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In Napa, Wine Professionals Reconsider Once-Maligned Vintage

Sometimes, popular sentiment and conventional wisdom is wrong in the moment—too quick to judge, too short on perspective. Looking back can be transformational.

Such is true with wine vintages, perhaps none more than the 2011 vintage for Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. A cold, miserable growing season whose wines were widely panned upon release, many now come back to the 2011s with a new sense of respect. Many find them nicely balanced, structured and elegant in style, due to cooler climatic conditions and attentive winemaking.

Inglenook owner Francis Ford Coppola is among the vintage’s champions. In January, he hosted a Zoom tasting to revisit not only his 2011s, but those from Corison Winery and Ridge Vineyards.

The vintage was significant for Coppola. It was the year that he reintroduced the Inglenook name and trademark to the historic Rutherford property he bought in 1975 and subsequently called Niebaum-Coppola. It was also the first vintage for winemaker Philippe Bascaules of Château Margaux, hired as Inglenook’s general manager and winemaker in 2011.

Cathy Corison prunes grapes
“It was unseasonably cool from the start,” says winemaker Cathy Corison about the conditions of the 2011 vintage / Photo courtesy Corison Winery

“I felt that Napa Valley was being held in a condition of ripe, jammy and aggressive wines,” says Coppola. “That’s what everybody was making.” Coppola says that his preference was for more food-friendly wines with lower alcohol content. “Bascaules gave me in 2011 exactly what I had hoped for, the wines were barely 14% [alcohol by volume], more elegant and fresh.” Bascaules continues to push for elegance and freshness in the Inglenook wines, which includes efforts to start the pruning cycle earlier in hopes of picking earlier.

Cathy Corison, founding partner and winemaker of Corison Wines, strives for elegance and freshness in her wines, too. The 2011 vintage threw some wrenches in that endeavor.

“It was unseasonably cool from the start,” she said during the tasting. “We got five inches of rain in May and June during flowering and bloom, so it was a small crop and harvest was delayed by this at least three weeks.”

A lot of time was spent on canopy management to get air into the clusters to help ripening and minimize rot. Then, heat spikes in late September and cold weather in early October that brought two inches of rain furthered issues with rot.

“Indian summer in mid-October saved the day,” she said. “We got ripeness at lower sugar than we were accustomed to, but ripeness nonetheless.”

Corison’s winery and marquee site, the Kronos Vineyard, is one of the oldest Cabernet sites in Napa Valley. It sits along the benchlands of the Mayacamas Mountains near St. Helena, in gravelly, well-drained soils.

“[The 2011 vintage] was the perfect opportunity to make wines with finesse that were beautiful and aromatic and will sing for a long time,” she said. “I love the floral perfume that develops in a long, cool season.”

“Some were predicting a terrible year before the first fruit was harvested. If your mind is conditioned to hate it before you taste it, winning affection is quite the uphill battle.”—Linda Neal, Tierra Roja

At Tierra Roja in Oakville, owner and vintner Linda Neal remembers two distinct harvests that season, before the rains and after.vintner Linda Neal remembers two distinct harvests that season, before the rains and after.

“We harvested the day before the rains started, October 3,” she says. “We only had to bump up a day earlier from our original plan. Many felt that the wines made after the rains were not of the same quality.”

She says that on the eastern hills of the appellation, where Tierra Roja is, cool and wet years are a good thing.

“It is nearly impossible to have too much water on this site,” she says. “Since we normally harvest in early to mid-September, the extra hang time is manageable. If you add an extra month to some vineyards, you have lost all the hours of warmth and sun needed to ripen the fruit, and sugar can only come through dehydration. So, some sites genuinely struggle with a year like 2011.”

Tastes have changed since the wines were released. Hopefully, preconceived notions have also shifted.

There are multiple reasons to revisit the 2011 vintage. One, 10 years is a good time to revisit any Cabernet vintage. For many wines, it’s when they begin to reach their prime. Second, tastes have changed since the wines were released. Hopefully, preconceived notions have also shifted.

“People taste what they are expecting to taste,” says Neal. “Some were predicting a terrible year before the first fruit was harvested. If your mind is conditioned to hate it before you taste it, winning affection is quite the uphill battle.”

But wines shine at different times. And personal preferences dictate whether someone will appreciate a wine, regardless of overall vintage conditions or scores.

“It is perhaps a year that just needed a little more time to be at its best,” says Neal. “People like different things. I have found that 2011 is a favorite among [those] who really enjoy wines with complexity, but it will never be chocolate-covered cherries.”

Ultimately, what the 2011s may give us is an appreciation for the many styles of Cabernet that are possible, even in Napa Valley.

Napa Cabernet grapes
Due to cooler climatic conditions and attentive winemaking, the 2011 Napa Cabernets are now deemed elegant and structured / Photo via Getty

2011s we liked when they were released

Darioush 2011 Signature Series Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $95, 96 points. Sanguine and brooding in dense layers of juicy black fruit, leather and tobacco, this is classic Napa Valley Cabernet with an elegance at its core, that’s also seamless, complex and age-worthy. From relatively cooler sites in Oak Knoll and Mount Veeder, and a cooler year too, this vintage sings for this producer, showing balance and power in equal measure. Editors’ Choice.

Shafer 2011 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon (Stags Leap District); $250, 95 points. This mighty icon of the Napa Valley shows it can handle a cool vintage with as much power and velvety grace as in any other year, providing plenty of grippy tobacco, leather and cedar atop a tannic backbone and mouthwatering mouthfeel. A 100% varietal wine fromvarious estate-farmed vineyard blocks, it guards its minerality with a steely gaze, rationing out black currant, clove and tobacco in measured waves. Drink now through 2021. Cellar Selection.

Venge 2011 Bone Ash Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $85, 95 points. This is made from 100% Cabernet grown in the St. Helena estate vineyard. The wine is exceptionally pure and delicious, rich in black currant, chocolate, black cherry and lots of toasty new French oak. The all-important tannins are exquisitely ripe and as fine as velvet. Nowhere near ready, this wine wants a good eight years in the cellar, and will gradually evolve through the mid-2020s, at the very least. Cellar Selection.

B Cellars 2011 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $185, 94 points. A 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from a prominent site, this wine boasts bright, juicy red cassis and pomegranate fruit supported by complex layers of dried herb, coconut and pencil shavings. Ready to enjoy now and through 2021, it finishes with a taste of bittersweet chocolate. Cellar Selection.

Diamond Creek 2011 Volcanic Hill Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley); $200, 94 points. The Volcanic Hill section of Diamond Creek’s vineyard on Diamond Mountain is, as advertised, influenced by volcanic soils. The wine imparts a chalky consistency to some extent, rounded out by dark, ripe plum and mocha, with a long, intense finish. Age through 2025. Cellar Selection.

Paul Hobbs 2011 Beckstoffer Dr. Crane Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (St. Helena); $175 94 points. Decadent in coconut flake and vanilla, this is a fruity vintage of one of Hobbs’ top-of-the-top Cabernets. Soft and structured, the silky tannins deftly managed, it captures the essence of the Napa Valley’s best valley floor grapes at the hands of an expert winemaker, a textbook marriage of beauty and brawn.

Tierra Roja 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon (Oakville); $140, 94 points. A 100% Cabernet Sauvignon grown on the vintner’s estate, this wine is holding back some of its complexity now in lieu of aging potential. Smoky oak, bay leaf, ripe raspberry, cherry and cedar tones remain elusive and subtle on the palate. This is an elegant wine, vibrant in red fruit and light spice. Cellar it through 2022. Cellar Selection.