The 2021 Napa Valley Cabernets, Part One


After the brutal 2020 vintage, Napa Valley fans will be thrilled to start exploring the 2021s. The 2021s are aromatic, refined and wonderfully expressive. I found many wines to be truly exceptional both in terms of quality and what seems to be a more finessed approach than in the past, something that is evident at many estates. Vintage 2022 presented more than its fair share of challenges, so 2021 is most certainly the vintage to focus on, at least for the time being.

A serene late afternoon view of Lake Hennessey from Chappellet.

The 2021 Growing Season

The story of a vintage is rarely the story of a single year. Often it is a story of the preceding years. That is very much the case with 2021. I have written it before many times, but it bears repeating. The vine does not automatically reset each January 1; rather, it has a long-term memory of what has taken place in the past, especially the recent past. One of the keys to understanding 2021 is that it follows 2020, a year of severe heat stress and then a whole range of issues related to fires, from lack of sunshine to, in the worst of cases, actual damage from fire. For the sake of convenience, I will reproduce a passage from my article Napa Valley: The Frantic 2020s & Stunning 2021s, published in February of this year below.

“The lack of sunshine in 2020 meant that the vines simply did not store the same amount of carbohydrates they usually do,” explained winemaker Nigel Kinsman. “This is especially true of cane-pruned vineyards, where there is less wood (and therefore less potential to store carbohydrates), as opposed to cordon-trained vines, where there is more wood,” he added. “In 2021, the vines responded to the accumulated stress of several years of drought by regulating themselves, with the most critical period being the late spring and early summer of the preceding year, when potential yields are set,” vineyard manager Mike Wolf elaborated. “We had shorter shoots and smaller canopies to work with. Because of that, we had to thin the crop to match crop loads with what the vines could ripen. A final blast of heat at the end caused further dehydration." Water, or lack thereof, was another issue. Irrigation can only help to a degree. Increasingly, though, water is scarce. In the most dramatic of cases, it was simply shut off by the county. 

“Overall, 2021 was a relatively cool year,” Cathy Corison commented. “Temperatures were moderate in August. We only had one week of high temperatures.” Other winemakers offer a slightly different perspective. “The 2021 growing season was consistently warm, but we had no real heat spikes to speak of," Tod Mostero told me at Dominus. Harvest was once again on the early side. Moderate temperatures throughout most of the summer led to long harvests at many estates. “Our harvest stretched out over a month,” Winemaker Allison Tauziet explained at Colgin. Low yields, small berries and high level of tannin meant the wines extracted easily. Many winemakers reported easing off on extractions to avoid overly tannic wines.

Cathy Corison among her dry-farmed, old vines at the Kronos Vineyard, St. Helena.

2021: A New Archetype for Napa Valley?

In tasting, the 2021s show tremendous energy and finesse. As noted last year, the wines share some attributes with other drought vintages, specifically 2013 and 2014. But there are some major differences, too. As it turns out, I tasted many 2013s this past fall in Napa Valley. I was curious to see how the wines were shaping up at age ten and also wanted to taste them because conditions were similar to those in 2021. What I learned was far more interesting than I had first imagined.

I have often commented that the pace of change today is far faster than it was a generation ago. These two vintages, 2021 and 2013, make that abundantly clear. For most of the last forty or so years, the archetype for what makes a great Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was a big, rich wine, regardless of whether vintages were cooler (such as 2001) on the warm side (like 2002) or somewhere in between. What stands out most about the 2021s, especially the best wines, is their finesse. Yes, that is a hard term to describe precisely, but it applies here. As I tasted the 2021s, I also checked in on dozens of 2013s for a forthcoming report. As noted above, the two years share some similarities. Tasting the 2013s today, the wines are considerably darker, richer, oakier and more extracted than the wines most producers made in 2021, just eight years later. That’s a pretty significant transformation in a very short amount of time, and it is evident. There is no question many producers are picking earlier, especially those who used to pick on the later side. It’s an interesting time in Napa Valley, a time of clear change.

Randy Dunn’s collection of vintage fire trucks. First, there was one; now, there are seven, all operational and ready for action that hopefully is not necessary.

2022 – Welcome to the Heat Dome

Vintage 2022 once again presented producers with a series of fierce challenges. It was another very warm, dry year in which vines struggled because of stress accumulated over several years of drought. A severe and sustained heat spike around Labor Day with historic highs over many days proved to be the defining moment of the year. Rain followed, further complicating matters. I remember walking around St. Helena on October 1 under cloudy skies, with temperatures in the 50s and wondering how the vintage would ultimately turn out.

