Vintage Update: 2011 Napa Valley Cabernet


Napa Valley grape growers and winemakers wore out their worry beads in 2011. Rain came early, often and didn’t want to go away. It was a cool year as well, forcing winemakers to spend even more time walking the vineyards than usual.
Napa Valley is accustomed to dry, warm, sunny growing seasons. It’s Cabernet Sauvignon wines are widely known for ripe, forward fruit and a rich, full-bodied palate. Consequently, many wine writers freaked out about 2011, some declaring it a disaster before the first of June. 
They should know better. Cool, even wet years in other regions often result in complex, elegant wines with food-friendly freshness and excellent aging ability. And, while rare, 2011 wasn’t the first cold and damp vintage Napa has seen.
To illustrate the impact weather had on Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon in 2011, we’ll focus on one sub-region, the Rutherford AVA. Rutherford is, with Oakville and Stags Leap District, considered to be one of the very best sites for Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa Valley. It is also a good reference point because, while it’s one AVA, it is diverse.
Rutherford includes some of the oldest and most-respected wineries and vineyards, such as Inglenook and Beaulieu Vineyards. It has high-production wineries as well as many boutique wineries that make just a few hundred cases. There are large, commercial vineyards and small ones practicing organic or biodynamic viticulture. There are volcanic soils and sedimentary gravel, slopes and flats, lean soils and fertile, sun exposures to the east, south and west. And, being somewhat centrally located in Napa Valley, Rutherford is middle of the road for both temperature and rainfall.
Before we get to Rutherford’s wines though, let’s look at what rain and cold can do to grapes. During Spring, vines undergo “fruit set.” This is when all the tiny little flowers clustered on the vine begin turning into grapes. Those flowers are sensitive and vulnerable. Heavy rains or winds can damage the flowers, preventing their transition to grapes. The result, called “shatter,” is that the vine will bear fewer grapes. Some Napa Valley vineyards were unaffected by shatter, others suffered a 30% loss.
Cool weather, exacerbated by chilling rain and the dark clouds from which it falls, slows down vine productivity and grape ripening. Photosynthesis requires sun and warmth. UV rays help grapes create thick, chewy skins that provide color and tannins. In Rutherford and throughout Napa Valley, the cool weather necessitated a long growing season for grapes to achieve acceptable ripeness.
Damp grapes are prone to mildew and various types of rot. Mildew can be treated. Rot is harder to deal with in a frequently cool, wet year and can quickly take over whole grape bunches. Even Botrytis, the “noble rot” that creates wonderful dessert wines when it affects certain white wine grapes, ruins Cabernet Sauvignon. If it’s present at harvest the only options are extremely careful sorting of the grapes on each bunch or completely discarding afflicted bunches. 
Rot was definitely a problem in 2011. As a result, yields were down and a great number of wineries made less Cabernet Sauvignon than in a typical year. Some of discarded fruit was sold to bulk producers. Be cautious when you see surprisingly low-priced, Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon from a label you’ve never heard of. The bottle may contain wine made from grapes more familiar wineries refused to use.

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  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 8,426

    Very interesting report. Thank you. I love Napa Cabernets, but, happily, I love so many other wines. I cannot focus on any single grape variety or region or maker. So, my personal knowledge is augmented to a very large extent by the experiences of people whose job is is to focus as you have done, here.

    I do have some familiarity with some of the makers cited in this article. Specifically, I have been enjoying St. Supery cabs off and on for about 20 years. I have to ask if you correctly identified the St. Supery Estate Cabernet Sauvignon to which you gave a very nice review. My question comes from the fact that you indicate the price for this wine is $100.

    The winery web site indicates that I can order the 2011 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon for $30. A quick web search indicates that the "street price" is in the mid-$20s. If you click on the link in the article, the Snooth entry for that wine in their database shows two retailers selling the wine for around $30 ( )

    St. Supery does have another Cabernet Sauvignon bottling from their Dollarhide estate vineyard. A winery price of $100 for this wine would not be out of line, in my opinion. Their web site does not indicate that this wine is available, yet, but I could certainly see how you may have been able to taste it prior to release. Is is possible that this is the wine you tasted?

    Another possibility is that you tasted a pre-release special bottling from the Rutherford "Estate" vineyard. Was there any other indication on the label such as the word "Reserve" or anything like that?

    Here is what I am hoping, The St. Supery Estate Cabernet Sauvignon that you tasted is actully is a 93-rated wine that is available for less than $30. That would be so cool.

    Sep 15, 2014 at 5:59 PM

  • Fred,
    I’m glad you enjoyed our wine. Thank you for your kind words.
    I think your background of and insight into the vintage was spot on and very useful for anyone not familiar with what we experienced in 2011. No question it was a challenge and many wineries were forced to make frustrating decisions about what should stay and what needed to go. Unlike most years, it took about 6 months before the lots that we ended up keeping came around and began to show real promise. Typically, you can determine the relative quality during fermentation, but the wines were really muddled for quite some time. Then there were those that had no hope from the get go….
    As for the Rutherford Dust tasting itself, I think it was a great eye-opener for people to try so many '11s and see that a lot of producers made some really pretty and truly 'elegant' (a descriptor that I suspect will be well-employed for, but does aptly apply to, many bottlings of the vintage) wines.
    Once again, thank you and I appreciate our inclusion.
    Justin (Hunnicutt)

    Sep 15, 2014 at 8:37 PM

  • Snooth User: Fred Swan
    152223 185

    EMark, I'm glad you enjoyed the article. The St. Supery Estate Cab comes from two estate vineyards in Napa Valley, but of them is not in Rutherford. So, the $30 wine is not the one I tasted. I did taste the Rutherford Estate Cabernet, which may not yet be released but is $100. A number of the wines I reviewed are not yet released.

    Justin, thank you for your comments. I'm glad you agree with my assessment. I was really pleased that so many of the wines I tasted showed very well despite the weather. There's never a dull moment the winery business, but the rewards are delicious.

    Sep 16, 2014 at 7:44 PM

  • Snooth User: EMark
    Hand of Snooth
    847804 8,426

    TY, Fred. I figured it was something like that. I like the winery. I'll look for it.

    Sep 16, 2014 at 7:58 PM

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