USA: Northern California (Part One)
Higher and Higher Quality in an Unprecedented and Historic Succession of Great Years: 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and Possibly 2016
2015 – Another Great Vintage
With an ongoing drought still impacting California, 2015 has turned out to be a spectacular, high-quality vintage in the North Coast. While Napa itself received 75% of the normal precipitation in the 12 months prior to the growing season, yields were tiny as a result of small berries and under-sized clusters. The flowering, especially on the Sonoma Coast and parts of Sonoma, was adversely affected by winds and generally poor weather conditions, resulting in tiny yields. Most Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards were the most affected, but Zinfandel and the Bordeaux varieties reported anywhere from 10% to as much as 35% lower yields. In some places, it was so bad that a handful of wineries didn’t produce any Chardonnay or Pinot Noir because of the microscopic crop.
Overall, the growing conditions from June through October were moderately warm, with a few heat spikes in August. Otherwise, the weather was ideal. What set the vintage apart was that, as early as 2014 was for producers on the North Coast, 2015 was the earliest harvest ever, with many wineries starting and finishing the harvest before the month of September was over! 2015 was also the end of three hugely bountiful harvests – 2012, 2013 and 2014 – although things looked set for a relatively large crop again in 2016, so 2015 is the anomaly in this historic succession of great vintages.
As the following tasting notes indicate, one of the hallmarks of 2015 is the uncuosity and viscosity of the wines themselves, even though acids seem sound and healthy. There is also an amazing sucrosity (meaning sweetness), not from residual sugar, but just from the ripeness of the grapes, that seems to run through so many of the wines in 2015. In any event, it is a small crop of extremely high quality and continues the remarkable succession of exceptional vintages in Northern California.
2014 – Much Better Than Expected
2014 was characterized by heavy rainfalls in February and then the start of a drought, although there was some light rain in September, followed by an inch in October. Temperature-wise, it was a cooler year than 2013 and 2012, with none of the temperature sensors in Northern California exceeding 100 degrees during any month of the growing season. There were spikes in temperature to the mid- and upper-90s in late June, late July, late August and again in early to mid-September, then another mid-90 degree spike in October. However, this was a very consistent year, with a large crop size.
When I first tasted the wines prior to bottling, they were fruit-forward, delicious, charming and sexy, without the profound depth and aging potential of the 2013s, at least for the Bordeaux varieties. However, post-bottling there is an exuberance and flashiness to the 2014s, as they have clearly put on weight now that they’re in bottle. I thought this was a very good to excellent vintage when tasting from barrel, but I now have to rate it now as another superlative year based on how the wines showed from bottle. It is also an abundant vintage. While I don’t think it is as profoundly great as 2013 was for the Bordeaux varieties, especially in Napa and Alexander Valley, for Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, I would have to rate 2014 ahead of 2013.
2013 – One of the All-Time Classics
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 has proven to to be one of the most epic and awesome vintages the North Coast of California has ever produced, especially for Bordeaux varieties. 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.
2013, the game-changer, is the greatest vintage I have ever tasted for Bordeaux varieties in Northern California, and that extends throughout Napa Valley as well as several AVAs in Sonoma, including the newer Moon Mountain AVA and Alexander Valley. It does seem as though 2013 has to take second place behind 2014 for Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir.
2012 – Dramatic and Flamboyant
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.
By and large, 2012s are already drinking fabulously well, thanks to their dramatic and flamboyant personalities. This is a classic California vintage, with much in common with 2007 and 2002 in terms of its personality.