USA: Northern California (Part One)
Focusing on the Greatest Vintage I’ve Tasted in 37 Years Visiting Northern California: 2013—The Game Changer
Napa Valley and virtually all of the North Coast of California (which obviously includes Sonoma and Mendocino Counties as well) has been on a qualitative tear since 2012. 2012 was a great vintage for nearly every varietal in North Coast California, but what is even more remarkable is that 2013 may turn out to be the finest vintage I have experienced in tasting North Coast varietals over the last 37 years. It's a game-changer in terms of the consistency of quality, the depth of quality, and the across-the-board excellence for so many wines. As readers will no doubt detect in the commentary that follows, 2014 is certainly an excellent vintage, probably as good as a superlative vintage like 2005. Its only sin is that it happens to have followed two even greater vintages—2012 and 2013. All of the following wines, which represent Part One of my Northern California report, were tasted the last two weeks of August, with some subsequent smaller tastings at The Wine Advocate offices in September. Part Two will appear in the December issue, and Part Three, primarily focusing on Sonoma, will be in the February 2016 issue. Here’s a brief thumbnail sketch of the last three vintages in Northern California:
2012 was a vintage of relatively abundant yields and an incredible growing season. When one looks at the temperature charts throughout the year 2012, there were only two periods where temperatures exceeded 100 degrees in California’s North Coast—mid-June and the beginning of October. Other than that, temperatures were balmy (mid-80s to mid-90s) throughout the growing season, and allowed a perfect flowering as well as generous crop set. Finally, harvest conditions unfolded under ideal terms. The rainfall was relatively significant in the month of March, but no rain fell again until November and December, long after the harvest was finished. The wines, as I have indicated, tend to be exuberant and concentrated, with intense fruit, full body, relatively high alcohols (14.5-16%), and stunning purity and richness. This was across all fields of play, so to speak, and the hallmark of the vintage is its exuberance, drama and flamboyance. In many ways, it is a more modern-day version of the 2002s, which have turned out to be spectacular wines that have drunk well from the beginning and continue to age gracefully, as my comprehensive retrospective several years ago proved so convincingly.
2013’s temperature graph for the year had only one month where temperatures exceeded 100 degrees, and that was at the very end of June. Other than that, temperatures were slightly cooler across the board than in 2012, with lots of mid- to upper-80s and fewer mid-90 degree temperatures, except in mid-August and early to mid-September. October temperatures were in the low 80s across the board, allowing harvest to take place under pristine conditions. 2013 was a drought year, with tiny amounts of rain in March, less than an inch in April, then virtually no rain until 1.12 inches fell in November. The year concluded with less than an inch falling in December. The entire bud bloom, flowering and harvest seasons were totally dry, with ideal temperatures. Crop size again was large, with alcohols again relatively high (14.5-16.5%), and the consistency in quality, depth of flavor, texture, freshness, vibrancy and richness was absolutely mind-boggling. This could turn out to be one of the most epic and awesome vintages the North Coast of California has ever produced. The wines are more tightly coiled and present themselves with more closed personalities than their 2012 counterparts, but they are by no means inaccessible. They are powerful, rich and concentrated, extremely well-delineated, and will be extremely long-lived, eclipsing even the aging potential of the 2012s.
2014 was characterized by heavy rainfalls in February, significantly less in March, a little in April, and then some slight early rain in September, followed by an inch in October, two and a half inches in November, and a whopping ten inches in December. Temperature-wise, it was a cooler year than both 2013 and 2012, with none of the temperature sensors exceeding 100 degrees during any month of the growing season. There were some spikes in temperature into the mid- and upper-90s in both mid- and late June, late July, and again in late August and early to mid-September, and then another mid-90 degree spike in October. Overall, this was a very consistent year, with little temperature fluctuation, producing another great growing season. Crops were again large, but somewhat smaller for some varietals than in 2012 and 2013. I tasted many a barrel sample of 2014 as well as some of the bottled wines, and they are fruit-forward, delicious, charming wines, but without the power, depth and aging potential of 2013s or the exuberance and flashy drama of 2012s. Nevertheless, 2014 was certainly a very good to excellent year. In summary, North Coast vignerons have enjoyed three consecutive top vintages, with 2012 and 2013 the two greatest vintages in Napa and Sonoma since 2001 and 2002.