Are the Napa Valley vintages with perfectly dry, sunny growing conditions the only ones worth drinking? They are easier for the viticulturist and winemaker to produce for sure. And as consumers, we are led to believe that the concentrated red and black fruits, soft tannins and full-bodied wines that are produced in these years are to be prized above all others. They are certainly delicious.
Why then, in vintages with less than ideal weather, do the wines find big supporters among certain groups of sommeliers and die-hard wine enthusiasts? Cooler years bring out a complex palate of aromas and flavors. With cabernet sauvignon – as with any grape – there is a development of flavors that comes with ripeness. Cabernet sauvignon has natural herbaceous flavors that fade as the grapes sit on the vine. With less sun or a vintage cut short by rain, a touch of fresh grass or forest floor can add an extra layer of complexity to the fruit flavors.
Those wines that do not have complexity rooted in herbaceous-ness have varied fruit flavors ranging from raspberry to red cherry to black currant that make the wines much more interesting. Since the grapes often retain more acidity in these cooler years, the wines are generally brighter with refreshing balance as well.
The year, 2011, was one such “less than ideal” vintage, with its cooler summer followed by fall rains. There were calls for consumers to avoid the wines. When the town criers come out warning to avoid a whole vintage, however, let your palate be the judge.
Several consumers joined local winemakers at the latest St. Helena Star/Napa Vintners Tasting Panel at The Culinary Institute of America at Greystone. In tasting through four flights of Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon from the 2011 vintage, they did just that — used their palates as their guide.
“I kept hearing that 2011 was the vintage to avoid,” said panel guest Eric McAllister, “and I cannot believe how good these 2011 wines are. Yes, there is variation, but there are some I would love to have in my cellar.”
Trade panelists agreed. Peter Stoneberg, wine club manager of the San Francisco Yacht Club, recommended the wines saying, “There are good values in here. These wines were written-off by investors, but 2011 is coming into its own. Don’t expect a huge body and high alcohol, but you have to try one.”
Vintner Alan Viader of Viader Vineyards & Winery preferred the wines that respected the vintage, stating “Some of the wines embraced a floral or spicy component, or a freshness, green brightness. Others, picked after the rains, were pushed beyond balance, past the threshold.”
Is every wine more interesting, more complex? Of course not, but neither are the wines equally rich and expressive in a “great weather” year. In 2011 some vineyard sites took the brunt of the bad weather, and a few vintners did not make their top wines.
This is not the first time that a vintage has been initially dissed, with a reassessment years later showing us differently. This occurred memorably with the cool and wet 1998 vintage, which followed the wildly popular sunshine-blessed 1997 wines. Yet the 1998s held up beautifully over the years, with bright fruit and balancing acidity while the soft, rich goodness of the 1997s has been fading much more quickly.
The cooler vintage-phobic need only be reminded: our vineyard crews and winemakers are trained to make great wine. With premier education and top equipment at our disposal, Napa Valley has the possibility of making fine wine even when the weather does not cooperate.
Favorite wines of the 2011 retrospective tasting
Uproot Wines 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($78)
Greg Scheinfeld and Jay Levy have created something different, which is not an easy task in this business. Their website has an interesting vibe, and their wine bottles are unique: the color gradation on the labels gives you an idea of the expected flavors and their intensity. Did our flavors match theirs? The 2011 label starts with raspberry (check), followed by tobacco (check), cherry (check), intense blackberry (check) and a spot of dark chocolate (not so much). Pretty much on par.
Burgess Cellars 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($44)
Kelly Woods and Matt Reid each have their hands in making the wines at Burgess, a winery that has been on the slopes of Howell Mountain since 1972. Not that this year was its first iteration. A winery has sat on the property since the 1870s. This wine is complex and spicy.
ERBA 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($90)
ERBA wines comes from the volcanic soils found around Atlas Peak. The winery’s first vintage made its way into the world in 2003. The flavors are well-integrated with a mix of spice and herb playing a supporting role to a core of rich, black fruits.
JAX Vineyards 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, Calistoga ($50)
This is a Kirk Venge wine with a brother-sister team behind it. After David Jackson purchased the property in 1996, his son Trent jumped in with full vigor. Kimberly came on in 2003 and now runs the show. There is energy behind the brand, website and labels that is refreshing to see. The wine has intense, bright red and black fruit flavors.
Other top favorites
Bougetz Cellars 2011 Eminence Napa Valley ($60)
This wine brings together fruit from Spring Mountain, Oakville, Pritchard Hill and Coombsville to create a rich sip of complex, dark fruit with herbs and a slight hint of violet floral. The generous tannins are balanced by fresh acidity.
Gallica 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley ($150)
Industry biggie Rosemary Cakebread is behind this brand. Tough to obtain, this is an allocated wine, so you’ll need to get on the list. If and when you do, you’ll be treated to a wine like the incredibly balanced 2011 cabernet sauvignon. A ‘goldilocks’ wine: it is not too much, not too little; it is just right. The black and red cherry fruits blend seamlessly with spice on a body that is not overly concentrated but plenty rich.
V. Sattui Winery 2011 Paradiso Red Blend Napa Valley ($125)
Winemaker Brooks Painter has the Midas touch. For years now, his wines have been chosen as favorites of the Star/Napa Valley Vintner Tasting Panel. While visitors flock to the winery in droves, many locals also love the idea of grabbing delicious charcuterie and a bottle of wine and chilling at the winery’s picnic tables on a gorgeous day. This wine has dark black fruits with integrated black pepper and sweeter spice flavors.
Pellet Estate 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena ($85)
Fresh black fruits: black cherry and blackberry, with beautifully integrated dark spices, form the core of this top Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Lively, and rich, this wine has it all. Tom Rinaldi’s magic is on display here. The Pellet name will be familiar to history buffs. Wines he made in the 1860s, from George Belden Crane fruit, were some of the first indications of Napa Valley’s greatness. Henry Pellet’s spirit lives on at the Estate, owned by Robin and Greg Krill.
Catherine Bugue, the Star’s tasting panel columnist, loves writing about — and drinking — wine. You can contact Catherine at email@example.com. Only wines from Napa Valley Vintner member wineries are accepted and tasted. Many wineries offer local residents discounts on their wines through the Napa Neighbor program, visit napavintners.com/programs and click on Napa Neighbor to learn more.