Spinning gold from a blighted vintage

Sheep nibble Cathiard Vineyard at sunset

The most successful 2020 Napa Cabs in particular are worthy of attention. A slightly shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Above, sheep nibble at the Cathiard Vineyard at sunset.

One of the fascinating things about wine, unlike most of the things we eat or drink, is that every year produces wines that are, and usually taste, obviously different. And each vintage, as wine years are called, is clearly identified on the label. But the reputation of some combinations of region and vintage are irrevocably blighted, sometimes even before the grapes are harvested.

The 2021 growing season in Burgundy was such a nightmare for vignerons, who had to cope with frost, persistent mildew and a dispiritingly long wet, cool summer, that some merchants and consumers decided in advance that the wines would taste dire too. More fool them.

Similarly, the 2014 growing season in Barolo and Barbaresco saw unparalleled rain, leading some importers and many Nebbiolo-philes to pass on that year. Yet the wines themselves turned out to exhibit delightful finesse. It all depends on the skill of the producers, how selective they are in what they choose to put in the bottle and the extent to which they are prepared to weather a financial hit. 

This year, 2023, just as the grapes were about to be harvested, poor old Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand’s North Island was battered by Cyclone Gabrielle, smothering many (but not all) of the vineyards with silt. Yet by no means all 2023 Hawke’s Bay wines should be rejected. Master of Wine Steve Smith of Smith & Sheth swears they harvested some ‘really great’ Chardonnay from the Quinn vineyard, for instance.

One of the most obviously blighted vintages is 2020 along the west coast of the US whose record dry summer resulted in a series of terrible fires, from Washington State to southern California. The legacy of those fires, apart from a tragic loss of life, was a sky so thick with smoke for so long that there was a dramatic effect on the quality of air and sunlight. Our US correspondent Alder Yarrow wrote in Harvest of fear, ‘On 9 September the sun didn’t rise in San Francisco, as smoke from hundreds of wildfires blew into the lower atmosphere around the Bay Area, resulting in an entire day of eerie orange twilight that unnerved most of northern California.’

This was a hangover from the 10,000-plus lightning strikes over the weekend of 15 August that met drought-dessicated California and eventually set so much land ablaze that by the end of the summer, after the so-called Glass Fire that struck for good measure at the end of September, a total of 4.2 million acres (1.7 million ha) had burnt, including wineries and vineyards. It was hard to be a climate-change denier in 2020 in California, which had already suffered extreme wildfires in 2017.

Initially in mid August in Napa and Sonoma the wind blew eastwards, directing the smoke away from most of the vineyards, and it remained high above them at an altitude of about 5,000 feet (over 1,500 m) for a blessed 10 days. But towards the end of the month the smoke descended to a level such that winery staff at some Napa Valley wineries were issued with respirator masks.

It had been such a hot summer that most of the white wine grapes and some Pinot Noir had been harvested before the fires took hold. But Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa’s pride and joy, is a late-ripening variety, and the fashion for many years had been to keep the grapes on the vine for extra ‘hang time’, to soften the tannins, reduce acidity and ensure there was not a hint of the leafiness associated with less-ripe Cabernet. 

But in 2020, as one producer of red wines put it, ‘on 26 August the smoke descended, so the red wine harvest was over. And anyway the vines got pummelled by multiple days over 100 °F [38 °C]. Even if the fruit was clean, the vines were just so tired and stressed.’

Quite apart from this, there was the long-term effect of the smoke. Australia has a long history of being ravaged by bushfires, perhaps the most dramatic in the wine industry being that of Black Saturday in February 2009 in the Yarra Valley in what is meant to be the relatively cool state of Victoria. Wine scientists there have had many years to get to grips with a phenomenon known as smoke taint, whereby grapes and wines that seem initially to be unaffected can start to develop a wide range of strange flavours, the product of compounds that develop during fermentation or maturation. (See this new discovery from the University of Oregon of a potentially useful marker of smoke taint.)