There are essentially three harvests in 2022. Let’s start with the two extremes, before and after the heat. Wines made from fruit picked before the worst of heat or during the beginning of that episode – either because of site characteristics or stylistic preference – appear to be sound. Vines that were able to withstand the heat and continue to ripen also produced some very good wines. Based on what I have tasted so far, cooler, late-ripening sites also had a clear advantage. Vineyards that were close to optimal ripening during the heat spikes produced wines of extremely variable quality. Some of this just comes down to luck. If it were possible to forecast weather perfectly, no one would intentionally leave their vineyards in a vulnerable state. Naturally, this is not possible. Despite the intense heat and drought, many 2022s are underripe and/or lacking in depth because winemakers had to harvest before the vines simply crashed. Those wines literally feel empty in the middle. Not surprisingly for such a varied year, winemakers approached vilifications with wildly different approaches. Some shortened macerations for fear of overextracting. Others, seeing a year with light color and low tannins, sought to build the wines as much as possible in the cellar. Towards the end of my stay in Napa last year, ETS, the laboratory that does all the testing in Napa Valley, began alerting their clients to the presence of new, previously undetected strains of bacteria that could cause elevated volatile acidities. The theory is that, under severe stress, grapes were releasing juice within the berries. Producers were encouraged to sulfur their musts immediately as a preventative measure. 

Many producers did not show their 2022s from barrel this year, as they felt they were still trying to understand the wines and the vintage. That certainly makes sense. Quite a few winemakers had not even started to work on blends for the same reason. The 2022s I tasted point to a wildly erratic vintage full of highs and lows.

Dirk Fulton, Becky Kukkola and Tony Biagi at The Vineyardist, where the wines are better than ever.

First Thoughts on 2023

It’s always fun to be in Napa Valley during harvest. Well, it is fun for me, maybe less so for owners and winemakers who would rather be solely focused on the harvest. Even so, this is the time to see the new vintage from a front-row seat as it develops. Two thousand twenty-three was a very late harvest, not so much by long-term historical trends, but certainly very late relative to what has become the norm over the last decade or so. It was also a very stretched-out vintage.

For example, when I visited Opus One on September 26, the crop was 45% in. A few days later, on October 1, Paul Hobbs told me he did not plan to start picking until the last week of the month. Ultimately, heat accelerated that schedule, but also resulted in a 30% loss of berry weight. Obviously the size of wineries and their stylistic choices play important roles, but there is still a pretty wide range of harvest dates in 2023. At a certain point, producers worried that colder, later-ripening appellations such as Howell Mountain might not ripen at all. Winemakers began calculating the amount of fruit that was hanging divided by the amount they could process per day and then the number of remaining days in the calendar to get that work done. Time was running out. Fortunately, a spell of heat in October pushed the fruit across the finish line.

Expectations are already high. We will see. I never make any evaluation of a vintage, good or bad, until I have tasted the wines. Every vintage is a clean slate. That’s how I approached 2010 and 2011, both of which were very poorly regarded at the outset, and how I have approached every vintage since then, in Napa Valley or anywhere else. However, there are other factors in play. It is very likely that producers will feel the pressure to bottle as much wine as possible in 2023, given that fires wiped out (or eliminated) much of the 2020 crop and that yields were down sharply in both 2021 and 2022. That is understandable. This also happened in 2012 following 2011 and in 2019 for those producers who knew they would make little or no 2020. On the other hand, the market for high-end wines has softened, and demand may not be there for larger volumes of wine. It will be interesting to see how things ultimately play out.

Guillaume Boudet presented a spectacular set of wines at Hyde de Villaine.

2020 – Coda

I would be remiss if I did not include some thoughts on 2020 (reproduced from a previous article), a vintage I think it is safe to say everyone is happy to have in the rearview 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 and 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 not to bottle some or all of their wines.

The biggest problem with the 2020s is not smoke taint – most producers learned their lessons from 2017 – 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 requisite conditions for making extraordinary wines.

The typical 2020 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon offers an initial burst of fruit along with a good mid-palate and finish. Then, wait a few seconds. In virtually every 2020, I have tasted a kick of gritty and or searing tannin appears very late, on what I will call the post-finish for lack of a better or more established term. That’s 2020 in a nutshell. Over and over. It may very well be that the average consumer can’t detect this textural graininess in the wines. That is in no way meant to be disrespectful, it's just an observation. Tasting wine for a living is a great job in many ways, but it also can lead to extreme sensitivity, much in the way a professional musician immediately observes even the slightest imperfections with intonation or time.

