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Struggles Show for California's 2011 Vintage

Chardonnays and Pinots are lighter and short on flavor; Cabernet won’t be much better
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 27, 2013 4:00pm ET

The difficulties of the 2011 vintage for California Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are more evident with every tasting. The 2011 Cabernets are a year away, but you can expect much of the same: variability and a lesser year. It's something you should consider when buying the current Cabernet vintages on the market.

California Chardonnay is usually one of the easiest wines to buy. Even as years differ in weather, it is usually a most reliable and consistent wine. The wines usually taste more alike from year to year than they do different, especially when they're young.

The 2011 vintage was one of the most challenging in decades. Some winemakers with 30-plus years of experience called it the worst they'd seen, across the board.

Aside from 2011 being a cool, wet year, late-season rains put the lid on the season. It simply didn't get warm enough in some areas after the rains, which led to widespread botrytis and other kinds of rot. The 2011 Chardonnays that have passed through my tasting room are lighter in body and flavor and typically 5 points lower than normal.

The 2011 Pinots are showing the same ill effects. They are lighter in body and shy on flavor and texture. One thing that stands out is that many of the Pinots I've tasted show ripeness in terms of sugar and alcohol (in the 14.5 to 15.5 percent range), but they don't taste ripe. Another is that the tannins are very dry. It's as if you can taste the dampness of the vintage when the grapes were harvested. I'm surprised too that prices are about the same or higher for many of these wines. Better to look for Pinots from 2009, the best recent vintage, and 2010, a cool year but not as cold as 2011.

As for Cabernet, it is one of the heartiest grapes, but there's only so much vintners can do when faced with unripe grapes or rot. You'll hear a few vintners put a positive spin on 2011, and there are almost always exceptions to the rule. But many vineyards went unpicked—there's no point wasting time and money attempting to salvage a bad year. Most of the worst wines have been dumped.

Regardless of what winemakers say, they will be relieved when their 2011s are gone.

Ryan Pease
Paso Robles, CA —  March 27, 2013 8:31pm ET
It was a tough year for the state, but the west side of Paso Robles did really well in 2011. I have a feeling you will have a few gems from the area come your way as the 11's get released over the next year.

Ryan Pease
Paix Sur Terre Wines
Jason Carey
Oakland, CA, USA —  March 27, 2013 9:21pm ET
It depends. I am loving a lot of wines from producers who generally work at the high acid less ripe end of the spectrum..
Morgan Hill, CA, USA —  March 28, 2013 11:55am ET
A couple of the 2011 pinots I have tasted thus far have been very good. All were Sonoma Coast and include: Failla and Rivers Marie.

Sean Duffy
Pittsburgh —  March 29, 2013 8:42am ET
I received my spring allotment from Kosta Browne. I have tasted the 2011Sonoma Coast so far. I am extremely disappointed. I wish Wine Spectator would have reviewed them before I wasted $1400!
Kerry Powers
Indiana —  March 29, 2013 6:19pm ET
I tasted my 2011 Kosta Browne Russian River and it was outstanding. Have not opened the Sonoma coast yet.
Dave Reuther
Deerfield, Illinois —  March 29, 2013 7:16pm ET
One exception for 2011 is the Meiomi Monterey Santa Barbara Sonoma County Pinot Noir. They were able to find enough grapes to make 92,000 cases of wine which WS rated 92 points. It is my current favorite every day red.
Marsh Moore
San Diego, CA —  March 29, 2013 11:41pm ET
I recently visited several Paso Robles wineries and most were releasing their first 2011's. Many of the wines we tasted were very good although the yields were about a third of normal. One of the most exciting wines tasted was the 2011 Bodegas De Edgar Grenache; rich, full of flavor and everything I look for in this wonderful varietal. Maybe a notch below '09 and '10, Denner, Epoch and Booker all have another successful line up in 2011.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  March 30, 2013 5:34pm ET
I thought the RRV's Pinots overall came out fine, but the "True" Sonoma Coastal vineyard were tricky.
Kinda like the 2001 Vintage, or perhaps the 1998.
We declassified everything except the RRV, and yields were down 50%.
So the 2011 vintage like it or not, will not last long.

Roadhouse Winery
Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  March 31, 2013 4:56am ET
I think James is spot on with his 2011 Vintage assessment. Quality wineries should do rigorous selection of their top wines or de-classify.

