In August, when our panels tasted the 2017 cabernets from Napa Valley and Sonoma County here in New England, fires were driving mandatory evacuations in wine country.
It brought back memories of California’s 2017 wildfire season—which, at the time, was the worst on record for the state. We braced ourselves for the ashen flavors or barbecue scents that smoke taint can impart in a wine. Instead, we found elegant cabernets with fresh, fully ripe fruit. It was clear that our assumptions about the fire vintage of 2017 were off base.
Jared Hooper, recently resettled from his post at Faith & Flower in Los Angeles to Sonoma County, set out to investigate, speaking with the growers of some of the most successful wines in our tastings. In a distinctly 2020 writing mode—both the reporter and his sources under on-again, off-again evacuation orders—Hooper learned that, for many winemakers, it was the ample spring rain and the summer heat that marked the vintage, more than the fires, and allowed for some astonishing wines (p. 36).
Unusual weather has come to contemporary Champagne as well, with summer heat changing the dynamics of its once-marginal climate. For two centuries, Champagne has been built on multivintage blends, in which reserve stocks—significant stores of vintage wines—evened out the quality in challenging vintages. While researching his new book, Vintage Champagne 1899–2019, Charles Curtis, MW, found that this may be changing, as there have been good single-vintage wines made every year in the last decade. Curtis’s story appears on page 22.
A parallel phenomenon may be underway in Barolo, where the nebbiolo grape gets its name from the cool fog, weather that has long marked the marginal climate in Piedmont, in the foothills of Italy’s Alps. Historically, Barolo has been a blended wine, using lots from one township to bolster the fruit from others. In recent years, growers have promoted their single-vineyard wines, or “crus,” to great success. The real sea change, as Stephanie Johnson reports on page 30, is the new wave of village wines, Barolo del Comune. As growers can now increasingly rely on consistent ripeness, they are creating a market for the wines from their home villages—with a specific city that falls between their regional blends and wines from single sites graced by a particular season. The 2016 vintage is a golden moment for the new crop of village-specific Barolos, many of them featured with enthusiastic recommendations from Johnson in her Barolo and Barbaresco tasting report on page 82.
If you are missing the cold, we offer the recollections of Nacho Monclús, who grew up just south of the Pyrenees in Spain, where Christmas meant cardo—cardoons—one of the few vegetables available there in winter.
Monclús returned to Spain while he was working on this story (page 26). He was there to spend time with his father, who was on his deathbed. Receiving my condolences, Monclús replied that the project had provided a way for them to share memories during his father’s last days. For me, Rioja has always been an emotional wine, invested with memories. Monclús’s story brings Rioja to the holidays in all its bittersweet beauty.
This story appears in the print issue of December 2020.
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