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2010 vintage, revisited

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The 2010 vintage was one of the most peculiar I ever saw. (2011 was too.) It was, in short, cold. Californians aren’t used to chilly summers, and neither are grapes. The resulting wines were problematic.

That the harvest was problematic is testified by numerous statements from winemakers. Hidden Ridge, a fine winery that straddles the Mayacamas on the Napa-Sonoma border, declassified the entire vintage. A Napa vintner, who did not want to be identified, called the valley’s Cabernets “weak,” the problems being “high pH, low acid and a lack of concentration,” which is not a formula for success. I had a discussion, on Nov. 5 of that year, with the winemaker and assistant winemaker at Merryvale that boiled down to this question: how disastrous was 2010? Their conclusion was that, just because the Cabernets are “minty” and “herbal” doesn’t necessarily mean the wines are not of high quality.

That’s an interesting assertion. It harkens back to the notion that a vin de terroir will display its nobility even in a poor vintage. I suppose that’s true; and for sure, a wine like Lafite generally will perform better than its neighbors in a poor vintage, all other things being equal. Still, faced with the choice of drinking a mediocre noble wine and a rich common wine, I’d probably choose the latter.

Back to 2010: In my Vintage Diary I quoted the Santa Rosa Press Democrat newspaper, in late October, with this nightmare statement: “2010 was the worst grape harvest in recent memory, with financial losses possibly setting new records in the county…Many growers are still assessing their financial losses from crop damage that began with a mid-season mold outbreak and worsened with an August heat wave that scorched grapes and ruined entire fields…Last weekend’s rain added to an already miserable season. It spawned mold…Damaged fruit was left hanging on the vine.”

This awful scenario was repeated up and down the coast. Pinot Noir in particular suffered from mold. Now, when I do reviews, I’m not supposed to use the word “mold,” because I don’t have the ability to send wines to a laboratory and have them properly tested. But I can tell you that dozens and dozens of 2010 Pinots smell moldy to me. Keep in mind, I could quote certain Pinot Noir winemakers, some of them very famous, who told me, in the Fall of 2010, how fine their Pinot grapes were; but you’d rightfully mistrust those statements as being biased, because they are. The proof is in the smell.

Having said that, the best Pinot Noir houses produced some mighty good wines. This had to have been the result of careful selection, thereby diminishing case quantities from what was already a short harvest. Some of my personal favorite 2010 Pinot Noirs include Rochioli West Block, Foxen Block UU Bien Nacido, Siduri Hirsch (that must have given Adam Lee some anxious moments), most of Lynmar’s Pinots, and an interesting Sandhi Sanford & Benedict.

And Cabernet? Not looking good. I was shocked, just now, to go over every 2010 Cab I’ve tasted so far and discover that I’ve given only one of them 90 points. Everything else was in the 80s. I don’t think that would have been true of any previous Cabernet vintage, at this point, 17 months after the harvest. Of course, most of the top tier Cabernets haven’t been released yet, so there’s hope, but I think we’ll look back at 2010 and conclude it wasn’t a good year for Cabernet, either.

That doesn’t mean the top houses won’t produce splendid Cabs. I would think the best will come from the warmer regions. East Oakville, for example, could reward; ditto for Pritchard Hill, Calistoga, and St. Helena. Yountville might be compromised, and the mountains, including Spring, Diamond and Veeder. I’ll try to resurrect this post in two years and see if my prognostications bear any resemblance to reality.

  1. My wife and I have taken two vacations to Napa/Sonoma in the last 3 years (2009 and 2011) and in both instances were tasting wonderful vintages of Cabernets, Zinfandels, and Pinots (mostly 2007 and 2009, respectively of course). What a disappointment it might be to the cash sensitive wine country traveler to come across so many mediocre wines by making the trip while an off-vintage is being released. Couple together brush fires with cool, wet summers and it is amazing that some of these regions ever produce anything as wonderful as the best RRV Pinots or Howell Mountain Cabs. I’m sure 2012 will be another vintage of the century as the marketing folks like to trumpet.