This will only make accounts/finance very uneasy. However, this defining vintage will shows who,s in it for the long run
Phil Bilodeau
Milwaukee, WI —  March 31, 2013 9:12pm ET
Given Jim Laube's well-documented predilection (and proportionate ratings) for high-alcohol, highly-extracted (and to my palate, unbalanced) wines, it's tough to read this as an objective (not that wine can ever be that) review. Definitely a cool, lean vintage, but it might be a nice correction for those who were gunning for the maximum ripeness, 16% alcohol, 98 WS score. Those that strove for balanced wine from the get-go generally did just fine, in my preliminary tastings.
Adam Lee
Sonoma County, CA —  March 31, 2013 9:35pm ET
The 2011 vintage certainly was challenging. It was the coolest vintage we've ever experienced, with rain coming on October 3 (for a few days) and again on October 10th. A few things I'd mention:

1) At our winery (and I think we are pretty typical), all of the Sauvignon Blanc came in before the rain, some of the Pinot Noir came in before the rain (but some after), and some of the Zinfandel & Chardonnay came in before the rain (some after). All of the Syrah & Grenache came after.

2)The two rainstorms were big up north (Sonoma and Napa) with up to 6.5 inches falling in one of our vineyards....but the effects of the rain were much more limited south of the Santa Cruz Mountains with rainfall totals from the first storm being between 0.5 and .75 inches and the second storm didn't hit the area at all. Thus I feel much more confident in the quality of our Pinots from the Central Coast.

3) Mark Lyon is correct that declassification was necessary. We declassified a lot of our fruit, sold some on bulk for the first time ever, and didn't produce a Syrah or Grenache from the North Coast (it all, along with 80% of the Zin) ended up in a $14 table wine. We lose $22 per case for each case we sell to a distributor (yes, Mark was right too....makes the finance folks nervous).

Just a few random thoughts.

Adam Lee
Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery
Ann Vaughan
Kennett Square, PA, USA —  April 1, 2013 12:15pm ET
James, why is there no score range on the vintage charts for California Pinot (and others) for 2011?

I have scaled back my 2011 California purchases but also have and will continue to support my favorite small producers.

Adam, I always appreciate your posts!
James Laube
Napa —  April 1, 2013 12:17pm ET
Ann, haven't tasted enough yet, but that will be coming soon in the Pinot issue, in September.
James Laube
Napa —  April 1, 2013 12:20pm ET
Location was vital and for Pinot and Chardonnay, Sonoma had a tough time. Further south, the weather was different, Paso being a good example.
James Laube
Napa —  April 1, 2013 12:25pm ET
Phil, ripeness is not the issue for me, it's about flavor and most California wines are in the 14.5 alcohol range or higher. There are plenty of lower alcohol wines I recommend based on flavor, but I don't look at the alcohol level to decide whether I like a wine or not, just the flavor, balance and finesse.
Jamie Sherman
Sacramento —  April 1, 2013 4:15pm ET
I'm a home winemaker -- aka go to the vineyards, pick myself, do everything myself. I make Syrah. There are years that the wines make themselves and others that can be a chemistry experiment. 2012 is lovely and has involved minimal intervention. 2011 - Oye. Problems with balance, problems with VA, etc, etc. If I could declassify and sell I would have. As it is, I wanted to save my investment and that meant adding acid, blending in bulk wine, whatever I could do. I succeeded and the end result is nice but what a challenge! On the bright side, I learned quite a bit from my 2011 vintage.
James Laube
Napa —  April 1, 2013 4:20pm ET
Jamie, indeed, the challenging years are often more instructive and no doubt many winemakers are pleased by what they accomplished...would they wish for another 2011...no...
Mike Officer
Santa Rosa, CA —  April 1, 2013 9:08pm ET
It's funny how people can have such different opinions about vintages. 2010 was my vintage from hell. But 2011? I feel like we made our best set of wines to date. Are they dark, deeply extracted, black-fruited wines? No. They are lithe, red-fruited wines with fresh flavors, great balance and wonderful acidity. They will age and develop exceptionally well. Certainly 2011 required a lot of work in the vineyards but it was nice bringing in fruit that needed no adjustments in the fermentor. Our fermentations were also all very well behaved. And strangely, unlike most other producers, our yields were average to slightly above average. Go figure! In the end, it will be interesting to see how consumers respond to this vintage. I suspect some will really like it; others may not.
David Rossi
Napa, CA —  April 2, 2013 10:28am ET
I'm in Mike's camp. We were able to pick when we wanted in 2011 with the exception of one very cool climate vineyard in Sonoma that went a few days early due to rain. Weather didn't force our hands at all in any other vineyards from Chalone to Anderson Valley. Yields were light and concentration good. We declassified over 50% of the wine, but we always do about that.

