2016 - Another Top Vintage for Northern California


Good Northern California vintages are like perfect-skin beauties in Hollywood movies: they're so commonplace that you take them for granted, until some Joker shows up with tattoos.

That has not happened this year. We hope you will forgive the tension in the first paragraph. It's just so hard to put drama into a 2016 Northern California vintage report. The short version: it's good. Again.Rain fell on much of Northern California this week, in some places for the first time in months. But it didn't really matter because practically all of the thinner-skinned early-harvest varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were safely inside already. In fact, 2016 has seen such an early harvest that some winemakers don't know what to do with themselves.

"Two of my kids have October birthdays," Ryan Hodgins, winemaker of FEL wines on the Sonoma Coast and in Anderson Valley, told Wine-Searcher. "I can actually go to their birthday parties. Both of them were born when I still had fruit out there."

A lot of Cabernet remains to be picked, and Cabernet is what Northern California is judged by. But even there, many wineries are much further along than usual.

"We're 95 to 98 percent done," Matthew Crafton, winemaker for Chateau Montelena in Napa Valley, told Wine Searcher. "I just have a tiny little bit left."

The early harvest is the result of another mild winter, after which the vines awakened and started the whole process early. Also, there have been no major heat spikes of the type that can temporarily put a halt to the grapevines' natural processes.

As a result, the harvest has been not just early, but smooth and predictable.

"As far as yields go, this is the most predicted harvest," Michael Beaulac, general manager and winemaker of Pine Ridge Vineyards, told Wine-Searcher. "It's been really even. It's the first harvest I've seen in a while where we predicted something and it came true."

"What I really liked about the harvest is that we picked our Sauvignon Blanc in August and we had about a 10-day break between whites and reds," Elizabeth Vianna, winemaker/general manager of Chimney Rock Winery in Napa Valley, told Wine-Searcher. "We had a lot of time to spend time with our whites and then the Merlots came in and we had time to spend with them and then the Cabs came in."


In terms of crop size, Northern California had a string of three huge vintages in a row that was broken last year, perhaps because there are only so many big crops vines can produce in a row. Vintners this year are reporting that their yields are more in line with the big crops of 2012-14 that may have become the new normal.

"Size-wise, it's just a little bit below the five-year average, which includes (the small crop year of) 2011, so it's looking good," Opus One winemaker Michael Silacci told Wine-Searcher. "Quality-wise it's looking very good."

Quality, of course, is the main question people want asked in a harvest report. With some Cabernet still out there, it's too early to say the 2016 vintage is one of the great ones. But it's already obvious that it's not going to be a bad one.

"I hesitate to say it, but unbelievably we've had '12, '13, '14, '15, '16, and I don't think there's a bad vintage in the bunch," Chimney Rock's Vianna said. "In '16 I love the way the fruit developed. We had beautiful phenolic development. Great color right away. Nice tannins, nice sweet fruit."

As for what type of wines we'll see when they eventually get to stores, that appears to be hard to characterize, because 2016 has not been a cold year or a hot year. Stylistic choices by wineries will be as important as ever, as well as the differing terroir across the region. While it's easy to lump all of Napa Valley or Sonoma County together, one reason they are great wine regions in the first place is the microclimates, so asking winemakers what their grapes are like this year gets you answers that are literally all over the map. It's all good news; just different versions of it.

"I don't think I can paint Cabernet with a single brush," said Chateau Montelena's Crafton. "Most of my friends that I talk to were seeing higher yields on the valley floor. We don't really farm on the valley floor. Our Cabernet blocks, we were getting half a ton an acre or thre-quarters a ton an acre. It's pretty sparse. That obviously has an effect on how things mature. But I'm not in the camp of ultra low yield means ultra high quality. We're all farmers; we do have to make money on it."

Opus One's Silacci suggested that this week is a turning point for Cabernet grapes still on the vine, so that the flavors of this year's wines are going to be up to the winemakers.

"We've shifted out of fresh-fruit flavors," Silacci said. "That was the early part of harvest. Now we're into ripe fruit flavors, which is like cherry jam versus cherry off the tree. We tend to be among the earliest (to pick). With these early picks we're finding the wines are really structured and layered, and they've got power and finesse as well. There's no real weak spot."

While things are all warm and cuddly in Northern California, parts of France have again this year been hit with hail, storms, and the rest. How jealous should the French be of Northern California?

"They should be really jealous," Vianna said. "You get nervous because of climate change, and you wonder what it's going to mean for us. But we had a nice cool August, and sometimes it was dipping into the 40s [Farenheit; below 10C] at night. This year was a really nice vintage." 


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