The challenges faced during the 2017 vintage in northern California are not those anyone alive would like to repeat: record heat, havoc-wreaking thunderstorms and apocalyptic wildfires that destroyed lives and property.
A heat wave over Labor Day was the year’s first defining point, an annoying spread of 100˚F-plus days that become, in hindsight, a blessing before the curse of fires hit the night of October 8.
This forced many to pick earlier than they would have in other years, especially the earlier-ripening varieties like Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Now, more than two years later, it’s time to rejoice for the beautiful wines that were produced by hook or by crook, despite such unprecedented obstacles.
A slew of Chardonnays show how smart decision making and earlier picking dates in 2017 resulted in remarkable wines. Donald Patz’s project, Maritana, offers several nuanced and balanced Russian River Valley Chardonnays that show neither the signs of a hot vintage nor of the stress involved. So do Trombetta, MacRostie and Dutton-Goldfield, the latter of which also made an excellent 2017 Pinot Noir.
More than two years later, it’s time to rejoice for the beautiful wines that were produced by hook or by crook.
Wines made from Carneros fruit also are showing well, despite the appellation having fire right at its door. This cooler climate area benefited from its proximity to the San Pablo Bay, which tempered the heat of the vintage without sacrificing ripeness. The Cuvaison Méthode Béton Sauvignon Blanc is a perfect example: bright and fresh in stone fruit, with a rounded texture and plenty of acidity.
It will be a while before 2017 Cabernets are out from Napa and Sonoma. In the meantime, embrace these early 2017s and appreciate how a challenging vintage can produce wines with grace and beauty.
Lucia 2017 Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); $65, 97 points. Rich, clean and powerfully mineral-driven on the nose, this single-vineyard expression shows black cherry, tangy raspberry, crushed slated and damp gravel on the nose. There is tremendous depth of flavor to the intensely elegant palate, where strong but perfectly ripe dark fruits are balanced by tightly woven tannins, fresh acidity and more rock and soil flavors. —Matt Kettmann
Cuvaison 2017 Méthode Béton Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc (Los Carneros); $35, 94 points. This white is the result of concrete egg experimentation and it succeeds wildly in its lovely capture of acid-driven stone fruit enveloped in a persistence of minerality. Peach and lemon flavors round out a medium-bodied texture of impressive lushness and enduring beauty. The wine was aged 12 months in concrete. Editors’ Choice. —Virginie Boone
Maritana 2017 Dutton Ranch Hansen Hill Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $90, 94 points. This powerfully concentrated white is engaging in floral and mineral tones, with a robust cradling of oak. There’s tension on the palate, which is layered in flavors of tropical guava, mango and pineapple that are dusted with baking spice. —V.B.
Whitcraft 2017 Pence Ranch Pommard Clone Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills); $65, 94 points. Drake Whitcraft is making wines like his father, Chris, whose bottlings lasted for decades, so this one will be fun to watch evolve. Very light in the glass, the wine shows aromas of raspberry, wet sage and green peppercorns, while the vibrant palate offers light cherry, pine needle, bay leaf and tea leaves. It’s tightly woven, so enjoy now to at least 2037. Cellar Selection. —M.K.
Cattleya 2017 Cuvée Number One Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $50, 93 points. Very dark and full aromas of deep-red-cherry fruit combine with loamy soil, crushed slate and scarlet rose petals on the intense nose of this bottling. A grippy structure frames the elegant yet strong sip, where flavors of dark pomegranate and cherry are spiced by cocoa dust. —M.K.
Fess Parker 2017 Ashley’s Chardonnay (Sta. Rita Hills); $40, 93 points. Tangy lime and grapefruit aromas cut through the prominent sense of oak on the nose of this bottling. The palate is extremely crisp, framed by laser-sharp acidity and tense tannins, offering flavors of lemon peel, kumquat and more citrus. —M.K.
Stolo 2017 Chardonnay (San Luis Obispo County); $30, 92 points. Seared nectarine, sea salt and white melon make for a broad, clean and welcoming aromatic entry to this bottling. The sip is very cohesive, showing toast with white-peach jam, lemon rinds and more sea salt, which makes sense given the vineyard’s proximity to the coastline. —M.K.
Trombetta 2017 Four Brothers Vineyard Chardonnay (Sonoma Mountain); $50, 93 points. Less than 50 cases of this wine were made, but it’s worth seeking out. Notes of honey, graham cracker, Gravenstein apple and pear are tossed with anise, while a bright acid-driven backbone delivers structure and freshness. —V.B.
Dutton-Goldfield 2017 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley); $45, 92 points. Tart, tangy and intensely earthy, this is a concentrated, youthful and full-throttled flavored wine, with plenty of balanced acidity to keep it fresh and structured. Cardamom and black tea provide a savory complement to the vibrant energy. —V.B.
Foxen 2017 Vogelzang Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $28, 91 points. Crisp aromas of lemon peel and pomelo wedge meet with gravelly, grassy undertones on the nose of this single-vineyard expression. There is richness to the palate, and the faint hint of oak, with flavors of baked apple that are cut by grass and squeezed lime. —M.K.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2017 Aveta Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley); $26, 91 points. This has 10% Sauvignon Musqué, 3% Sémillon and 1% Muscat Canelli. Together, the grapes provide an experience of floral melon, stone fruit and white flower, a pungent nuttiness contributing additional complexity. The midpalate is steely and high toned in citrus. —V.B.
Chalk Hill 2017 Estate Bottled Sauvignon Blanc (Chalk Hill); $33, 90 points. A portion of this wine was fermented in French oak, while the other half in stainless-steel drums. It is grassy and herbal at first, settling into flavors of lemon rind, melon and pea shoot. The palate is rich and rounded, with buzzy acidity brightening the background. —V.B.
MacRostie 2017 Wohler Vineyard Chardonnay (Russian River Valley); $46, 90 points. This has a floral opening of apple blossom that delves into stone fruit and a touch of tropical flavor on the palate. Lemon, lime and apple mingle along a linear expression of full-bodied intensity that presents as voluptuously lush and fleshy. —V.B.