BY ANTONIO GALLONI | AUGUST 03, 2023
After a very challenging 2020, Sonoma bounces back big time
with a fabulous vintage in 2021. Bold Pinots, savory Syrahs, vibrant
Chardonnays and nuanced Zinfandels are all part of the mix. Two thousand
twenty-one is the best Sonoma vintage since 2018. While that may not be saying
all that much in terms of the time elapsed, the 2021s are both very high in
quality and consistent across the board. It’s a vintage full of stunning,
Covering the wines in a manner that
is both comprehensive and timely is next to impossible, something that is
further complicated by release schedules that vary widely from winery to
winery. For these reasons, we have published reviews over the last few months. This
report focuses mostly on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and red field blends,
with a few similar wines from neighboring appellations included. I will take a
closer look at Bordeaux-based wines later this year.
Winemaker/Co-owner Andy Smith and Associate Winemaker
Jenna Davis presented a breathtaking range of 2021s at DuMOL.
The 2021 Growing Season & Wines
Most growers I met with described 2021 as a year with moderate
weather and no real shock events, quite a change from 2020, which was
essentially all shock events. Warm weather in the early part of the year
resulted in an early start to the growing season. Summer was quite cool. Some
vineyards experienced poor weather during bloom. Drought conditions persisted
throughout the year, but the absence of prolonged heat spikes or other traumatic episodes resulted in gradual, evening ripening and harvest that was on the later side
by today’s standards.
Interestingly, yields were highly variable. Pinot and
Chardonnay producers reported yields that were more or less in line with recent
historical norms. These include Littorai, Rivers-Marie, Failla, Aubert and
Kistler. It’s a different story altogether with Zinfandel and Zinfandel-based
field blends, where producers such as Bedrock and Turley reported losses on the
order of 30%, a similar theme to yields in Napa Valley.
The wines are fabulous. Although Pinot Noir yields were not
heavily impacted, the 2021s are generally potent, brooding wines with dark
fruit profiles and tons of textural depth. Some wines are surprisingly intense.
Producers who work with whole clusters often used a high percentage of stems, a
radical departure from 2020, when most backed off or eliminated stems entirely because
of a fear of smoke taint. Even so, balance in the young 2021 Pinots is superb.
Syrah remains somewhat of a mystery. Wine people absolutely
adore Syrah, and yet the wines are a very hard sell in the market. That’s a
shame. Some of the very best 2021 reds I have tasted so far are Syrahs, such as
the Que Syrah from Arnot-Roberts and the Sonoma-Hillsides from Pax. Zinfandel,
Petite Sirah and red field blends also fared exceptionally well, as readers
will see in perusing notes for producers who focus on these wines.
Not to be outdone, the 2021 Chardonnays are absolutely
brilliant. I was able to follow numerous wines over the course of several days in
my office and saw many show their best only with 12 hours or more of air.
Readers opening the 2021 Chardonnays young will want to give the wines as much
air as possible. It’s unquestionably a special vintage for Chardonnay.
The Vinous Map of the West Sonoma Coast AVA by Antonio
Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © 2023 Vinous.
West Sonoma Coast AVA….Finally
For many years, every time I visited the West Sonoma Coast,
producers told me a new AVA was imminent, but nothing ever materialized until
last year, when the new AVA was finally approved. Two thousand-twenty-one is
the first vintage where the new AVA appears on labels.
We had been working on a map of the AVA for quite some time
and were very happy to be able to start sharing the first results of what is an
intense study of the region and its vineyard sites. Our map of the West Sonoma
Coast AVA, available digitally, encompasses the entire appellation. There are
no vineyards on the AVA map because each site would essentially be the size of
a pinhead on this map. The sheer expanse of land and relatively small number of
vineyards vis-à-vis other appellations is hard to comprehend. Consider that the
West Sonoma Coast AVA measures
51 miles in length compared to 30 miles for Napa Valley yet encompasses just over
1,000 acres of vineyard land compared to about 45,000 for Napa Valley and
63,000 for all of Sonoma County. Stated a bit differently, a map showing
vineyards on a similar scale to our other maps would require an entire wall for
display. Our map also includes portions of the Green Valley AVA and Sebastopol
Hills, areas west of Highway 116 that have historically been considered part of
what locals call “west county” from a cultural perspective. Although no one has
explicitly said this to me, my distinct impression is that many producers would
have liked these areas to be included in the AVA, but were not able to achieve
this because of a series of political and bureaucratic obstacles that were too
daunting to overcome.
The West Sonoma Coast AVA Map is the first in a series of
maps that will cover the entire region in smaller sections. Our next map is
Fort Ross-Seaview, the only AVA at present that is nested within the West
Sonoma Coast AVA. That map is now going through our production process. Notable
wineries here include Hirsch, Martinelli, Peter Michael, Failla, Wayfarer,
Flowers, Marcassin, Boar’s View, and other vineyards that sell fruit, including
Hellenthal and Elliott.
After that, we will focus on the northern reaches of the
West Sonoma Coast in our Annapolis District map. This part of the AVA is home
to Paul Hobbs’ Goldrock, Peay and Three Sticks’ Walala Vineyard. Last will be
Freestone-Occidental, which may ultimately take the shape of one or two maps.
This part of the West Sonoma Coast boasts a stunning array of estates and
vineyards, including Occidental, Platt, Joseph Phelps, Cobb – Coastlands,
Seascape, Rivers-Marie’s Summa, Thieriot and Que Syrah.
I think it is fair to say we are collectively in the very early days of
understanding the West Sonoma Coast as an AVA. Although proximity to the ocean
implies a cool climate and rugged growing conditions, sites at elevation can
actually be quite warm, while farming and winemaking choices result in a wide
range of styles.
John Raytek, seen here at the Ceritas cellar in Healdsburg,
was among the producers who excelled in 2020 and 2021.
Final Thoughts on 2020
I would be remiss if I did not include some thoughts on
2020, a vintage I think it is safe to say everyone is happy to have in the
rear-view mirror. Although 2020 is mostly remembered for brutal fires and the
enormous destruction they brought, in terms of the wines the story is more
complicated. Even before fires broke out in mid-August, 2020 was extremely
warm, dry and trending towards a record early harvest. These facts are
unequivocally true. When fires began to spread, most producers had to make very
tough and fast choices about what could be salvaged and what would almost
certainly be lost. A few select spots made it through this part of the year
unscathed. The vast majority of wines that were made were from fruit that was
picked as early as possible, in some cases far ahead of schedule. In the
cellar, quality minded producers discarded lots they felt had been compromised.
Some winemakers took the dramatic decision to not bottle some or all of their
The biggest problem with the 2020s is not smoke taint – most
producers learned their lessons from 2008 – but from the lack of sunlight at
the end of ripening. Reviews and scores must necessarily reflect the quality of
the 2020s vis-à-vis the 2021s. Lower scores for the 2020s aren’t a commentary on
shoddy farming, poor winemaking or a lack of diligence, but simply a reflection
of a year in which Mother Nature did not provide the requisites for making extraordinary
Thankfully, 2020 belongs to the past. Readers will have a
great deal of fun focusing on the brilliant 2021s from Sonoma.
© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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