Top 100 Wines: Know Your Vintages

It was a cool, wet and challenging growing season in Sonoma, yet experienced viticulturists and winemakers combined to produce excellent wines. But there were a lot fewer of them: Grape yields were down some 40 percent from normal, as growers removed unripe and rot-affected clusters so that the vines could focus their energy on ripening the remaining grapes. The wines generally have lower
alcohol levels, subtle fruitiness, more elegance and firmer tannins than in warmer years.

After 2011, this one was a dream, drama-free and consistent. This first year of a four-year drought was dry and warm but not too hot, and there was no rainfall at the wrong times. The crop was abundant and the quality excellent, with smiles all around in vineyards and cellars. “The last of our Cabernet Sauvignon crossed the scale Oct. 27,” said Dry Creek Vineyard winemaker Tim Bell. “The last two weeks were full of long days, but when we needed an adrenalin blast, the Giants came through by winning the World Series.”

It was near-perfect, with some winemakers calling it one of the best vintages in the last 30 years. Warmer than 2012, but still relatively moderate, 2013 had no heat spikes to sap grapes of their juice. A mild June, cool July and perfectly warm August and September helped create mature and complex flavors across all varieties. The whites are generous yet crisp and refreshing, the reds full-bodied, deeply fruited and balanced. “For Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, 2013 essentially offered conditions that were various degrees of wonderful,” said James Hall, co-founder and winemaker at Patz & Hall in Sonoma.

With Sonoma still in drought mode, the mild winter and spring prompted vines to push out their tender buds (which will eventually become grape clusters) very early. Spring frost can damage the buds, but 2014 didn’t allow that to happen. Harvest was compact, starting in July for sparkling wine and finishing in late October for Cabernet Sauvignon. Rain in September was merely a hiccup. “In the 17 years that I’ve been with Francis Ford Coppola Winery (in Geyserville), this has to be the best vintage I’ve ever seen, said Corey Beck, director of winemaking at the time. “The Chardonnay grapes were supple and succulent; the Cabernets were deep and complex. Across the board, it’s a great vintage.”

We’ll know more in spring 2016, but the very low yield of high-quality grapes holds promise despite the fourth year of California’s historic drought.