowest yield since 2003, with low sugar levels--around 23.5 degrees Brix, on average, for us--and very good acidity."  Added Chad Melville, "so there's the flavor concentration that you get  from low yields with the brightness that comes from low sugars and high natural acidity."  Melville believes that the red wines "are very approachable now but the best ones are going to age and improve," and he pointed to how well wines from cool vintages have turned out over the years from regions all over the world.  They're not going to win any tractor pull competitions but is that what most buyers of Santa Barbara wine are after in the first place?

Up in Paso Robles, the early spring frosts of 2011 caused massive damage to the thin-skinned grenache, in particular, with Stephan Asseo of L'Aventure reporting a 60% loss of crop--and "about 50% down overall because there was also shatter in the cabernet and mourvedre."  The cool season meant that a large amount of the normally superripe syrah came in at or near 14% potential alcohol, which is up to three degrees lower than has occurred in many recent vintages, 2010 being a notable exception.  Eric Jensen of Booker Vineyard thinks that the 2011s could actually turn out to be long, slow agers thanks to their high natural acidity.  "There was also really good long hang time for the fruit and we got full phenolic maturity so it's a mistake to write the wines off based on numbers."

As for the earlier vintage, 2010 was "a wet year, with over 32 inches of rain and cold and grey all summer," said Guillaume Fabre of Clos Solene and L'Aventure.  That pushed the harvest out to a month later than normal, which had the advantage of making for slow ripening and subsequent complexity in the ultimate wines.  Yields in 2010 were actually above average in the region because of the heavy rain but it must be noted that the best hillside sites here simply aren't capable of throwing large crops under any circumstances.

Luckily for growers throughout the Central Coast, 2012 looks to be a fantastic vintage for all varieties in all regions, and yields were high to boot.  "Everything went pretty much straight by the book," reported Joey Tensley, speaking about Santa Barbara County in particular, "with steady warmth, no heat spikes, well-timed rain, and the chance to harvest ripe fruit slowly, as late as November."  It was a "return to normal" up north as well, Stephan Asseo said, adding that "nature didn't apply pressure to us at all, so we could do our jobs without worrying as much as in '11 and '10, when we were always looking at the sky and the thermometer."