Recently, I took part in a brief exploration of the 2011 Northern California vintage, a year that was widely considered at the time to be the worst in recent memory for Cabernet Sauvignon.
James Laube, columnist for Wine Spectator magazine, called it “the most damning vintage in perhaps 15 years”. Still, the six wines we tasted for exploration, all cabernet-based, were gorgeous, evocative, complex and elegant, not at all what one might have predicted based on general representations of a mediocre year.
Perhaps the disparity is due to the fact that the wines we were drinking came from superstar producers – two bottles each from Ridge Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Cathy Corison in Napa Valley and Inglenook, also in Napa, which in 2011 was just beginning a stylistic evolution under its owner, Francis Ford Coppola.
Big producers often find a way to get beauty out of the toughest situations. Each of them passed this tasting.
But more importantly, the gap between the beauty of the wines and the conventional wisdom about 2011 in Northern California demonstrated the limitations that accompany vintage characterizations and the possible consequences for consumers who adhere too closely to them.
The impulse to speak in general about a vintage, to evaluate it and even to rate it, is easy to understand. Few things leave a lasting impression on a wine than the conditions of a particular growing season. Spikes in temperature, too much precipitation (or not enough), a calamity like frost or hail at the wrong time – all of these will be expressed in the wine itself, but not always in the same way.
The skill and intention of a producer, along with the flexibility to adapt to the particular conditions of a vintage, can go a long way in crafting wines that transcend the harsh growing conditions of a year. Additionally, those who judge the vintages, primarily influential critics in wine publications, often bring their personal tastes and stylistic expectations to the appraisal, further complicating a shorthand appraisal.
The 2011 vintage in Northern California is a perfect example of this dynamic. At the time, many critics praised a powerful, alcohol-rich style of Cabernet Sauvignon marked by rich, opulent fruit and smooth, mellow textures.
The typical Napa Valley weather conditions – sunny, hot days and cool nights that can last until October – usually allow Cabernet growers to harvest their grapes when the fruit is soft and honeycombed, a step that farmers more suited to classic styles might be considered overripe. .
But this was not the case in 2011. Spring was cold and wet, delaying the flowering of the vines and the ripening cycle of the grapes. The year remained cool and severe storms as the harvest approached forced many vintners to pick the grapes earlier than they would have liked, not allowing them to reach their vision of maturity. Moisture and humidity caused a lot of mold and rot in the grapes, reducing the yield and the resulting wine production.
The vintage forced many producers to make difficult decisions. They could make wines in a less overtly fruity style, taking what the year had given them. Or they could try to force the problem into the cellar, using modern technology to try and create a greater concentration in the wines.
“I’ve never seen a more difficult vintage,” Ms. Corison said of 2011, despite what she was able to achieve with the wines.
Using its 100-point scale, Wine Spectator rated vintage 86, the only northern California vintage from 2006 to 2016 to score below 94. Wine Advocate, another mainstream publication, awarded an 82.
It turns out that, whatever the vintage, the three producers in our tasting all look for a style of cabernet sauvignon that is more elegant, less jammy and less alcoholic. Their strengths were perhaps less affected by the vintage than those of other producers, and they were each able to make wines in 2011 stylistically consistent with their goals, despite adversity.
Consumers might have missed out on these wines if they were only guided by vintage ratings, which can sometimes focus more on weather conditions and growing pains than on wine quality.
If declaring that a vintage is mediocre can sometimes be problematic, so can the characterization of such a great year. Too often, I have seen consumers become obsessed with vintages rated as excellent by critics rejecting wines from other years that could provide enormous enjoyment, often for much less money.
In the Côtes de Nuits, the primary source of great red Burgundy wines, the 2000, 2007, 2014 and 2017 vintages were generally lower rated than 2005, 2009 and 2015. However, each of these lower rated vintages offered wines almost immediately. sizable and delicious, for less money than top rated years.
These vintages, considered superior, are either still evolving or, in the case of 2005, never quite developed as expected. The 2000 reds, considered modest, continue to offer great pleasure 20 years later.
This is in part because vintages are often evaluated on the basis of the expected aging time of the wines. Immediately accessible wines are often seen as less serious – nice rather than great.
Maybe the critics need to re-evaluate what makes a good year. Is a vintage that is drunk well after 50 years but which offers little pleasure in its first 20 years really better than a delicious vintage of 20 years but which may not be as well appreciated by your grandchildren?
Should vintages always be judged hierarchically, on a single universal scale? Maybe we should just think of them as different from each other rather than good or bad, one being better for drinkers and the other for collectors and investors.
I want to be clear: the vintage differences are often significant. Chablis lovers know that in the 2017 vintage, the wines are classic in style, with all the mineral nuances that make Chablis a singularity among chardonnay wines. The much hotter 2018 vintage produced a much more powerful and fruity Chablis, notable at this point for impact rather than nuance. How will the 2018 evolve? I am not sure.
Some vintages, I must conclude, are just not very good. If you like vintage champagne, you’ve probably heard advice warning you to avoid 2011. Many wines, regardless of the stylistic intentions of the producer, have an odd vegetal quality.
More than a few Bordeaux from the 2013 vintage seemed to me not quite ripe. I enjoyed Bordeaux more from 2011, which some reviewers rated lower than 2013.
The vintages in which I have had such a uniform reaction to wines are the exception, however. Above all, the wines of a given year are very varied.
Even though the vintages have marked differences, I think we should pay them less attention than maybe we do. Much more important than obsessively following the vintages is to distinguish the producers whose styles you like.
It is both more fun and more convenient to follow the producers you admire through each vintage. How do they deal with the special conditions each year? How do the wines reflect each year? One thing I constantly hear from good producers: They are more proud of their wines in bad vintages when they have had to work hard to get good quality than they are in great vintages, when the breeding was relatively straightforward.
In the end, the variations between vintages are reassuring characteristics of good wines. This is the sign of minimal handling. If you’re looking for a smooth consistency, the supermarket’s soft drink aisle is a good place to look.