Focus on California's North Coast

If you're an inveterate Europhile who still resists the idea that California's North Coast can produce serious quantities of complex, delineated wines with energy and balance, recent vintages provide ample evidence that this is indeed the case.  The last three growing seasons were cool to cold by California standards, and at the level of the better producers--a rapidly growing list--there were more aromatic, fresh, phenolically ripe wines without raisining of the fruit made in 2009 and 2010 than in the earlier years of this decade.  (Two thousand eleven yielded wines with even lower alcohol.)  As Josh Raynolds and I originally came to California wine via Europe, you can only imagine our relief.

The 2010 growing season on the North Coast, especially on the Sonoma side, was one of the trickiest in recent memory, although many growers say that 2011 was even more challenging.  Bud break in 2010 occurred in late March and early April following a wet winter and the flowering was slowed down by cold, rainy weather, which resulted in uneven berry size within clusters (millerandage in French, or "hens and chicks" in American wine vernacular).  Many producers claim to like this condition as it naturally reduces yields and also increases the skin-to-juice ratio in the "shot berries."

Very cool weather (with foggy periods close to the coast) persisted through the spring and into the summer, and nights were consistently cool.  The high moisture content in the soils meant that there was the danger of rot damage to vines that weren't exposed to wind, especially those that were carrying dense canopies.  Through mid-summer, many growers pulled leaves to aerate their vines and get more sun on their grapes, which were far behind their normal ripening schedule due to the cool season.  But this step proved to be a disaster when a severe three-day heat spike (up to 115 degrees in some areas) hit on August 23rd.  "Some people stripped off the leaves too early and then their grapes fried," said Chateau Montelena's assistant winemaker Matthew Crafton.  "Like Norwegians at the beach."  Merlot and zinfandel were particularly hard-hit, and many chardonnay and cabernet franc vineyards were also affected.

Growers then had roughly three weeks to comb through their vineyards under cool conditions, removing any sunburned grapes, before beginning harvest in mid- to late-September.  Some producers of zinfandel simply chose not to make wine at all, while others, like Williams-Selyem and Carlisle, made a single wine or just a handful of bottlings, by blending the best surviving fruit.

And what didn't kill the grapes often made them stronger.  Many producers whose fruit was not seriously hurt by the heat spike noted that the extra heat was crucial to helping their fruit ripen, and in any event they were able to eliminate damaged grapes long before it was time to harvest.  On the Napa side, many outstanding cabernets were made in 2010.  These wines often combine fresh aromas, good mid-palate energy and solid tannic structure for aging.  The denser 2010s are beauties, especially because they mostly avoid the roasted character of wines from hotter summers.  But wines that don't have enough mid-palate stuffing can come off as a bit lean and tannic today and may have only moderate aging potential.

If there was ever a vintage to make the argument for the importance of site, grower and winemaker, 2010 is it.  In Sonoma County, vineyards that enjoy constant coastal breezes were better equipped to handle rot pressures than were those that sit in protected areas, where fog is slow to move out.  Growers who kept their crews in the vines constantly (this was a vintage where having one's own full-time vineyard staff was a huge advantage) were able to cull rotten or unripe fruit throughout the season and up until and even through harvest.  Perhaps most important of all, growers who had the ability and wherewithal to carefully eliminate substandard fruit as it came off the vine or into the winery were able to make much better wines.

In 2010 as in 2009, many high-altitude sites had to let their fruit hang late in order to get it ripe, and they were at greater risk of being affected by the October rainfall both years (the big deluge came a bit later in 2010, on October 24 and 25, vs. October 12 and 13 in 2009).  So making excellent wines often required very strict sorting of the grapes, and declassifying or selling off lesser raw materials.  On the other hand, the heat spikes in 2010 were less extreme at high altitude, and windy conditions often provided protection against rot during the growing season.

The 2009 cabernets in bottle.  Last year we presented in-depth coverage of finished white wines from 2009, as well as pinots, zins and syrahs.  This is a consistently excellent vintage that produced many rich, seamless, beautifully balanced wines with considerable early appeal owing to their velvety textures.  The cabernets in bottle are similarly gorgeous.  Rarely too tough to enjoy today, they appear to have the stuffing and balance for graceful evolution in bottle.  Of course, some cabernet was still hanging when a deluge struck in mid-October, and this fruit is generally of much lower quality.  As in 2010, some mountain sites were still waiting for full ripeness when the October rains arrived, and rain totals at altitude were especially high.  Oddly enough, several Napa Valley producers I visited in March were a bit blasé about their lovely 2009 cabernets, perhaps because these wines are so harmonious and seamless that no single element is standing out today.  But this is clearly a vintage to seek out.

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 producers based in Sonoma County while I handled the Napa side) and followed up by tasting hundreds more wines back home.