Focus on California's North Coast

Although the 2008, 2009 and 2010 vintages on California's North Coast posed challenges for grape-growers and winemakers alike, they have provided a welcome respite for consumers who have tired of California wines with the aromas of grapes roasted by the sun.  Whether this is mainly due to the weather or reflects a philosophical change on the part of producers remains to be seen.

An early look at the 2009 vintage.  A sizable percentage of wines featured in this year's massive report are from the 2009 vintage, a year that featured significant precipitation in early May followed by a return to the drought conditions that had characterized the 2008 and 2007 growing seasons as well.  The summer was cooler than average, and for the most part avoided the heat spikes that characterized 2008.  But a period of heavy rain beginning on the night of October 12 then complicated the harvest for late-picked varieties like cabernet sauvignon.

It's hard to find fault with the 2009 growing season on the Sonoma side, especially for pinot noir and chardonnay from vineyards close to the coast.  Grape sugars rose slowly without acid levels plunging.  Warm days with seasonably cool nights through most of September helped to finish the ripening process for chardonnay and pinot, and growers could pretty much pick when they wanted to.  By all accounts, the 2009s combine richness and depth of flavor and above-average acidity, which should give them plenty of lipsmacking early appeal and at least mid-term ageworthiness.  For fans of Burgundy varieties in California, 2009 looks to be a superb year for the North Coast.

Early ripening varieties did well on the Napa side, but conditions for cabernet were trickier.  Where crop levels were reasonable and the ripening process had been steady, high-quality cabernet was harvested during the last week of September and, more often, in early October.  Growers who had good ripeness with sound acidity on the early side are very high on the 2009 vintage.  But the deluge that dropped 4 to 6 inches of rain across the region on October 13, with a bit more rain following on the next two days, clearly changed the nature of the grapes after that.  Some producers admitted to getting dilution in their late-hanging merlot, and rot was a problem in some sites.  Most growers who could not harvest before the heavy rains picked quickly after the 15th.  Others, though, waited ten days to two weeks and claimed that they finished harvesting under good conditions, and that the fruit was still healthy.  But a number of producers told me that they declassified or sold off most of the fruit brought in after the 15th.

It should be noted that the heavy rains had been widely forecasted up to a week in advance, and many vineyard owners rushed to bring in their fruit, even when it had not yet reached ideal ripeness.  But the good news about 2009 for late-picked red varieties is that the best farmers brought in phenolically ripe fruit with lower-than-average potential alcohol levels.  (The same thing happened in the even cooler 2010 season, except that this year the damaging rainy period in October began ten days later.  This season also suffered from a few heat spikes in late August, early September and late September, the first of which was potentially disastrous for growers who had just pulled leaves to get more sun on their grapes.)

In Napa Valley, the early May rains often led to larger berries and great vine vigor, but dry summer conditions helped to ameliorate those factors.  Still, many vineyards on the valley floor, and a few at high altitude as well, had problems ripening their fruit before the heavy October rains.  In general, hillside vineyards at moderate altitudes seem to have been favored by the coolish summer and the timing of the October rains.  My early look at many cabernet-based wines from this vintage suggests that there will be many fruit-driven, pure wines of high quality, with mostly healthy acidity and pH levels.  While some winemakers described their young 2009s as opulent or even voluptuous in March, other wines did not yet have quite the mid-palate stuffing to fully support their tannins.

The 2008s in bottle.  If 2009 was a mostly moderate year until the October rains, the "fire-and-ice" growing season of 2008 was much more extreme.  The wildly erratic growing season featuring epic April frosts, out-of-control brush fires in Mendocino County, a number of heat spikes, the most difficult of which was an extended one in late August and early September, and a cool spell during the middle two weeks of September followed by a return to good ripening weather that lasted through most of October.  But you would never know it from the better Napa Valley cabs.  From barrel a year ago, the best 2008s showed enticing floral notes:  some 100%-cabernet sauvignon wines smelled like they were blended with some cabernet franc, especially in cooler spots such as Coombsville.  Fruit at high elevations enjoyed very long hang time, and due to the spring frosts there was often much less fruit to ripen in the first place.

Many of the finished wines lead with their fruit and floral character; their tannins ripened nicely in September but cool weather kept sugars from skyrocketing and largely enabled these wines to avoid showing dehydration notes.  The small crop loads and loose clusters facilitated complete phenolic ripeness.  Most wines will be approachable on the early side, but the best have the balance and concentration for at least mid-term aging.  I should note that a minority of the Napa Valley winemakers I tasted with in March were convinced that their 2009s are fruitier than their 2008s, which they describe as more soil-driven wines.

On the Sonoma side, some 2008 pinots were adversely affected by the heat spell of early September, as the highly concentrated fruit by then was nearly ready to pick; many of the better wines will need some aging to unwind.  And of course, vineyards affected by smoke taint were another problem.  Many winemakers tried various filtration and reverse osmosis techniques in hopes of mitigating the effects of smoke, but these systems were largely unsuccessful.  Besides stripping the wines of aromas and texture, they might not have done much of a job against the smoke taint, as many winemakers now say that the characteristic is returning to the wines. Happily, most of the most conscientious producers sold off, or declassified, the vast majority of wine that they felt was affected by smoke.

This issue's coverage of California also includes a number of 2007 cabernet-based wines from Napa Valley.  This is a superb and very ripe vintage, but many of the 2007 cabernets seem rather shut down today and dominated by their serious tannic structures.  Today, the 2008s often outshine the 2008s in terms of their showy fruit and inner-mouth floral character and energy.  The best 2007s will probably need at least several more years in the cellar before they begin to express themselves.

As in recent years, I shared this spring's coverage of the North Coast with Josh Raynolds.  He visited producers based in Sonoma County while I handled the Napa side in early March, and we each tasted many more wines back home after our North Coast tours, mostly following the same geographic approach.  Josh has also included coverage of a handful of producers based in Santa Cruz, rather than wait until the fall to review wines that are mostly in the market already or due out shortly.  It is entirely possible that we will add some more producers to this article as late samples arrive and we have the chance to assess them.