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Napa Completes a Stunning Vintage

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It’s relief all round in Napa as the weather holds out until the end of the grape harvest.
Napa Completes a Stunning Vintage<br />

© Peter Bowers/Pixabay | Growers in Napa had a spectacular growing season, with perfect conditions.

Nervous nights are over in Napa Valley. The 2023 vintage looked potentially special for months – if nothing went wrong.

Well, now it’s done, and not only did nothing go wrong – winemakers have finally had time to pause for breath, and they realize that ultimately, just about everything went right.

In other words, 2023 should be one outstanding vintage for Napa Valley.

“The wines are going to be pretty,” said Sarah Vandendriessche, winemaker for Elizabeth Spencer. “They’re going to be high quality tannin but low quantity tannin. We will have lots of fresh fruit flavors, even in Cabernet.”

The shortest possible summary of the vintage year is “long cool summer”. The winter had enough rain to end a multi-year drought, which made the vines healthy and happy. Temperatures rarely cracked 100 degrees this summer and there were no major heatwaves. The biggest worry was simply how late the season was; spring was cool and that pushed everything back into the danger zone for either rain or fire at harvest. But there was little rain and fortunately no fire.

In short, the plane has landed and all the grapes onboard are fine.

Vandendriessche said the lack of heat spikes in September led to healthier-looking grapes than winemakers are used to seeing.

“We’ve gotten out of the habit of seeing grapes that are so plump that don’t have any shrivel whatsoever,” Vandendriessche said. “They were perfectly plump, beautiful berries.”

One notable aspect of 2023 wines will be their full flavors at lower alcohol. I asked Jim Duane, winemaker at Seavey Vineyard, if that’s going to be a positive.

“My ’23 Merlot is going to clock in at 13.3 percent alcohol,” Duane said. “I’m worried that I’m going to be smashed by the critics in a couple of years. But we don’t sell a lot of wines off of scores anymore. My Merlot at 13.3 is not going to have the big opulent impact it might have at 15.3. But that’s what the vintage gave us. I’m grateful. Right now we’re lucky because it’s not 2003 and I don’t have external pressures telling me I have to make a higher-impact wine. There is opportunity for producers to make more restrained wines.”

Justin Leigon, a partner of Piña Vineyard Management, farms about 1000 acres all over Napa Valley. He said he expects yields to be about 15 to 20 percent higher than normal.

“What was great with the 2023 vintage was the integrity of the fruit,” Leigon said. “We didn’t see that late season dehydration you can see in warmer years. We retained a lot of the weight of the berries, and a lot of the acidity as well.

“Seasons like this really showcase a vineyard site. Not just an AVA, but even different blocks within one vineyard. This showcases a sense of place. That’s what this vintage is going to be all about.”

Some wineries are finally able to celebrate a comeback from the Glass Fire of 2020. Ron Rosenbrand, vineyard manager from Spring Mountain Vineyard, lost his house in that fire as one of 16 buildings that burned down on the property.

“We had serious damage to the vineyard,” Rosenbrand told Wine-Searcher. “We had 135 different vineyard blocks on the property. Most are adjacent to forest land. It was so hot and the wind was blowing so hard, the vines that were next to the forest took a beating. We’ve done some replanting, and some vines I thought we were going to lose have come back. Even though we lost some vines, we’re making our way back.”

Rosenbrand is one of the last growers to finish, as he had his final pick scheduled for early Thursday morning.

“The quality looks really good,” Rosenbrand said. “Everything we’ve made into wine looks really nice. They’ve been ripening at a lower brix level than we’re used to. A little lighter alcohol than normal and the flavors all look tremendous.”

Peter Velleno, winemaker at Castello di Amorosa, called this year’s wines “classically styled”.

“These are wines with good elegance,” Velleno told Wine-Searcher. “The alcohols will be moderate to somewhat low, very different from last year.”

While wine lovers can anticipate some great wines a few years from now, what winemakers anticipate right now is a good night’s sleep. After waiting weeks for grapes to ripen, in many cases they all ripened about the same time, leaving a crush for tank space and harvest workers, and tired crews.

“I think we’re all ready to take a little vacation,” Vandendriessche said.