One of the fascinating things about wine, unlike most of the things we eat or drink, is that every year produces wines that are obviously different. The reputation of some combinations of region and vintage, both clearly identified on the label, are irrevocably blighted — sometimes even before harvest.
The 2021 growing season in Burgundy was such a nightmare for vignerons, who had to cope with frost, persistent mildew and a dispiritingly long wet, cool summer, that some merchants and consumers decided in advance that the wines would taste dire too. More fool them.
Similarly, the 2014 growing season in Barolo and Barbaresco saw unparalleled rain, leading some importers and many fans of the Nebbiolo grape associated with the region to pass on that year. Yet the wines turned out to exhibit delightful finesse. It all depends on the skill of the producers and how selective they are in what they put in the bottle — which is to say, the extent to which they are prepared to weather a financial hit.
This year, just as the grapes were about to be harvested, poor old Hawke’s Bay in New Zealand’s North Island was battered by Cyclone Gabrielle, smothering many (but not all) of the vineyards with silt. Yet by no means should all of 2023 Hawke’s Bay wines be rejected. Master of Wine Steve Smith of Smith & Sheth swears they harvested some “really great” Chardonnay from the Quinn vineyard, for instance.
One of the most obviously blighted vintages is 2020 along the US west coast, where a record dry summer resulted in terrible fires from Washington state to southern California. The legacy of those fires, apart from a tragic loss of life, was a sky so thick with smoke and for so long that there was a dramatic effect on the quality of air and sunlight.
This was a hangover from the 10,000-plus lightning strikes over the weekend of August 15 that hit drought-desiccated California and set so much land ablaze. By the end of the summer, after the so-called Glass Fire that struck for good measure in late September, a total of 4.2 million acres had burnt, including wineries and vineyards. It was hard to be a climate change denier in 2020 in California, which had already suffered extreme wildfires in 2017.
Initially in mid-August, the wind in Napa and Sonoma blew eastward, directing the smoke away from most of the vineyards. It remained at a high altitude of about 5,000ft for a blessed 10 days. But towards the end of the month, the smoke descended to a level such that staff at some Napa Valley wineries were issued with respirator masks.
It had been such a hot summer that most of the white wine grapes and some Pinot Noir had been harvested before the fires took hold. But Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa’s pride and joy, is a late-ripening variety, and the fashion for many years had been to keep the grapes on the vine for extra “hang time” to soften the tannins, reduce acidity and ensure there was none of the leafiness associated with less-ripe Cabernet.
Then trouble arrived. As one producer of red wines recalled, “on August 26 the smoke descended, so the red wine harvest was over”. This, the producer added, came on the back of extended periods of incredible heat. “Even if the fruit was clean, the vines were just so tired and stressed.”
Smoke lingers. Australia has a long history of bushfires, so wine scientists there have had many years to get to grips with a phenomenon known as smoke taint. Grapes and wines might seem initially to be unaffected, but can start to develop a range of strange flavours. This is the product of compounds that develop during fermentation or maturation.
When smoke became an apparent danger to California grapes, wine producers there began contacting Australian counterparts who might be able to advise them. Then came a rush to send samples of grapes and wines to labs to have them analysed.
The situation was exacerbated by the fact that such a high proportion of California grapes are bought from grape growers rather than grown by the producers themselves, resulting in disagreements about whether producers were entitled to reject grapes. Insurance brokers were swamped. And American labs were so overwhelmed that wine producers were forced to send samples all over the world.
All this was happening during the early stages of a pandemic. But, as Linda Reiff, CEO of Napa Valley Vintners, points out, “No one gave a thought to Covid in the fires. Three of our staff of 20 lost their homes.” Survival became the imperative; wine quality was a detail.
But the team at Napa Valley’s flagship Harlan Estate, led by Cory Empting, had time to consider it. “It was disheartening to see the smoke column from the wildfires, though at least it was blowing away from the valley,” Empting told me. “But the wind could change at any moment so we tasted the grapes and decided to pick then, picking one quarter of the estate on the first day, August 22. In the old days we’d expect to pick 30 days after veraison [when the grapes turn from green to red] but in 2020 we picked just 15 days later.”
This was possible because for some years they had been transitioning to dry farming rather than the irrigation that is routine in so much of California. This resulted in smaller grapes, reducing the size of the harvest, but also leading to earlier ripening.
Expecting the wine to be meagre, Empting was surprised by its quality, depth and finesse. “You find you’ve got it all wrong, which is a bit embarrassing — and revelatory at the same time.” The 2020 Harlan Estate, which won’t be released for another year, is certainly quite a revelation.
Those who follow organic or biodynamic practices also see their grapes ripen earlier than their neighbours. So the likes of Cathiard, Frog’s Leap, Quintessa and Spottswoode were able to pick relatively early and evade the worst effects of the fires and smoke.
While in Napa Valley recently, I asked the vintners’ organisation to put out a call for samples of 2020 Cabernets for me to taste, as I found it hard to believe they were all disastrous. Many producers are not releasing any at all, and no one will be boasting of a bumper crop, but among the 48 wines submitted, I found many perfectly respectable wines. See the box for recommendations of those that are fine wines by any measure, albeit at Napa Valley’s elevated prices.
I detected no signs of smoke taint on any of them (it would surely be a foolish producer who submitted a flawed wine) and was rather charmed by the promise in the background notes on the delicious example from Gallica: “Picked 18 September. Smoke taint analysis available on request.”
If these 2020 Cabs have a general shortcoming, it is a literal one: they lack the luscious long finish of the best Napa Cabs. Otherwise, they should give pleasure, so long as they’re not tasted alongside the heavily touted 2021s.
Tasting notes, scores and suggested drink dates on Purple Pages of JancisRobinson.com. Some international stockists on Wine-searcher.com
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first