Sonoma’s Sensational 2021s


After a very challenging 2020, Sonoma bounces back big time with a fabulous vintage in 2021. Bold Pinots, savory Syrahs, vibrant Chardonnays and nuanced Zinfandels are all part of the mix. Two thousand twenty-one is the best Sonoma vintage since 2018. While that may not be saying all that much in terms of the time elapsed, the 2021s are both very high in quality and consistent across the board. It’s a vintage full of stunning, compelling wines.

Covering the wines in a manner that is both comprehensive and timely is next to impossible, something that is further complicated by release schedules that vary widely from winery to winery. For these reasons, we have published reviews over the last few months. This report focuses mostly on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and red field blends, with a few similar wines from neighboring appellations included. I will take a closer look at Bordeaux-based wines later this year.

Winemaker/Co-owner Andy Smith and Associate Winemaker Jenna Davis presented a breathtaking range of 2021s at DuMOL.

The 2021 Growing Season & Wines

Most growers I met with described 2021 as a year with moderate weather and no real shock events, quite a change from 2020, which was essentially all shock events. Warm weather in the early part of the year resulted in an early start to the growing season. Summer was quite cool. Some vineyards experienced poor weather during bloom. Drought conditions persisted throughout the year, but the absence of prolonged heat spikes or other traumatic episodes resulted in gradual, evening ripening and harvest that was on the later side by today’s standards.

Interestingly, yields were highly variable. Pinot and Chardonnay producers reported yields that were more or less in line with recent historical norms. These include Littorai, Rivers-Marie, Failla, Aubert and Kistler. It’s a different story altogether with Zinfandel and Zinfandel-based field blends, where producers such as Bedrock and Turley reported losses on the order of 30%, a similar theme to yields in Napa Valley.

The wines are fabulous. Although Pinot Noir yields were not heavily impacted, the 2021s are generally potent, brooding wines with dark fruit profiles and tons of textural depth. Some wines are surprisingly intense. Producers who work with whole clusters often used a high percentage of stems, a radical departure from 2020, when most backed off or eliminated stems entirely because of a fear of smoke taint. Even so, balance in the young 2021 Pinots is superb.

Syrah remains somewhat of a mystery. Wine people absolutely adore Syrah, and yet the wines are a very hard sell in the market. That’s a shame. Some of the very best 2021 reds I have tasted so far are Syrahs, such as the Que Syrah from Arnot-Roberts and the Sonoma-Hillsides from Pax. Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and red field blends also fared exceptionally well, as readers will see in perusing notes for producers who focus on these wines.

Not to be outdone, the 2021 Chardonnays are absolutely brilliant. I was able to follow numerous wines over the course of several days in my office and saw many show their best only with 12 hours or more of air. Readers opening the 2021 Chardonnays young will want to give the wines as much air as possible. It’s unquestionably a special vintage for Chardonnay.

The Vinous Map of the West Sonoma Coast AVA by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, © 2023 Vinous.

West Sonoma Coast AVA….Finally

For many years, every time I visited the West Sonoma Coast, producers told me a new AVA was imminent, but nothing ever materialized until last year, when the new AVA was finally approved. Two thousand-twenty-one is the first vintage where the new AVA appears on labels.

We had been working on a map of the AVA for quite some time and were very happy to be able to start sharing the first results of what is an intense study of the region and its vineyard sites. Our map of the West Sonoma Coast AVA, available digitally, encompasses the entire appellation. There are no vineyards on the AVA map because each site would essentially be the size of a pinhead on this map. The sheer expanse of land and relatively small number of vineyards vis-à-vis other appellations is hard to comprehend. Consider that the West Sonoma Coast AVA measures 51 miles in length compared to 30 miles for Napa Valley yet encompasses just over 1,000 acres of vineyard land compared to about 45,000 for Napa Valley and 63,000 for all of Sonoma County. Stated a bit differently, a map showing vineyards on a similar scale to our other maps would require an entire wall for display. Our map also includes portions of the Green Valley AVA and Sebastopol Hills, areas west of Highway 116 that have historically been considered part of what locals call “west county” from a cultural perspective. Although no one has explicitly said this to me, my distinct impression is that many producers would have liked these areas to be included in the AVA, but were not able to achieve this because of a series of political and bureaucratic obstacles that were too daunting to overcome.

The West Sonoma Coast AVA Map is the first in a series of maps that will cover the entire region in smaller sections. Our next map is Fort Ross-Seaview, the only AVA at present that is nested within the West Sonoma Coast AVA. That map is now going through our production process. Notable wineries here include Hirsch, Martinelli, Peter Michael, Failla, Wayfarer, Flowers, Marcassin, Boar’s View, and other vineyards that sell fruit, including Hellenthal and Elliott.

After that, we will focus on the northern reaches of the West Sonoma Coast in our Annapolis District map. This part of the AVA is home to Paul Hobbs’ Goldrock, Peay and Three Sticks’ Walala Vineyard. Last will be Freestone-Occidental, which may ultimately take the shape of one or two maps. This part of the West Sonoma Coast boasts a stunning array of estates and vineyards, including Occidental, Platt, Joseph Phelps, Cobb – Coastlands, Seascape, Rivers-Marie’s Summa, Thieriot and Que Syrah.

I think it is fair to say we are collectively in the very early days of understanding the West Sonoma Coast as an AVA. Although proximity to the ocean implies a cool climate and rugged growing conditions, sites at elevation can actually be quite warm, while farming and winemaking choices result in a wide range of styles.

John Raytek, seen here at the Ceritas cellar in Healdsburg, was among the producers who excelled in 2020 and 2021.

Final Thoughts on 2020

I would be remiss if I did not include some thoughts on 2020, a vintage I think it is safe to say everyone is happy to have in the rear-view mirror. Although 2020 is mostly remembered for brutal fires and the enormous destruction they brought, in terms of the wines the story is more complicated. Even before fires broke out in mid-August, 2020 was extremely warm, dry and trending towards a record early harvest. These facts are unequivocally true. When fires began to spread, most producers had to make very tough and fast choices about what could be salvaged and what would almost certainly be lost. A few select spots made it through this part of the year unscathed. The vast majority of wines that were made were from fruit that was picked as early as possible, in some cases far ahead of schedule. In the cellar, quality minded producers discarded lots they felt had been compromised. Some winemakers took the dramatic decision to not bottle some or all of their wines.

The biggest problem with the 2020s is not smoke taint – most producers learned their lessons from 2008 – but from the lack of sunlight at the end of ripening. Reviews and scores must necessarily reflect the quality of the 2020s vis-à-vis the 2021s. Lower scores for the 2020s aren’t a commentary on shoddy farming, poor winemaking or a lack of diligence, but simply a reflection of a year in which Mother Nature did not provide the requisites for making extraordinary wines.

Thankfully, 2020 belongs to the past. Readers will have a great deal of fun focusing on the brilliant 2021s from Sonoma.

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