In 2011, a cool, damp year ended with soggy harvest rains. Grapes picked before the rains were mixed, some adequately ripe, others underripe. Those picked after the rain were most problematic. But overall, 2011 ended up being a more successful vintage than vintners predicted; credit farming and thinning. You can taste the successes in the ripeness of the wines and fleshier textures.
In 2012, the weather was ideal from start to finish, but that's only part of the story. Despite superior weather, the wines are not head-and-shoulders above 2011, and the reason has much to do with yields.
"I think most winemakers went into the 2012 vintage a bit worried about the potential size of the harvest and the effect that might have on quality," winemaker Merry Edwards explained in a memo this week. Edwards, based in Sonoma's Russian River Valley, is among the most seasoned of California vintners, dating to her days at Mount Eden in the 1970s. Here's what else she had to say: "The resulting wines were well above my early season expectation. That being said, the vintage was not 'the best' of the past decade, with 2009 and 2010 producing bigger wines in general. Personally, I sighed with relief that the vintage was very good and a lot of it." But shy of great.
Adam Lee of Siduri, also in Sonoma, but a producer of Pinots from throughout California, provided a statistical analysis based on the state grape crush report. "Yields were the story in 2012," he said. "They were big. Certainly they were big coming off the tiny 2010 and 2011 vintages, but they were just big, period. 2012 was especially big in the North Coast while not as huge in the Central Coast; 2013 is just the opposite."
Tons per acre tell part of the story, but there's also the matter of juice-to-skin ratios, and in 2012 there was far more juice to skin than in the prior few vintages, said Lee.
Having tasted more than 400 California Pinot Noirs from the 2012 vintage, I can say the wines have a moderately ripe profile and are more tannic and austere than those of 2009 and 2010. It's apparent that many vintners picked at lower sugar levels, as reflected by stated alcohol levels. More wines came in under 14.2 percent alcohol and down into the 13s than has been the case in years. Whether that's by design or a function of a big crop struggling to ripen is unclear, although it's likely a result of both.
At this point, 2012 isn't all that superior to the best 2011s in terms of exceptional wines. The big question is how will the 2012 wines evolve. They're tough and tannic now; whether they flesh out and become more charming remains to be seen.