2001 California Cabernet: The Best Vintage Ever

2001 California Cabernet: The Best Vintage Ever

The California Cabernets from the 1994, 1997 and 1999 vintages were great, as we all know, but the magnificent 2001s are outshining them all.

Cabernet excelled throughout the Golden State, but Napa Valley’s bottlings were head and shoulders above those found in other parts of the state. And though not all of the 2001 Napa Cabs have been released yet, it’s clear from the California Cabernets that I’ve tasted thus far that Napa is where it’s at. Of the 250 Cabs that we report on here (see tables), the average score was 88.3, or Very Good, on the Wine Enthusiast Magazine 100-point scale. An astounding 42.8

percent rated 90 points or more. The figures for the Napa Valley wines are even more impressive: The average score for the 120 or so I tasted was 91.7, solidly Excellent on our rating scale. The state’s most sophisticated viticulture, its most proficient Cabernet winemakers, and perfect growing conditions all came together to produce sensational wines.

Nearly all 2001 Napa Valley Cabernets are knockouts. They exude ripe fruit and sweet tannins; they’re delicious right out of the bottle, but the best of them have the structure to improve for years to come.

So how is it that the vintage turned out so well? Much of the credit goes to spendid weather conditions. After a drier-than-average winter and a dry, warm spring, budbreak started earlier than usual. In early April, the worse frost in 30 years hit Northern California, including Napa, causing damage to fruit set. Some producers reported losses of up to 50 percent of their crop. Statewide, the 2001 harvest was down 6 percent over 2000’s, despite 40,000 new acres coming online. But the smaller crop only helped concentration in the remaining grapes.

May and June set heat records, further stimulating growth, but July and August were surprisingly cool and foggy. When September came, the weather again turned warm and dry. With no heat spikes, no rain, and no problems at all, growers enjoyed the rare luxury of “taking our time to pick at our leisure,” as Don Surh, of Surh Luchtel, puts it.

That meant that growers, if they could afford the manpower, harvested grapes as they ripened, leaving unripe fruit on the vine to develop under the warm sun. It was an almost beerenauslese approach to selecting individual bunches. Sugar accumulation seemed to peak by mid-September, while other physiological processes continued, including the ripening of tannins. Acids had been a little sharp, said Dave Guffy, at The Hess Collection, but the long, steady warmth of September allowed them to drop off to modest levels. With most Cabernet picked by September 30, it wasn’t a particularly late harvest, just a long, slow, steady one. “Especially for the Cabernet varieties,” recalled Saintsbury’s Richard Ward, “this extra hang time yielded profound benefits.”

“Even the most stubborn vineyards had a chance to produce their best fruit since ’97,” enthused Joseph Phelps Winemaker Craig Williams. Bob Foley puts even greater stock in this first 21st-century blockbuster vintage. He says 2001 is “the greatest vintage since 1974. Everyone made fantastic wine.”

But it wasn’t just weather conditions that produced such fabulous wines. In the vineyard, the 2001 vintage benefited from improvements that were implemented in response to last decade’s vineyard louse.

“The radical change in vineyard architecture and farming following the 1990s phylloxera infestation had a profound effect on grape quality,” says Williams. When the vineyards were replanted, wineries replaced Cabernet in spots in which it wasn’t thriving. They also paid closer attention to rootstock and clonal selection, trellising and canopy management, and vine care. They sought to improve irrigation, and many planted their vines more densely, which is believed to result in more concentrated grapes. The result of these viticultural improvements, especially after a great vintage, has been the cleanest, ripest grapes in living memory. “It’s a whole new world after replanting,” grins Joel Aiken, Beaulieu’s vice president of winemaking.

Ken Deis, the winemaker at Flora Springs, says the necessary replanting gave him the opportunity to replace his Rutherford Hillside Cabernet with Clone 7, which yields less tannic wines. At Beaulieu, Aiken replaced “the old U.C. Davis clones with [the new] Clone 6, which gives incredibly tiny berries, and dark and intensely powerful wines.”

In the winery, winemaking techniques are being fine-tuned with what Screaming Eagle winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett calls “hundreds of little nuances that make the difference.” These include meticulous hand-sorting of unripe or moldy grapes, gentler crushing techniques, and modern vinification practices such as extended maceration, which gives wines a softer, richer mouthfeel. The increasing quality of American oak, which is less expensive than French oak, also is boosting the quality of wines.

Perhaps the most notable evolution of California Cabernet in recent years has been increased ripeness, and this also factored into the 2001s. The average brix, or sugar level, of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes harvested in Napa and Sonoma counties has increased by nearly 10 percent from the 1995 through the 2003 harvests, as growers, when weather permitted, allowed the grapes to hang longer and longer on the vines. “We used to pick at the high 22s [of brix]; 23 was considered pretty daring,” recalls Barrett. “Now, 24 isn’t even close for a lot of people.”

With higher sugars come those delicious flavors, but also higher alcohol; alcohol level, indeed, is one of the surefire points of controversy about California Cabernets. The best winemakers have accepted higher alcohol levels with a cheerful insouciance, and have learned to work with it. Harlan’s winemaker, Bob Levy, admits alcohol “can be a challenge,” but adds, “It is almost always desirable to achieve higher maturity, and the subsequent higher alcohol, than to choose to have wines of lower alcohol, but [that] suffer in maturity.” And the truth is, few people are pooh-poohing the size of these Cabs. “Higher alcohol doesn’t bother me at all, as long as the wine is balanced,” says Surh. Foley agrees. “When you experience the joy of a thoroughly ripened wine,” he smiles, “alcohol is a nonissue.”

The trouble is, wines high in alcohol tend to be low in acidity, and are consequently soft, flabby—and less ageable. Some of the 2001 Cabs suffer from these very defects. With today’s tannin management techniques, and with a vintage like 2001—one in which even mountain wines’ tannins are sweet and fine rather than hard and astringent—most of these Napa Cabernets are delicious right out of the bottle. But as plump and juicy as they are in their precocious youth, I’m guessing that many will start fading after 10 years of age.

But really, the truth is that no one really knows how the best 2001 Napa Cabernets will age. My own opinion is that the most balanced wines—and those are generally the ones that get the highest scores—have the structure to ride out the years. In general, though, I would recommend drinking these wines now through at least the end of this decade. Some, particularly those from mountain properties, will develop even longer than that. I’d bet that many people who are willing to pay $90 or $150 for a bottle of wine have a wine cellar and are willing to age these prized bottles. But if you only buy a bottle or two of a given wine, aging it is always going to be a gamble. The classic approach is to buy a case or two, and then begin sampling the wines at 6-8 years of age, to see how they’re maturing. That’s a lot of fun, but it’s also an expensive endeavor.

Though Napa Valley Cabernet is never cheap, 2001s—particularly those from top producers—may come at a premium. Scores are high and yields are low; the excitement of the first stellar vintage this millennium is sure to rub off on consumers, whose stocks of 1994 and 1997 Napa Cabernets are now dwindling. But for consumers, there is some solace in numbers—that is, in the large number of Napa Valley wineries that produce Cabernet. There are more than 200 such wineries; you’ll have a pretty good shot of striking gold no matter what you buy this vintage. I’ve found a dozen or so excellent wines for $40 or less (see below). It is also worth mentioning that one of our profiled “New Guard” wines costs $50 or less—hardly a lot for a world-class wine.

For complete Cabernet 2001 coverage, check out the October issue of Wine Enthusiast.

Published on October 1, 2004