Focus on California's North Coast

Around 2020, some very lucky collectors are going to have the time of their wine-loving lives carrying out blind tastings of 2005 Napa cabernets. vs. 2005 Bordeaux. And I predict that they’re going to have more trouble than ever telling which wines are which. Bordeaux’s epic 2005 harvest has yielded some of the greatest clarets in decades, with many of the top wines achieving alcohol levels never before reached by their estates yet balanced for the long haul owing to their healthy acids, strong but ripe tannins and sheer density of material. Some of these wines carry alcohol levels that can only be described as Napa-like. Meanwhile, the best 2005s from Napa Valley—and by best I mean wines from producers who controlled yields effectively to enable their fruit to achieve full ripeness during a long, “European” growing season that generally produced a copious crop—have the energy, if not restraint, that can make them positively claret-like. This will be the ultimate vintage for side-by-side tastings between the most famous cabernet-based wines in the world and their top challengers, and I doubt that much spitting will take place.

Whatever happened to global warming? This spring’s coverage of California’s North Coast is chock full of tasting notes on the best 2005 Napa cabs from bottle, but also addresses vintage 2006 in considerable detail and includes an early look at a few 2007s. All things considered, these were moderate growing seasons that for the most part avoided the serious heat spikes that had affected earlier vintages this decade. (By some accounts, total degree days in North Coast wine regions during the growing season had risen steadily from 1998 through 2004, but the pattern was snapped in a big way in 2005.) Generalizations about climate, however, mask some important regional differences in ’05 and ‘06. Both of these growing seasons featured relatively cool spring weather, with more—and later—rainfall than usual in most areas. (In 2004, by contrast, a weather station in Oakville recorded barely two inches of precipitation between the end of February and the beginning of October.) But then, except for a sharp hot spell in the second half of July of 2006, both years enjoyed temperate summer conditions. As a rule, the harvests were late and leisurely, and the better growers brought in ripe fruit with more moderate levels of potential alcohol than in hot years like 2004, 2003 and 2002, when September heat spikes accompanied by parching winds from the east had sent sugars skyrocketing and often resulted in dehydration of the grapes before flavors and tannins were fully ripe.

Crop levels in Napa Valley were generally quite copious in 2005, and those who did not take steps to control yields often struggled to get their fruit thoroughly ripe and ultimately made thin or even tart wines. On the other hand, many Sonoma Coast vineyards close to the ocean were hit hard by cold, wet weather during the flowering and lost upwards of 50% of their crop, with pinot noir generally affected more than chardonnay. The resulting wines can be superb, but quantities are often low. In some marginal spots where the weather was especially cool in September, growers had to let their fruit hang well into October to get it ripe. The same can be said for the later-ripening varieties in some mountain vineyards on the Napa side. But as a general rule, the long growing season resulted in wines with density, vibrancy and complexity—wines with the balance for a slow and positive evolution in bottle.

Two thousand six brought mostly smaller berries and more moderate crop levels in Napa Valley, with some growers reporting that a heat spike in July further reduced their ultimate production. But with little in the way of sustained heat after the end of July, grape sugars were slow to rise and pHs remained healthy. The harvest was late and spread out over a long period. On the Sonoma side, many growers were thrilled to have a normal-size crop again, but rot was a serious issue in some parts of the Russian River Valley and closer to the coast due to the combination of rain in the spring and then extended foggy periods in July, August and September. Where rot was particularly stubborn, growers often had to bring in their fruit short of full ripeness and then sort carefully in order to make clean wines. But higher-altitude sites close to the coast that are usually above the marine layer often had healthy crop levels and were generally less affected by rot. Here, by some reports, crop thinning was essential, but many vibrant wines were made from fruit that was picked with moderate sugars and healthy acid and pH levels.

Two thousand seven witnessed another moderate summer. After a short burst of heat at the beginning of September, temperatures cooled dramatically and the normally later-ripening sites benefited from a long and cool second half of the harvest. Some vineyards struggled to ripen their fruit, particularly those that were hit hard by rain in early October and again at the beginning of November.

In sum, these were three years in which winemakers could make less extreme wines than in other recent vintages. For cabernet lovers, there are relatively few wines with raisined flavors, even where alcohol levels reached 15% or more. And at a time when interest continues to grow in making pinot noir and chardonnay in cooler areas such as Anderson Valley, Mendocino, the Sonoma Coast and Green Valley, there’s more fresh chardonnay and pinot noir from 2005 and 2006 than ever before—and fewer of the rich, creamy, almost grenache-style pinots produced as recently as the 2004 vintage.

Interestingly, an increasing number of the North Coast’s most talented pinot practitioners are starting to sour on Dijon clones. They feel that this fruit has a tendency to lose its freshness early or to fail to develop enough complexity in the relatively warm climate of the North Coast. But this has been less of an issue in past few vintages. At the same time, there has been growing interest in Wente clones to produce more earthy and mineral-driven—less relentlessly fruity—chardonnays than previously. With pinot noir and syrah, more winemakers are now vinifying with a percentage of the stems in an attempt to make more perfumed and complex wines. All these trends are positive developments, especially for wine lovers whose paradigms for chardonnay, pinot and syrah are French.

As was the case last year, I shared this spring’s coverage of the North Coast with Josh Raynolds. He visited properties in Sonoma County while I handled the Napa side in early March, and we each tasted more wines back home after our North Coast tours. Wineries reviewed by Josh are denoted by a (JR) at the end of the last wine note.