Focus on California's North Coast

Just when it seemed that our planet was hurtling inexorably toward the sun, and that the production of quality wine in California was in danger of becoming a memory, the North Coast enjoyed a break in the trend toward ever-hotter vintages in 2005, with a very moderate 2006 growing season right behind it. Following three consecutive hot years marked by severe heat spikes shortly before or during the harvest, 2005 was a mostly cool and drawn-out affair without any extreme heat, producing sappy, energetic wines with healthy natural alcohol and pH levels and considerable aromatic freshness and complexity. But it was not without its challenges. Due to a mostly large flowering, crop levels in many spots were heavy, and following a very cool August and a late veraison, many growers entered September with fruit that was nowhere near ripe. In the coolest sites and highest altitudes, even those with reasonable vine loads had to wait until well into the fall to pick adequately ripe fruit, and some wines are still quite cool in quality, if not green.

Think of 2005 as a more European style of vintage, where sugar levels climbed slowly and steadily, and grape skins had a chance to ripen before potential alcohol levels became extreme. Fans of European wines will find much to like in California in 2005, if only they would give these wines a chance. Many winemakers seemed happy to be able to pick at their leisure and to make less extreme wines. Alcohol levels, while generally sound, are typically down a full degree from the very high levels of the 2004 vintage, and sometimes more. More important than the actual octane levels of the wines is the fact that the better examples show real energy and flavor definition. I have stopped worrying too much about the actual alcohol numbers: if the wines have verve and precision, their alcohol content is less important (I think of it simply as a cost of doing business). Just don’t forget to bring a breathalyzer or a designated driver if you plan a night out with your peeps and more than a couple of California bottles.

The best 2005s show tightly coiled springs and fine-grained tannins. I had the impression as I tasted in Napa Valley that the finest 2005 cabernets have the potential to evolve very slowly and well in bottle, but they will take a while to reveal themselves. On the Sonoma side, the pinots, with their lower-than-usual pHs and alcohols, can be especially vivacious. Some examples from the Sonoma Coast are particularly concentrated and high in extract, as poor weather during the flowering sharply reduced the crop.

Many winemakers previously known for making chocolatey-rich, fat, alcoholic wines (whether cabernets, merlots, pinots or syrahs) have produced wines with atypical aromatic clarity and lift in 2005. In some cases this was simply the vintage talking; if they had been able to, they would have preferred to pick riper fruit. But let’s hope that some of these winemakers come to enjoy their 2005s for their succulence and sheer drinkability—and for their usefulness at the dinner table. Perhaps in the next hot growing season, they may take steps in the vineyard, as well as harvest-date decisions, aimed at getting thoroughly ripe, healthy ripe fruit that has not been allowed to cook on the vines.

The 2004s are fat, dense, fruit-driven wines, classically New World in style, but those picked during or just after an extended heat wave during the first half of the month can show a slightly roasted character or, more frequently, rather pronounced and often rustic tannins that occur when galloping sugar levels outpace real phenolic ripeness. So some wines show plenty of mid-palate richness but still finish tough or dry. These rather chunky wines may age well on sheer density, but I predict that the better 2005s will enjoy a more graceful evolution in bottle. Fruit that could hang through the heat spikes in September ’04 and were picked later in better conditions, on the other hand, can be outstanding and much better balanced. This vintage appears to be particularly strong for cabernets grown at altitude (Howell Mountain was a standout in my tastings), where late-summer heat spikes were somewhat less extreme and the harvest normally occurs later. The best of these wines can be hugely rich and satisfying. But when tasted next to the 2005s—whether cabernet in Napa Valley or pinot noir in Sonoma—they were often outclassed by the vibrancy and focus of the 2005s, and by the finer-grained tannins and fresher and more complex aromatic qualities of the newer vintage.

I shared this spring’s coverage of the North Coast with Josh Raynolds: he visited a number of properties in Sonoma County while I handled the Napa side in early March. We each tasted more wines back home after our North Coast tours. Wineries reviewed by Josh are denoted by a (JR) at the end of the last wine note.