The 2011 vintage in California presented growers with a number of challenges throughout the season. Overall, it was cooler and wetter than normal, with yields down from 2010, which was also smaller than normal. In these conditions, growers who managed their crop loads and canopies well and worked hard in the vineyards made some very elegant wines with good flavors, better known for their cool elegance rather than power. Those who did not struggled, and as a result the quality of the wines is more variable than normal for California.
A wet, cool spring slowed the onset of bud break, and the delays continued through flowering and fruit set, with crop loads reduced due to shatter. Some regions suffered from frost in April, severely reducing yields, especially in parts of the Central Coast. In Napa, rainfall was about 30% above normal for the year, good for the drought, but the cool temperatures and grey skies were no help to the grapes. The stage was set from the beginning for a smaller-than-average crop and a later-than-normal harvest. Summer was no help at all and was cooler than normal, slowing ripening and pushing harvest back further. Work in the vineyard included opening canopies to allow more light and circulation of air, to encourage ripening in the cool conditions, and to minimize the risk of rot and mildew. The start of the harvest in Napa was one of the latest in memory, with even the sparkling wine growers not starting until August 29th.
By the time September came, vineyard managers were working overtime to salvage what they could, hoping that the low yields would offset the cool temperatures and the vines could focus what energy they had into their lighter fruit load. If the weather improved and held through September and October, they could eke out a small but good quality harvest.
But it was not to be. In mid-September, conditions improved and spell of warm, dry weather ensued, sparking a late burst of ripening — but would it be enough? Early-ripening grapes took advantage and fared better, with Merlot, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, and some of the white varieties faring the best. But it wasn’t to last. With rain and cool temperatures forecast for the first week of October, growers faced a decision to pick before the rains and deal with the devil they knew — namely grapes that weren’t as ripe as they ideally would like — or roll the dice and hope things improved after. Cool rain arrived on October 3rd, followed by a few nice days before the next round.
With rain again in the forecast, growers faced the same decision again. It arrived on the 10th, this time in a warm, humid weather pattern. After the rains, botrytis set in and the fight was on. Those who had hoped to wait it out and get late-season ripening now faced another dilemma: waiting for ripeness and combating the rot, trying not to be forced to pick before optimum ripeness was achieved. That said, conditions were variable, with some sites affected dramatically and others faring surprisingly well. All of these problems contributed to the variable quality of the year, and winemakers were earning their keep in this difficult year. After the rain on the 10th, the weather cleared and was bright through November, but rot continued to cause problems, and unfortunately much of the damage was already done.
In the end, it’s a variable crop of wines in terms of quality, as one would expect in this scenario. It’s a vintage to buy with caution. There are some lovely wines — cooler, more elegant and less alcohol — a more European-styled vintage. But there also many that display unripe, green notes that are the results of the difficult season.