16th Feb 2023
16th Feb 2023
Napa Valley wine lovers may want to cherry-pick recent vintages, including the 2019s and the forthcoming 2021s, because the 2020s and 2022s are looking like slim pickings.
Most of the wines tasted for this report resulted from the annual tastings hosted by Napa Valley Vintners last December. (A big thank you to the NVV team for these superbly organized tastings.) Today, half of the wines I tasted during these sessions are published; the other half will be published in two weeks. Out of fairness, the wines published first are done alphabetically; thus, some absolutely epic wines remain to feature in the following report.
This month, I also had the opportunity to taste the awe-inspiring 2019 Pym-Rae release with owner Alfred Tesseron and his daughter Justine, so I’ve included this review.
I’ve updated the 2020 overview below and included a preview of what’s in store for the 2021 wines, which are mostly still in barrel.
More Napa Valley reviews are in the pipeline, along with dedicated articles on Lail, Dominus, Continuum, MacDonald, Jasud Estate, Colgin, Salvestrin, Eisele Vineyard, Cathiard Family, Hertelendy, and many more!
One thing that stands out about 2020 is how similar the growing season was to 2017, right down to the Labor Day heatwave and, of course, the fires. Yet, if we take the smoke taint issue out of the equation, the styles of the 2020 wines are very different from the 2017s.
Smoke taint. No matter what wineries or retailers may tell you, smoke taint was a very big deal in 2020. Very few Napa reds were produced in 2020 due to this issue. A number of Napa wines have been bottled and sold that have smoke taint, even by reputable wineries. To understand more, please refer to the article on smoke taint I wrote last year.
On August 17, 2020, the first of the growing season’s fires broke out in Napa Valley, the Hennessey Fire, eventually merging with a series of fires around Sonoma and Vacaville/Fairfield, known as the LNU Lightning Complex Fires. This was a shockingly early start to fire season, occurring well before the start of harvest, meaning the impact was potentially the entire Napa Valley crop. Fortunately for Napa growers, the smoke damage to grapes from this fire was relatively contained to the area around Lake Hennessey, meaning the hopes for surrounding vineyards and Pritchard Hill were dashed well before the harvest was even a possibility. There was still a lot of hope for most other areas of the valley until the Glass Fire broke out on September 27 on Glass Mountain Road, near the border between St. Helena and Calistoga. Active for twenty-three days, the scale of this fire in the heart of wine country was unimaginable, taking out iconic wineries such as Newton and Chateau Boswell and the three Michelin-starred Meadowood Grill restaurant, to name a few. No area of Napa was spared from the impact of the smoke, but some areas got off more lightly than others, and some producers had brought a little fruit in before the fire broke out or swiftly harvested early into its progression.
Understandably, the few producers still in the 2020 game played their cards close to their chests until bottling. A lot did not show me their 2020 releases. Of the ones who offered their wines for review, some had discernable smoke taint, while others did not. Wines that have marked smoke taint have been scored with a question mark. Others with slight or questionable smoke taint have been given a score with a question mark.
The styles of the untainted 2020 Napa reds reveal more purity and delineation than the 2017s, with slightly more weight and alcohol and riper tannins. And I’m pleased to report that a few producers have risen out of the destruction of the 2020 vintage to produce some wonderfully impressive wines.
The 2020 whites I have reviewed with this report reveal rich, generous, warmer vintage signatures that will give a lot of pleasure to lovers of this style. I haven’t yet come across any smoke-tainted white wines from 2020, so it is relatively safe to say that these can be purchased with a degree of confidence.
First point about 2021—there were no wildfires to plague the Napa harvest. This said, it was not a vintage without challenges.
It’s sometimes more challenging to write a vintage report when you live in a region. I recall the summer of 2021 in Napa as being absolutely blissful after the hellscape of 2020. Not too hot, not too cool, sunshine nearly every day in 2021—what more could you ask for?
Water. The winter of 2020 and spring of 2021 was incredibly dry. By now, the drought situation was becoming like 2015 all over again and, in some cases, worse. Reservoirs were depleted. Feuds broke out between landowners over water rights. Where I live in Carneros, wells around us were running dry. Water-witching was actually making a come-back as desperate growers needed to find new water sources to irrigate their vines. More fruit than usual had to be dropped to adjust for what the vines could manage under such dry conditions. In the end, for some, it became a matter of choosing which children to save, as some sections of vineyards had to be abandoned to maintain others.
The good news is that it was otherwise (!!) a relatively uneventful, outstanding growing season. Small berries yielded intense flavors with ripe tannins and great concentration without going overblown. The bad news: yields are small because there just wasn’t enough irrigation water. This is unfortunate news for Napa Valley wine lovers since 2020 was such a small crop, and quality is patchy. Also, just as a heads up, 2022 brought another set of challenges likely to impact quality and yields. The biggest hurdle in 2022 was the return of the dreaded Labor Day heatwave, which came back with a vengeance. More on this later in the year—I only mention 2022 by way of giving consumers a tip that if you love collecting Napa Valley wines, you may want to cherry-pick recent vintages, going as large as you can on the 2019s and the forthcoming 2021s. From what I have tasted, 2021 is another impressively consistent vintage.
More in-bottle 2019 and 2020 Napa reviews and 2021s from barrel are in the pipeline. Until then, happy wine hunting!
Article & Reviews by Lisa Perrotti-Brown MW
Photos by Johan Berglund
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