The 2001 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon: Stepping Back in Time
BY ANTONIO GALLONI | APRIL 06, 2023
Two thousand-one is one of the most important vintages in
Napa Valley of the last 25 years or so. Highly regarded at the time, 2001
continues to impress with dark, potent wines, many of which are in the sweet
spot for current drinking.
A Retrospective of Wines and Memories…
Two thousand-one is a vintage that holds some pretty special
memories, as it is the first vintage in Napa Valley I tasted comprehensively
with Robert Parker. Sometime in late 2010, Bob asked me to take over coverage of
California wines for The Wine Advocate.
I was, quite frankly, overwhelmed. I knew a little bit about California wines,
but to say I was far from an expert would be an understatement. I had no idea
how to tackle such an immense assignment. It seemed to me that tasting with Bob
was an obvious start. But Bob was very much a lone wolf. I asked multiple times
to taste together. Bob never said no; he just never replied. Then, one day, out
of the blue in the winter of 2011, the phone rang. It was Bob. “I am going to
Napa in May to taste the 2001s…want to come?” I almost dropped the phone. A few
months later, there we were, in St. Helena, to taste hundreds of 2001s over
three intense days.
We worked through the wines in small flights, alphabetically.
Bob clearly had a routine. I just followed and tried to keep up. I remember
that on the first day the Abreu and Araujo Estate wines arrived late, so we
tasted them at the end of the afternoon. Initially, Bob didn’t say much, but he
gradually opened up. It was one of those rare moments in life when I knew
something really important was happening. I wanted to freeze time. I had only
tasted with Bob once before, outside of dinners and other Wine Advocate
gatherings, at a comprehensive tasting of the 2000 Bordeaux sometime around
2006/2007. I was terrified and excited at the same time. At the end of each
morning and afternoon, we picked our favorites and talked about them in depth.
This was the beginning of my understanding that quality in wine sits above style.
The cream always rises to the top. Even though Bob and I came at these wines
with totally different backgrounds, there was not much disagreement on the
At the time, the major takeaway was that the wines were
very, very young and still in need of considerable cellaring. Most of the
better wines tasted like they were two to three years old, not ten! Needless to say, it
was great fun to revisit these wines a decade later.
The 2001 Growing Season
The 2001 growing season began with a very early bud-break in
March. April turned considerably cooler, to the point that some vineyards were
affected by frost. Heat returned in May, prompting some producers to describe
it as the hottest May ever at the time. Flowering in most places was finished
by the end of the month. Weather turned considerably cooler during the critical
summer months. There were some spikes, but, importantly, temperatures stayed
cool at night, one of the features of Napa Valley’s unique climate. Benign
conditions in September and October allowed for a long, leisurely harvest that
stretched into October without major shock events.
The 2001s From a Present-Day Perspective
The natural tendency when looking at vintage, new or old, is
to examine weather during a growing season and extrapolate what that means in
terms of the wines. All tasters do this. Data will say that 2001 was a cooler
year in critical moments than 2002, so the wines were always more reticent than
the flashier, riper 2002s. And that is true. There’s no doubt about it.
But it is also difficult, if not impossible, to ignore that
the late 1990s and early 2000s were the peaks of a search for elevated ripeness
and extraction, not just in Napa Valley but pretty much everywhere. For Napa,
2001 and 2002 were arguably the first important vintages after 1997. Four Napa
Valley Cabernets earned a perfect 100 score from Parker; the most influential
being the 1997 Harlan Estate and 1997 Bryant Estate. Those two Cabernets in
particular sent many proprietors in search of the elusive 100 points scurrying
to their consultants with a directive to make the same exact type of wine. That
led to a series of years in which viticulturists and winemakers pushed wines
riper and riper. Stressing the vineyard (survival of the fittest), aggressive de-leafing,
late picking, pushed extractions and heavy new oak were all in vogue. Pretty
much all these concepts have now been either pulled back or repudiated entirely,
but that is a subject for another time. Suffice it to say that in today’s Napa
Valley, producers are focused on healthy, well-balanced vineyards,
sustainability and preserving energy and freshness in the wines, something that
is increasingly difficult as seasons trend warmer and drier.
At some point, it became fashionable to trash the
wines of the 1990s and 2000s and label them excessive. No doubt some, maybe many, were.
Having tasted the 1997 Harlan and Bryant recently, along with many of the
so-called cult wines from the early 1990s, I can report that the best have aged
spectacularly well. They are an absolute joy to drink today. Moreover, it is
very easy to see how a taster at that time – an era in which so many wines were
overly technical and processed – would have been totally seduced by the
hedonistic thrill the modern style of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon offered.
Of course, not all producers followed the new style; plenty
of old-school winemakers did what they had always done. The results of that
consistency and more balanced approach are evident today, if they weren’t back
then. For his part, Bob never forced people to do anything. Yes, he loved big,
opulent wines, but he didn’t only like ripe wines. I saw that time and again.
But Bob also never cared what people thought about him, so he didn’t do
anything to address the commonly held misperceptions of his views.
In a nutshell, while the 2001s are certainly defined by cooler,
moderate weather during the most important part of the year and a long growing
season, at many estates, they are just as marked by the prevailing style of the
Then and Now…
The astute reader will note a few things about this report.
The first is how many of today’s most highly regarded estates and wineries did
not exist in 2001. VHR-Vine Hill Ranch, MacDonald, Sinegal, Dana Estates,
Gandona, Kapcsándy, The Vineyardist and Scarecrow are just some of the names
that come to mind. A second group of wineries, many of them elite, were no more
than 10-15 years old. Not even a generation, nothing in the world of wine.
These including Abreu, Harlan Estate, Dalla Valle, Colgin, Screaming Eagle and
Scores for the 2001s are, generally, not as high as they are
for today’s top wines. This can be attributed to several factors, some
obvious, others perhaps less so. Much of Napa Valley was replanted in the early
and mid-1990s following a widespread outbreak of phylloxera, meaning vines
were, on average, very young for the production of world-class wine. I tasted a
number of wines with low-level Brett and other imperfections that are much less
common today. Sure, some Brett might be acceptable in older-school wines, but
it is not a characteristic most people, including me, consider typical of the
best wines in Napa Valley.
Many of the 2001s, especially those of the younger wineries
were made in custom crush facilities, shared workspaces that offer a certain
amount of flexibility but also a set of constraints that can negatively impact
the final result. Custom crush remains an important piece of the Napa Valley
scene (especially for small wineries that can’t afford to build their own
facilities), but hygiene and precision are tended to with far greater care than
in the past. Lastly, some of the wines in this report have lived up to (or
exceeded) their early praise, while some have not. That is precisely the value
of revisiting older vintages.
I tasted all of the wines in this report in late 2021 and early
2022. Given our growing editorial team and incredibly packed publishing
schedule, finding a slot for vintage retrospectives like this one is always a
challenge. I hope to get us caught up for Napa Valley in 2023.
© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.
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