The 2010 vintage in Napa was cool, late, and long, yielding elegant, focused, almost Bordeaux-styled wines — a definite departure from recent great vintages in which heat, drought, sun, and fruit driven power are the hallmarks. These are solid, structured wines that will need a few years to shed their youthful grip and tension. It will be interesting to watch how the 2010s age, but if you’re fond of restrained, classically-styled Napa Valley Cabernet, this is your vintage.
The season started late, with ample rainfall. After several years of very dry conditions, rain was welcome, though it pushed back the ripening cycle (bud break, flowering, and fruit set) by about two weeks. Frost was never a problem. The summer that followed was cool, and growers worked to adjust canopies and crop loads to accommodate the slow pace of ripening. Veraison occurred about two weeks late, and by the middle of August many were predicting that harvest would be almost three weeks later than average.
With vineyards pruned and canopies thinned for the cool conditions (temperatures regularly topped out around 70℉ during mid-summer), a couple of heat spikes in late August and early September (some to well over 100℉) presented challenges for growers. Many vineyards that were set up for optimal sun exposure in the cool conditions were damaged by sunburn. This required hard work to isolate and drop the damaged bunches. A reduction in yields was part of the collateral damage. After the spikes, cool temperatures returned, and September stayed cool except for a brief warm spell at month’s end.
The harvest was late but the grapes needed the extra hang time to develop. The brief warm spell at the end of September, and another in the middle of October, helped the plants eke out a little more ripeness. With rain predicted in the third week of October, it was time to pick, ready or not.
Overall, it was a tricky and challenging year. Managing the cool summer and then dealing with the heat were major obstacles. The best, but most labor intensive and painful strategy, seems to have been to thin bunches and set up for maximum ripening, meticulously select out the berries damaged by heat, and then pick as late as possible before the rain. The growers that did this ended up with a small but concentrated and classically balanced crop. It was certainly labor intensive, and costly, in terms of the reduced yields, but who said grape growing was easy?
The best wines from this vintage are solid and deeply colored, with beautiful aromatics, concentration, purity, and detail. Generally speaking, alcohols are lower than the norm, and the wines express lively, deep, dark fruit notes, elements that only come from long, cool growing seasons. They have the acidity, tannin, and structure to match the fruit, and should be long-lived, classy wines. Where growers got it wrong, you can find green notes and a weird combination of cool-climate unripe, herbal tones, oddly mixed with overripe, candied or bitter, burnt characteristics (from bunches affected by the heat that weren’t sorted out). From the weather to the wines, we’re talking about a vintage of peaks and valleys, but when winemakers and growers really got it right, quality is outstanding.