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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
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 13, 2013 12:50pm ET

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.

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  December 13, 2013 1:56pm ET
I've had the opportunity to taste a number of wines from across the state produced in 2011 from home and professional winemakers where I've had knowledge of the picking and vinification decisions. Bottom line in my opinion-- North Coast wines in 2011 were mostly differentiated by Oct 4th (the ~ date of the first big rain storm) -- if the grapes were ripe at this point then the resultant wines have been (really)excellent in the low ETOH style. if they were not ripe at this point -- then there's been a mixed bag: all lean; some balanced / elegant and some not so much. Unfortunately, not much was ripe by Oct 4th. Fortunately, the south coast was spared the brunt of the post Oct 4th rains -- so there are some excellent SB and PR wines in both leaner and riper styles. I am spending most of my 2011 wine budget down there this year. Both 2012 and 2013 are going to be much, much different than 2011 and I agree with you in that I am pretty sure there are not making growers / winemakers complaining about it!!
Donald C Young
Des Moines,Iowa,USA —  December 16, 2013 2:04pm ET
My pick of the 2011 North Coast pinots so far is Aubert, others that I have tasted are flavorless, no stuffing at all.The Aubert was outstanding. Agree the South Coast wines have been fine so I assume Mr. Laube's comments are for the northern portion of California.
James Laube
Napa —  December 16, 2013 2:09pm ET
Donald, not entirely. Many wines from Santa Lucia, Paso Robles and point further south are off the pace of normal.
Sao Anash
santa barbara —  December 17, 2013 10:52am ET
"Many wines from Santa Lucia, Paso Robles and point further south are off the pace of normal."

By "points further south" I'm presuming you include Santa Barbara County in that. How can you ascertain if it's "off pace of normal" if the Wine Spectator makes little effort to visit Santa Barbara County, even on a bi-annual basis, to better learn about this complex growing region?

Santa Barbara County produced some great Pinots and Chards in 2011.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  December 17, 2013 12:56pm ET
It's true that areas south of San Francisco didn't get nearly the rain that the northern areas got, but it was still a difficult year, even in Santa Barbara County. We saw significant frost damage from the vineyards we buy fruit from, which in some cases lead to uneven ripening. Due to the cold weather, it was also difficult getting fruit ripe at all. And mold was a big problem. Sure, there were some wines that turned out great, but there were less of them compared to previous vintages - and the good ones were most likely in very short supply due to the low yields.

IMHO the best way to judge a vintage is to taste the final product. Jim gets to taste way more wine than any of us do - so he's in a unique position to give an overview of a vintage and an area. And Santa Barbara County was definitely well represented in his tastings. As much as we'd all like to have the vintage of the century every year, it's just not possible. And Mother Nature reminded us in 2011 who is really in charge.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento, CA —  December 17, 2013 3:38pm ET
Hey Brian -- when I said "...there are some excellent SB and PR wines in both leaner and riper styles" one of my data points was your wines-- which were excellent in a leaner, more elegant style. Nice job! I too made some wine from Westside Paso in 2011, so I know the trials my farmer went thru. But it was a heck of a lot better there than up here, thats for sure
Mark Mckenna
Amador County, CA —  December 17, 2013 3:42pm ET
2011 was brutal, taxing, nerve racking and at times it was hard to believe just how bad it was getting. Took FOREVER to get vineyards ripe with the constant threat of weather events looming growers were highly anxious to get things off the vines and winemakers had to decide whether to pick and at least make something or tough it out and try to make something excellent. In the end for those wineries(speaking specifically to the Sierra Foothills here) that showed foresight with proper vineyard preparation, patience, sorting (a HUGE deal in 2011) and worked with the strengths of the vintage were able to produce smaller, layered, lower alcohol, fresh wines that may lack exceptionally long term collectability but are a pleasure to drink right now.

I once heard Darrell Corti remark that "...the sign of a great winery is when they can make good wine in terrible vintages because in good vintages good is easy." 2011 was certainly all that.....
Glenn Keeler
SoCal —  December 18, 2013 3:33pm ET
I have tried wines from 15 or so producers in 2011 and I really love the vintage. My main focus is Pinot and Chard from the Sonoma Coast and Santa Barbara area and I have found the wines to be focused, fresh and with plenty of structure to age. I’m not saying the vintage was a home run, but some incredible wines were made so I hope people go out and try the wines for themselves, especially if you favor more restrained and elegant wines as I do.

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