Vintage Report: The Californian 2009 Cabernet Sauvignon Vintage

An Uneven Vintage writes Steve Heimoff

After an exceptionally cold winter (by California standards, that is), spring saw very heavy rains, punctuated by wild variations in temperature: everything from a hard frost in mid-April to a heat wave a week later, then more rain, especially in the North Coast

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Up to five inches fell during the first week of May in Napa Valley, then another heat wave came in mid-May, as temperatures passed the 100 degree mark in Napa Valley, an unusually early time for such warmth.

The result was widespread shatter. Continued rain, well into June, when the dry season is supposed to occur, led vintners to wonder about climate change. The cold pattern continued through July and August, with weathermen having to look back to 1894–in other words, more than 100 years–for a similar summer chill. Despite the spring shatter and cool weather, growers reported excessive vine vigor, due to high water tables in the soil that prompted growth. By late summer, the cool weather had vintners praying for heat to push ripeness before the rains came. Heat finally arrived during the second week of September, but there was too much of it: another heat wave. Vintners rushed to sprinkle their vines, if they could, and trusted in their canopies to shelter the baking fruit from the sun. But on Sept. 12, the roller coaster ride of 2009 continued, with heavy rain, well in advance of the normal advent of the rainy season. That, in turn, was followed by yet another heat wave.

Still, the cool summer meant that the fruit was slow to ripen. The harvest was further plagued by a record rainstorm on Oct. 12-13. By then, only 65% of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon had been picked, although this figure varied from vineyard to vineyard. Mercifully, the storm was followed by a fine period of dryness. By the end of October, several vintners told me that sunshine and wind had dried out the fields. There were scattered reports of mold, but the better wineries could sort out bad berries.

The bottom line is that 2009 is going to be an uneven year for Napa Cabernet and Bordeaux blends. Of some two hundred I’ve already reviewed (with about another 300 yet to come), my scores have not been particularly high. The wines have been good, yet lacking in depth, a fact that some wineries have attempted to compensate for, unsuccessfully, by over-oaking them. The natural advantage mountain vineyards (Veeder, Howell, Spring, Diamond, Atlas Peak) would seem to have in drainage could be mitigated by the extra coolness in the mountains. If valley floor vines struggled to mature in this chilly vintage, their mountaintop neighbors, where temperatures at 2,000 feet can be 8-12 degrees cooler than along Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, might not ripen at all.

These are theoretical conclusions, and will vary from house to house, but they are based on very real facts. As I said, we’re just starting to see the bulk of top Napa Cabernets come into the market, and I would expect that the usual suspects–the Harlans, Dalla Valles, Von Strassers, Far Nientes–will produce beautiful wines. A great winery does not require a great vintage to produce good wine–and keep in mind, even a lesser vintage in Napa Valley is a good one, compared to a disaster in Bordeaux.

However, if you’re in search of perfection, 2009 might not be the year to invest heavily in Napa Cabernet. It was simply too wild and erratic for the overall quality to be uniformly high. I quote the great winemaker, Nick Goldschmidt: “I just think the vintage was too cool over all.” And another winemaker, who does not wish to be named, said, “This may not be a 1989 [a notoriously wet, difficult year], because a lot of grapes were picked before Oct. 12 [i.e., before the big storm]. But if I were a high end Cabernet house, I would be thinking about declassification.”


Written by Steve Heimoff

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