Napa Valley is usually blessed with the sort of sunny, warm weather that allows winemakers to produce just about any style of wine that they want. Big, ripe and bold, or more elegant and restrained -- nearly anything is possible.
In 2011, nature nixed that. The vintage was marked by a cool, rainy spring and a delayed harvest that was hit by rain. There was a lot of hand-wringing, and some early vintage assessments were less than kind.
I tasted a lot of 2011 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon recently at a series of tastings associated with the annual Premiere Napa Valley auction for the wine trade. If you like your cabernet powerful and concentrated, with big, ripe, jammy flavors, most of the 2011s probably aren't for you. But if you think, as I do, that power isn't everything, and your preference is for wines that are more elegant, lively and nuanced, you should be able to find a lot to like.
People who dismiss the vintage out of hand, says winemaker Celia Welch -- who makes wine for high-profile clients such as Scarecrow and Barbour, as well as her own label, Corra -- "are really going to miss out on some interesting wines."
Certainly not every 2011 Napa cab is of high quality. Vineyards on sites that are not well-drained and those with bigger crops sometimes did not fare well. Vintners had to be very rigorous in selecting only grapes that were in good condition, with no signs of rot or mold.
Welch says she knows of winemaking colleagues who say they won't send wines to the media for reviews or even decided not to make 2011 wines. "It just makes me incredibly sad," she says.
Part of the perception problem may be that the expectations about Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon have changed over the past 35 years. Bordeaux -- which has growing conditions that are much more iffy, leading to more restrained wines -- used to be the benchmark, notes Dirk Hampson, CEO and director of winemaking at Far Niente in Oakville. But in the past 15 to 20 years, the idea of what's ripe has shifted, he says, and many wines have become more jammy, higher in alcohol and thicker on the palate. By comparison, 2011 may seem deficient to some people.
"Are there wines that were underperformers? Absolutely," he says. Vintners who tried to ripen a too-large crop, who waited too long to pick or tried to make a jammy wine, "when jamminess wasn't to be had," may have had problems.
Hampson thinks the better 2011s have the structure and length to age nicely. He compares the vintage to the much-maligned 1998 and 2000 vintages, which he says have shown the ability to age.
Jonathan Pey, who makes Oakville cabernet under his Textbook label, agrees on the aging potential. "Ten years from now," he says, "they might be better than the monsters." His East Coast customers have been positive about his 2011, he says, because they thought it was more European in style.
"We were able to hold onto some of the more savory, aromatic notes," Welch adds. "I'd rather have wines in that style" versus wines with more raisiny flavors or wines that she describes as "milkshakes."
But she's also a little frustrated with the reception that 2011 has gotten, given recent criticisms by some that Napa wines are too ripe and overly alcoholic. "Here's a vintage where alcohols are generally much lower, and people aren't celebrating it."
The 2011 Napa cabs are just starting to roll out. Many of the higher-end wines won't be released until later this year. But some good ones that have been released or will be available in the next month or so include the 2011 Far Niente ($135), 2011 Textbook "Mise en Place" ($49), 2011 Robert Mondavi Napa Valley ($28) and 2011 Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford ($32). All exhibit ample fruit, nice freshness and some subtle savory notes, like black olive, anise, thyme and/or cedar.
Welch's 2011 Corra ($135) is a wonderful wine -- powerful, but also elegant and savory -- but it's sold through a mailing list and is extremely hard to find.
Contact Laurie Daniel at email@example.com.
Here are some highlights of the unreleased 2011 Napa Valley cabernets that I've tasted recently. Prices are approximate.
Tim Mondavi's Continuum Estate is at 1,300 to 1,600 feet in the Pritchard Hill area, and he thinks its hillside location was key to the success of his 2011 wine. "All of us had rain. All of us had cool weather," he says. But after the autumn rains, fog settled in the valley, and a lot of vineyards stayed damp. That led to disease problems. His vineyard is above the fog and breezy, so it could dry out.
"I am absolutely delighted with our '11," Mondavi says.
I agree: The 2011 Continuum ($175) is lively and full-bodied, with ample black fruit, a hint of anise and firm but approachable tannins.
The 2011 Pride Mountain Cabernet Sauvigon ($70) is also from a hillside location, at the top of the Spring Mountain District appellation. More than half the fruit used in this wine is actually from Sonoma County. The wine is plump and approachable, with spicy red cherry fruit and fine tannins.
The 2011 Robert Craig Howell Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) is from the hills on the eastern side of the valley. It's quite powerful, with black fruit, spice, a slight leafy note and firm but polished tannins.
The cabs from Ad Vivum and Dominus/Napanook hail from Yountville, toward the southern part of the valley. The 2011 Ad Vivum Sleeping Lady Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) is tight and structured, with lively black fruit accented by notes of graphite and anise. The 2011 Napanook ($59) offers classic cab flavors of black fruit and black olive, tinged with an herbal note and finishing with polished tannins. Napanook is the second label of Dominus Estate. While the 2011 Dominus ($149) has more weight and concentration, considering the price difference, my money's on the Napanook.
Other standouts from the 2011 vintage included the 2011 Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($160), 2011 Gallica Cabernet Sauvignon ($150), 2011 St. Supery Rutherford Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($85), 2011 Edict Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) and 2011 Guarachi Family Cabernet Sauvignon ($85).