To best appreciate how far viticultural and winemaking practices have come in the past decade, one need look no further than the 2011 Napa Valley Cabernets.
By most accounts this was the most damning vintage in perhaps 15 years. An altogether cool, damp year ended with heavy storms, and by some estimates as much as 50 percent of the grapes were of little or no use. I've talked with vintners who made about one-fourth of what they might have in a better year. Severe thinning led to a quarter-ton or less per acre. Thinning proved a winning strategy if only to salvage what might otherwise have been a dismal year. One measure: Plenty of vintners don't want their wines reviewed out of concern that they either aren't that good or a fear of a passive review. I prefer to taste the entire range. You have to taste the good wines to know the bad ones, and vice versa.
Based on nearly 200 reviews, the quality of the 2011 Napa Cabernets ranges from fair to, on a few occasions, outstanding. There is a definite vintage profile. Because of the cooler weather, most of the best wines are just ripe enough to entice. But they're not as opulent or fleshy as they are in warmer years. The wines are also notably earthy and tannic, with more pronounced dusty cedar and damp loamy earth, dried or roasted herb, and gritty, drying tannins.
Judging by the stated alcohol levels, vintners did the best they could to achieve maximum ripeness, with most in the low to high 14s and a few exceeding 15 percent.
The most successful Cabernets are easy to spot, and so far they have come from an eclectic mix of sites. After the 2011 harvest, many winemakers believed the mountain-grown grapes fared the best, and that is true with the likes of Brand Napa Valley, Bevan Cellars, Tor, Harlan, Hall, Continuum, Schrader and Diamond Creek. In fact, the three vineyard bottlings from Diamond Creek are about as different as I can recall in the past 40 years. Where the grapes were grown proved the vintage—location was key in 2011.
Wines from the valley floor have been less even and exciting, not that they're not well made. It's just that the lack of ripeness, depth and texture stands out. Many are very good (85–89 points), so there are plenty of successes, but they're wines that frequently score about 5 points higher in better years.
The best wines avoid the damper flavors, but even when the wines are extracted and concentrated, the flavors are what they are. Most of these 2011s are best consumed earlier than later, although they are hardly soft and light, as has been suggested elsewhere. Prices remain at about the same levels as in 2010 or 2009, and some wineries have even raised prices slightly.
Also of note, some wineries have consolidated their production into larger volumes instead of smaller lots of individual bottlings. Robert Mondavi made 130,000 cases of its Napa Valley bottling; Hall made 30,000 of one Cabernet bottling.
Vintages must be assessed within the context of the year, and the wines among their peers. The best 2011 Napa Cabernets are worth seeking out. It's always enlightening to experience a range of wines from a mixed vintage, and while I don't expect most of the 2011s to be grand wines, enough of them will surprise you.