Contrast that with 2012 that everyone is raving about, where yields were huge and flavors diluted. Fruit had to hang longer to build flavors driving up alcohol %. In the winery we had to bleed off a lot of juice. It will be a good year, but not great. Probably only 30% of the wine will make it into vineyard designates.

Truely odd how our experience just doesn't match others.
James Laube
Napa —  April 2, 2013 6:09pm ET
Certainly pleased to hear that Mike and David...There are almost always moments of glory in event he most difficult battles...so congratulations and thank you for the insights...David, declassifing 50 percent seems very high...a large annual expenditure on labor, etc...but glad you're aiming for quality and sharing your thoughts.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  April 3, 2013 9:29am ET
My $0.02 worth....

Based upon my experiences with my wine and others, I think that Central and South Coast wines and anything from Northern California that was ripe and picked prior to the early October rain events are across the board likely to be very good to excellent, especially for those who prefer a slighly less ripe style of wine

I think anything else is going to be pretty variable(although Jamie's syrah from the above post was actually quite drinkable :) ....) but hopefully with rigorous selection in the vineyard and skill in the winery, there are still going to be a number of really good N Cal wines. I am going to pick up my 1/2 of a Carlisle alottment today and the first thing I am going to do is try the 2011 Sonoma Zin. I love Mike's Zins and it will be fascinating to compare the 2011 with prior vintages

Jacob Fetzer
Redwood Valley —  April 4, 2013 10:08am ET
Early impressions of the 2011s from Mendocino County yet?
David Rossi
Napa, CA —  April 4, 2013 2:02pm ET
"David, declassifing 50 percent seems very high...a large annual expenditure on labor, etc.."

Jim, Don't I know it...
James Laube
Napa —  April 4, 2013 2:16pm ET
Jacob, I've spoken with about a dozen winemakers working mostly in Anderson Valley with Pinot...most say it was a very challenging vintage, but they are pleased by what they have...Seems a good party line...Most are much higher on 2012.
Jacob Fetzer
Redwood Valley —  April 5, 2013 12:41pm ET

Thanks for the word on the street. I think that everyone can easily say that 2011 was cool and challenging, especially if you weren't able to get the fruit off before the first rains like Adam pointed out.

Jake Fetzer
Jake Bilbro
Healdsburg, CA, USA —  April 5, 2013 2:01pm ET
I totally agree with you Mike Officer. 2010 was beyond hell for us. As we predominantly have dry farmed old vines, the heat spike absolutely destroyed us. We lost close to 80% of our Zinfandel. In 2011 by comparison, those same low yielding old vines produced beautiful fruit and we harvested 29 out of 30 acres before the first rain. Maybe this is more of a Zinfandel specific situation? -just a thought. I know other varieties in Sonoma and Mendocino were much less affected in 2010 by the heat but in some cases went unpicked in 2011...
Steve Balmuth
Dana Point, CA, USA —  April 7, 2013 7:10pm ET
You should try Ryan Pease's Paix Sur Terre 2011's. They are beautiful, mostly Mourvedre based wines, from Glenrose Vineyard on the westside of Paso Robles. They are outstanding!
Karl Mark
Illinois —  April 10, 2013 9:10am ET
With regard to Phil's point, I think that people like fruit & flavors at different levels of ripeness. Just like some people like bananas brown, and others like them greenish/yellow. One person might consider the fruit under or over ripe. I'm one of those consumers who will enjoy the 2011 vintage from the sounds of Jim's blog entry. I am one of those people who really dislikes the flavors of over ripe Pinot Noir & Cabernet, which is why I typically avoid California. Grenache, Syrah & Zinfandel I am less sensitive too and appreciate all the ranges of ripe fruit. My only bone to pick is when reviewers don't tell me, the consumer, how ripe or high the alcohol is in the wine. A "great" Cabernet is not 14.5% alcohol with sweet prune flavors, although others may enjoy it.
Scott Willoughby
Mendocino County —  April 12, 2013 9:54am ET
Our 2011 Grand Reserve Chardonnay has been warmly received and enjoyed by many restaurants and bars, we were able to harvest before the rain and enjoyed good brix and flavor. Syrah is a good example of classic flavors, Old Vine Zin a bit less of the key notes. We definitely look forward to the 2012 wines, and thankfully, are producing a lot more of it than in 2011. Our neck of the woods in Mendocino was warm and relatively dry at harvest, the storms split around us I guess. Seebass Family Wines

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