A Challenging 2020 Vintage Yields Limited, but Exquisite, Sonoma Pinot Noir

DuMol Sonoma Pinot Noir vineyard at sunset
Courtesy DuMol

Thinking of skipping the 2020 Pinot Noir vintage? Think again.

The 2020 vintage in Sonoma County was remarkably challenging due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and what seemed like an endless loop of devastating fires. Prior to August 17, 2020, when lightning struck and the LNU Lightning Complex and Walbridge fires broke out, however, it had been a spectacular growing year. 

And so, there’s a silver lining for some winemakers. DuMOL, Williams Selyem and other Sonoma producers have or are getting ready to bottle exquisite Pinot Noirs from one of the most difficult vintages of the modern era. There might not be as much 2020 Pinot, but what there is will likely be amazing. 

“The 2020 harvest was always going to be our earliest on record as our vines budded out on March 5th and had been ahead all season,” says Andy Smith, viticulturalist, winemaker and partner of DuMOL.

As a result, he started picking many of his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards relatively early, beginning on August 16, 17 and 18 in some of the warmer sites.

“The fruit was exceptional quality, rich and vibrant, so almost zero sorting was required,” he says.

He picked Viognier seven days earlier than ever before, on August 21. He kept a close eye on Brix and pH numbers and was pleasantly surprised to see them in line with other vintages.

“I have no fear whatsoever of smoke taint on any of these lots,” he says. “The first time I became concerned was August 26, the first day the smoke felt like it was settling in, from daylight until 3 p.m. when it cleared.”

Sonoma Pinot Noir grapes at DuMOL vineyard
Workers at DuMol picked Pinot Noir grapes earlier than in years past / Photo courtesy DuMol

But before that date, Smith had harvested 65% of his grapes—the Pinot was harvested in eight days—and found the fruit mature, deeply colored and analytically ripe. He expected the vintage to be one of his finest ever for Pinot Noir and similar to 2015: the wines intense, vibrant, deeply colored and long-lived, and the fermentations incredibly aromatic and spicy. 

The fruit quality was so giving, he did light extractions, used a touch less new oak and added no pressed wine.

He estimates he made about 14,000 cases of wine in 2020, whereas an average year is typically 20,000. Only one Syrah vineyard was picked, and he’ll make just one 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley instead of three single-vineyard designates. 

Chardonnay yields were already down before the fires due to spring frost and poor flowering, but DuMOL will still have six Chardonnay bottlings and all of its Pinots except for one.

Sonoma Pinot Noir bottles and Winemaker Jeff Mangahas
Magnums of Pinot Noir (left), Winemaker Jeff Mangahas (right) / Photos courtesy of Williams Selyem

At Williams Selyem, Winemaker Jeff Mangahas had the added challenge of having his Westside Road winery within the evacuation zone for parts of harvest because the Walbridge Fire was due west.

He picked much of his Pinot Noir by August 12.

“Smoke effects depended on time and intensity,” he says. “The fire started on the 17th, but the smoke didn’t really settle until a week later depending on where you were. We had time to get the grapes off.”

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Not all vineyards were equally spared from the smoke, he says, and when the quantitative analysis showed too many smoke compounds for him to feel comfortable making wine from those grapes, he simply didn’t. Still, he had enough to recently bottle 2020 Russian River Valley and 2020 Sonoma County Pinots, with many of his usual vineyard-designates to come.

He figures he made about two-thirds of an average vintage, including all Chardonnays and Zinfandels. But much of the blessing within the curse of 2020 was that it was a warm, dry year.

“It was a drought year with a third less rain than average and from our estate the degree days during the growing season were 12 to 13 percent warmer than any vintage over the last 11 years,” he says. “The tannins, color, acid and phenolics were well developed because of the dryness of the soil. You could pick early and still have development. The grapes were ready.”

Sonoma Pinot Noir grapes on vine
There wasn’t a lot of 2020 Pinot Noir made, experts say, but what exists is worth seeking out / Getty

Smith agrees, attributing the ability to make great 2020 wines to experience, expertise and vineyards being ready.

In 2020, Smith says, he thought a lot about what constitutes ripeness in the field, and about maturity and the style of his wines. He feels he took what he learned into 2021.

“It was such an uncertain time,” says Smith. “We had to make our own luck with good viticulture during the season. I’m not interested in hangtime to build richness, I like to pick as soon as the grapes are ready. That saved us.”

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And so, while overall production was down in 2020, DuMOL will still release two long-planned single-vineyard Pinot Noir additions to its portfolio, Bressay and MacIntyre.

The DuMOL 2020 wines, still in tank to be bottled soon, are fruity, pure, bright and fresh, from the Green Valley-dominant Wester Reach Pinot Noir to the 2020 Flax.

“Grapes were ripe at lower sugars,” Smith says. “They were mature, with beautiful freshness and balance and more than enough richness. It was a hell of a learning vintage.”

Published on January 31, 2022
Topics: Pinot Noir