The minute smoke became an apparent danger to California grapes, wine producers there were scrolling through their lists of contacts to find Australian counterparts who might be able to advise them. And then came a rush to send samples of grapes and wines to labs to have them analysed, all exacerbated by the fact that such a high proportion of California grapes are bought from grape growers rather than grown by the producers themselves, with all the contractual niceties one would expect to be involved. Insurance brokers hadn’t a minute to catch a cup of coffee (see Smoke taint – a US lawyer's view). And American labs were so overwhelmed that wine producers were forced to send samples all over the world.

All this was happening during the pandemic. According to Linda Reiff, CEO of Napa Valley Vintners, ‘no one gave a thought to COVID in the fires. Three of our staff of 20 lost their homes, for instance.’ Survival at any cost became the imperative. Wine quality seemed a detail.

But the team at Napa Valley’s flagship Harlan Estate led by Cory Empting had time to consider it. For some years they had been transitioning to dry farming rather than the irrigation that is routine in so much of California. This resulted in smaller grapes so crops were tending to be smaller, but also earlier ripening, which in 2020 saved the vintage. (Frosts had also shrunk crops in some areas, which also hastened ripening.)

Harlan Estate 2020 bottle

As Empting explained while sharing this bottle at Meadowood’s Forum restaurant, a temporary structure while the property is restored post-fires, ‘it was disheartening to see the smoke column from the wildfires, though at least it was blowing away from the Valley. But the wind could change at any moment so we tasted the grapes and decided to pick then, picking one-quarter of the estate on the first day, 22 August. In the old days we would expect to pick 30 days after veraison [when the grapes turn from green to red] but in 2020 we picked just 15 days later.’ Expecting the wine to be meagre, he was surprised to find the 2020 fermentations following unexpected paths and by the overall quality, depth and finesse of the wine, adding ‘because you have more acidity, the tannins are more reactive. You find you’ve got it all wrong, which is a bit embarrassing – and revelatory at the same time.’ The 2020 Harlan Estate, which won’t be released for another year, is certainly quite a revelation (see Harlan makes a change).

A rather shockingly low proportion of Napa Valley’s vineyards, which benefit from California’s dry climate and so are not routinely affected by fungal diseases, are certified organic. But those who follow organic and/or biodynamic practices also see their grapes ripen earlier than their neighbours. So the likes of Cathiard Vineyard, Frog’s Leap, Quintessa and Spottswoode were able to pick relatively early and evade the worst effects of the fires and smoke.

While in Napa Valley recently, I asked the vintners’ organisation to put out a call for samples of 2020 Cabernets for me to taste as I found it hard to believe they were all disastrous. Many producers are not releasing any at all, and no one will be boasting of a bumper crop, but among the 48 wines submitted, I found many perfectly respectable wines and list below those that are fine wines by any measure – albeit at Napa Valley’s elevated prices.

I detected no signs of smoke taint on any of them (it would surely be a foolish producer who submitted a flawed wine for my tasting) and was rather charmed by the promise in the background notes on the delicious example from Gallica, ‘picked 18 September. Smoke taint analysis available on request.’

If these 2020 Cabs have a general shortcoming it is a literal one: they tend to lack the luscious long finish that the best Napa Cabernets can flaunt. But otherwise, they should give pleasure – so long as they are not tasted alongside the heavily touted 2021s.

Successful 2020 Napa Cabernets

Few of these are released yet but guide prices in US dollars have been provided.

Cathiard Vineyard
All three of this Bordeaux-owned estate’s debut bottlings: Hora ($125), Founding Brothers ($225) and Cathiard Vineyard ($395).

Both single-vineyard wines, Sunbasket and Kronos (each $225).

Frog’s Leap
Certified-organic Rutherford estate wine – a relative bargain ($75).

From their estate in St Helena ($210).

Grgich Hills
Miljenko’s Selection ($90) and Yountville Old Vines ($185) – both in admirably lightweight bottles.

Harlan Estate
The 2020 will be released in April 2024. 2018 is about $1,925. A bottle.

The 2020 Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) includes some wine that would usually go into their flagship blend.

Biodynamic Rutherford estate wine ($230).

Dr Crane Vineyard bottling ($95) from this family-owned St Helena estate.

Impeccable certified-biodynamic St Helena estate wine; the 2019 is about $257.

See Napa's controversial 2020 reds for tasting notes, scores and suggested drink dates.