2013 Napa Valley: Once Upon a Time in America…
The bottled 2013 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons are every bit as viscerally thrilling as they have always been in barrel. Inky, vibrant and structured, the wines possess remarkable concentration, with bright acidity and powerful tannins to back it all up. Simply put, the 2013 Napa Cabernets are some of the most profound, riveting, young wines I have tasted anywhere in the world.
2013 – A Modern-Day Classic
The second year in the current drought cycle and precocious growing season produced powerful, inky wines with huge fruit, massive tannins and, most importantly, extraordinary pedigree. I expect the wines to evolve at a glacial pace. I first started following the 2013s in September of that year, a period I usually set aside for visiting vineyards just before harvest. But in 2013, my timing was not so good, and I arrived right as the fruit was being brought in. That provided a fascinating, early look at the vintage. By the time I returned in October for my second fall trip I had a chance to taste a number of wines straight from tank. The potential was evident. That early promise started to become a reality when I returned in the spring of 2014 to start tasting the wines from barrel for my article 2013 Napa Valley: A First Look…, which has more context on the vintage and my early impressions on a number of wines.
Drought conditions were an issue from the outset in 2013. I remember speaking with growers in January who were already concerned with the water deficit and were considering irrigating imminently, which is unheard of at that time of year. Warm, drought conditions led to one of the earliest harvests on record. Small berry sizes produced wines with off-the-charts levels of concentration. In the cellar, the wines extracted easily. So easily in fact that many winemakers were afraid of ending up with monstrously tannic wines and purposely took their foot off the gas.
Overall quality is simply extraordinary. The rising tide has indeed lifted all boats, as can be seen by the number of estates that over achieved and made brilliant wines. At the top estates, where quality is consistently high, the pedigree of the vintage manifests itself in second labels that are often better than flagship wines at other properties. When all is said and done, there is little doubt 2013 will go down as one of the all-time great vintages for Napa Valley. Historically, that lofty status in Napa Valley has been accorded to ripe vintages such as 1997, 2002 and 2007. But 2013 has little in common with those years. Two thousand thirteen is much closer in style to 2001, a vintage that has only started to drink well within the last few years. Although the weather conditions were quite different, comparisons can also be made to 2010, except the 2013s play on an entirely higher level. The 2013s are also far and away more interesting and pedigreed than the 2012s, a vintage that was massively overhyped largely because it was easy on growers after the very challenging 2011 and slightly less difficult (but much higher in quality) 2010.
Producers in Napa Valley have the good fortune of working and living in one of the most privileged wine producing regions anywhere in the world. For starters, the weather and overall climatic conditions are extremely favorable for the cultivation of wine grapes (and other crops). Shock events such as hail, frost and late season rain that are common in other regions and countries are virtually unheard of.
Winemakers in Napa Valley also have an extraordinary range of tools at their disposal. Irrigation is virtually a necessity. That has given birth to a number of parallel fields of specialization that hone in on very specific areas such as sap flow analysis (which shows the rate at which water flows through a vine), or vineyard development tools that provide the exact GPS coordinates to plant each single vine (to ensure the desired exposure) and a host of other technical data. Most wines are blends, which give wineries considerable flexibility in putting together the final wines, a lever that is not available to producers in Burgundy or Piedmont, to name two regions where the top wines are all mono-varietals. Most Napa wines are aged in the standard 225-liter barrel. Here, too, the smaller barrel size allows for maximum flexibility vis-à-vis regions where larger casks such as those used in the Rhone, Montalcino and Piedmont give producers much less of an ability to select the best micro-lots. Lastly, owners with deep pockets can make economically irrational choices to only bottle the very best of their production, something that most wineries simply don’t have the luxury to do.