The 2021 Napa
Valley Cabernets, Part One
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | DECEMBER 21, 2023
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
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.
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
2020 – Coda
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
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
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
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
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
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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Napa Valley: The Frantic 2020s & Stunning 2021s, Antonio Galloni, February 2023
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