Our job at Vinous is to report on the wines as we see them. Some of the 2020s are quite good, but they still reflect the shortcomings of the year. My preference is still to drink the wines on the early side, as there is nothing to be gained through cellaring, while the wines may begin to be more problematic over time.

A superb set of wines from Kinsman Eades, one of the great recent success stories in Napa Valley.

The Market for Napa Valley Wines

It is no surprise that the fine wine market has begun to soften, albeit from ridiculous highs in some segments. Throughout my time in Napa Valley, I often heard about challenges in the market. Visitations are down sharply, I was told, at many places, the result of sky-high hotel prices, high tasting room fees, bad weather throughout most of the year, and a strong dollar that caused many consumers to vacation in Europe rather than in the Napa Valley. Curiously, no one mentioned that perhaps some Napa Valley wines are too expensive. That slowdown is not unique to the United States. The September releases of California wines on La Place de Bordeaux were met with only modest interest.

To be fair, many of the challenges Napa Valley faces are not unique to Napa. They are true pretty much everywhere. Sales are down in all regions I visited in 2023. That does not change the fact that demand has softened, at least in the short term. Some vineyard owners continue to test the upper boundary of pricing for their fruit. It is reasonable for owners who have made significant investments in quality to expect a return. But I still wonder what the market really is for $300+ Napa Valley wines.

It is obvious that the consumer demographic is changing quickly. The typical consumer who was 45-50 when I worked for Robert Parker 15 years ago is now likely buying less wine or no wine at all. Today’s consumers no longer want to be tied down to lists. “I used to be on five lists, now I am on two,” Vinous readers often report. Many wineries operate business models built on selling directly to the consumer, therefore avoiding the 30% distribution margin. What happens when wineries realize they are selling less direct and need traditional wholesale and retail channels to both sell their wines and ensure a presence on prestigious restaurant wine lists? Margins get squeezed is what happens.

Today’s consumer is the consumer of the Netflix generation. Consumers who want what they want, when they want it, delivered how they want it. Advancing technology and then COVID-19 have accelerated these expectations. My impression is that the wine business as a whole is woefully behind. I can’t say we have the answers. Probably no one does. But we are acutely aware of these developments.

Assistant Winemaker Javier Aviña, Winemaker Martha McClellan and Estate Manager Michelle Fox at Sloan on September 29, 2023, before a single grape had been pickled.

New Vinous Maps for 2023

I have always wanted Vinous to be about more than reviews and scores alone. In 2023, we released three vineyard maps as part of our mission to further wine education and appreciation. Coombsville is all new, while Howell Mountain and St. Helena & Conn Valley are fully updated Second Editions of two of our most popular maps. There is more to come in 2024.

The new Vinous Maps for 2023 are Coombsville, along with second editions of Howell Mountain and St. Helena & Conn Valley. Each map is the result of extensive on-the-ground research and countless interviews. © 2023 Vinous.

Heavy Bottles Still Rule

One thing that has not changed in Napa Valley is the propensity for using irresponsibly heavy bottles. I had hoped that between 2020, when less wine was bottled, and 2021, some things might have changed. Sadly, they have not. For a region that is under the constant threat of climate change-related issues, Napa Valley’s owners and winemakers display a willful disregard for the impact of heavy glass bottles on the environment. That is even more shocking considering all the work and money that has gone into clearing land to mitigate damage from potential future fires. Few things are more hypocritical than a producer extolling their sustainable farming practices and then presenting their wines in ultra-heavy bottles.

How I Tasted the Wines

I tasted most of the wines in this report in late September and early October of 2023, followed by numerous tastings in our New York City offices later in the fall. I tasted many wines more than once, especially those with high scores. A few estates I always cover are missing from this report, mostly having to do with either scheduling and the late and/or recent bottling of their wines. These include Beringer, Dalla Valle and Dunn. I will endeavor to add reviews for those wines as soon as practical. Lastly, this report typically includes many wines from the next vintage to be released, in this case, 2022. For reasons explained above, I did not taste as many wines from barrel this year as I do in most years. We will be publishing reviews of the 2021s in several pieces. The sheer number of good to outstanding wines in Napa Valley today makes tasting all the wines and then finishing the reviews a massive task, not just for me but also for our editorial team. Readers can look forward to updates to this article in future weeks and months, along with several smaller verticals and vintage retrospectives that are in the works.

© 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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