  2. In the Article… “Cabernets are “minty” and “herbal” We have found many in the past to be this way.. SO Sad !!! : (

    Cheers Everyone….

    Have a Great Great Day!!!

  3. I’ve had a number of 2010 Foothills wines (either from the bottle or barrel) over the past few weeks (including 3 of my own)– boths Zins and Rhones. They are not typical Foothills wine — lower ETOH, more tannins but there was a LOT to like; really some of the best wines that I’ve tried from the region. It will be interesting to see the critics “take” on these wines

  4. 2010 was a very challenging year, not just for the Napa Valley and North Coast, but other AVA’s as well. That being said, the wines produced are showing great.

    We just bottled half of our 2010 production – essentially our non-bordeaux red varieties (and 2011 short program white varieties), and Malbec which I implement a shorter barrel program than my cabs and other BDX blends.

    All of the wines, both bottled (Petite Sirah, Syrah, GSM, Malbec) and remaining BDX wines, are showing tremendous complexity, picture perfect acid levels, and wonderful flavors. In regards to the winemakers comments about high pH wines, I will forever remember 2010 for not only its late ripening and exhausting “hurry up and wait” regimen, but the year I used almost no tartaric acid in my wines. Natural acids were perfect! One lot of Mourvedre (which has a tendency to have high pH in my experience) got an add. This is not coming from a winemaker who is scared to add acid at ferments, in the cellaring process or pre-bottling.

    2010 actually opened my eyes to wines with appropriate balance of flavors, tannins and acids and has set some bench marks on farming and picking decisions in my program. Believe it or not, you don’t need 28 Brix Cabernet Sauvignon.

  5. Sounds like a Nor-Cal-centric view of 2010 as a bad vintage, understandable as a large part of the business is centered up there. However, I hope that reputation doesn’t rub off on other areas that turned out quite nice wines from the vintage.

    Central Coast Pinot Noir did quite well – vintage was cool and harvest began quite late, but 90% of it was in prior to the crummy wet weather that hit in early October. If anything, in our situation we had some heat spikes to handle in September, with temps as high as 105F with very little overnight cooling for a period of 2 days before it broke and retreated. More a balance between getting adequate ripeness without dehydration, rather than botrytis and associated rots. Careful hand-sorting and we are pleased with the result.

    Chardonnay saw some challenges from the wet weather pattern that followed, but mostly it held up okay. Some incidence of botrytis for sure, but not horrendous.

  6. Kurt Burris says:

    Andy: You may know better about your wines, and the foothills in general, but if a Napa vintage gets dissed, we in the foothills go along for the ride. One scenario is that most the wine press gives this vintage mediocre scores on release. Then the big distributors will severely discount the wines and some good wines that may not fit the big, ripe profile will be a steal. And good wines from other appellations will get discounted as well. I saw this happen in 2000 and my cellar is hoping for a repeat.

  7. As a producer only (I know growers were crushed (punny?)), 2010 turned out to be a great year for me — especially with my two Cabernets.

    I usually produce about 250 – 350 cases of my Beckstoffer Georges III Cabernet Sauvignon, and the 2010 production will only be about 110 cases. Although the yield is tiny, the quality is superb. The 2011 harvest was my fourth vintage from that vineyard, and the 2010 is the best (in my opinion, of course).

    The mountain Cabernet from the Montecillo vineyard turned out to be very elegant 13.6% ABV wine. I also believe this is the best wine in my short history from this vineyard. The heat spikes that devastated some valley floor vineyards actually saved some of the mountain vineyards; the fruit was so far behind that season, I was a worried that it might not ripen enough at all to harvest.

    To sum up 2010; yields were down, quality was great from what I saw. 2011? Now that’s a different story.

    However the wines turn out for 2010 (and 2011 for that matter), I am very excited to taste these wines, across the board from Northern California producers, for myself. My curiosity is definitely piqued!

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