The Curtain Is Dropping on California's 2011 Vintage

A difficult vintage has resulted in tough reds with drying tannins, and careless vintners ended up with musty, moldy-tasting wines
Dec 13, 2013

With the exception of the 2011 California Cabernets, which are trickling in, most of the 2011 wines from California have passed through our tasting room.

For some vintners, 2011 was the worst harvest in decades. For many, 2011 was the most difficult in a career. It's impossible to put a happy face on a year marked by uniformly cold temperatures, hard rain at harvest, crops at 50 percent of hope and minimal financial returns.

Yet for all the headaches and ordinary wines from 2011, there are plenty of lessons. One is that modern viticultural practices could salvage what was in most ways a nightmarish vintage.

Those who made excellent wines clearly had vineyards in pristine sites and paid attention to the smallest of details. Those who made a substantial amount of excellent wine, as in a few thousand cases, were really on top of everything, including separating marginal lots from superior ones.

2011 is the first vintage I can recall where there are a significant number of wines marked by a high presence of musty and even moldy flavors. You rarely find mold in California wines, but botrytis was present in many vineyards.

Some winemakers passed on picking entire vineyards where the grapes were of weak quality and mold was present. Mold is tricky. It can sneak up on winemakers that thought they had a clean pick. Those vintners (and there are many) who don't monitor their vineyards and grapes closely paid the price of inattentiveness.

Many of the grapes clearly didn't ripen sufficiently. Even those who favor lower alcohols have to be troubled by the narrow flavor profiles and lack of depth, texture and substance in many 2011s. You can taste Pinots and Rhône-style reds that are successful, but only in the context of the vintage, and that's an important consideration. Each vintage has its own signature.

One trait that runs through most of the 2011 California reds is the pronounced dryness of the tannins. Tannins don't melt away as some would have us believe.

There are a couple of ways to approach wines that have these kinds of dry tannins. One is to drink them young and enjoy whatever fruit exists and live with the tannins. I wouldn't expect most 2011s to gain over time. In fact, they will have a narrower drink window than most, and the dryness will persist. Wines die from the inside out. The tannins hang around for the long run. The marginal mustiness in many wines is more likely to get worse; it certainly won't disappear.

All things considered, some winemakers can rightly claim 2011 a success, but I've yet to talk to one who is hoping for a rerun anytime soon.

United States California Red Wines 2011

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