The Reluctant Sommelier: Napa Valley (and other) 2011 Vintage California Wines


by Nina Sventitsky

I’ve posted before about vintages. On the West Coast, 2011 was a challenging vintage, because the Spring and Summer were cold and wet. What does this do for grape development? If you want big, fruity wines with more alcohol, you’re out of luck.  Seeking to make elegant wines, more like Old World European wine production?  It was a great year and certainly in California.

“The 2011 California winegrape harvest was lighter and later than normal with flavors developing at lower sugar levels, giving winemakers the opportunity to make flavorful, elegant wines.” (The Wine Institute Harvest Report)

Right now, the current vintage in stock is 2012 – a stellar vintage up and down the West Coast; as the first year of our now infamous drought, the grapes struggled with less water resulting in more fruit intensity.

You can however, find 2011 California wines still in stock.  What will these wines have?  I’m generalizing here, but right about now the 2011 Napa Valley, Sonoma County and Paso Robles reds are nicely integrated and should show elegance and complexity.  They are NOT fruit bombs.  Instead, the “other” aromas that make these varieties classic are more evident — freshness, cedar and a bit of eucalyptus with some dark berry on the nose for Cabs, black cherry and cocoa for Merlots.  Zin will have more peppery spice, Pinot Noir will show less bright raspberry and more ‘shroom or earth/dirt.  Whites will have more minerality, more citrus/less tropical fruits.

I was in Napa last week, on business but managed to squeeze in tastings in the prestigious Stag’s Leap District area of eastern Napa Valley.  While at Clos du Val, I tasted with a grape grower who told me that while people diss the 2011 vintage as being problematic, he thinks it was one of Napa Valley’s greatest vintages in several years. Sure, yields were lower and it took longer for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabs, Merlot, and other varieties to ripen, but the results are long-lasting and will be very good for aging.

Here’s a great example of what some famous wine reviewers said about a famous wine, Joseph Phelps Insignia 2011 Red Wine Napa Valley — in these notes you can get a lot from the 2011 vintage in Napa Valley and the outcome of the wine.  

Winemaker’s Notes

The 2011 Insignia is layered with aromatics of dark fruit, cardamom, tobacco, Herbs de Provence and graphite on the nose. Fresh and lively this elegant wine boasts bright red cherry, blackberry and espresso throughout the palate with supple tannins. 

Critical Acclaim

Vinous / Antonio Galloni – The 2011 Insignia is showing beautifully today. The cool vintage has given the 2011 distinctly European leanings in both the flavors and structure. At the same time, there is tons of energy and pure vibrancy in the glass. It will be interesting to see where the 2011 goes once it is in bottle, but it is almost likely to require several years to fully come together. The 2011 is 82% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Petit Verdot, 4% Malbec, 2% Merlot and 1% Cabernet Franc. Range: 93-95 Points

International Wine Cellar – Good bright red-ruby. Blackberry, cassis, licorice, bitter chocolate and coffee on the nose, along with a whiff of eucalyptus. Nicely concentrated and fairly deep, with a medicinal cast to the black fruit and pepper flavors. Can’t match the 2010 for sweetness and ripeness, though. Range: 91-94 Points

attachment1This is classic Cab, from a classic producer, and now we know it’s from a classic made-for-aging Napa Valley vintage. 

So, it’s four years on, and 18 months to 2 years after initial release of many of these reds.  Looks like 2011 is coming into it’s own.  I highly recommend that you explore these wines from regions up and down the West Coast.  Buy 2 — one to open now, one to open in 18 months.  Price be damned .…

Buying Notes:

I thought the Clos du Val 2011 Cab was outstanding. Says Napa Valley on the label, but the fruit comes mainly from their estate in Stag’s Leap District:

Clos du Val Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011: $120

Find more lovelies here on

  • Chalone Vineyard Estate Chardonnay Chalone 2011 $25.99 
  • Bernardus Pisoni Vineyard Carmel Valley Pinot Noir 2011  $59.99
  • Kapcsandy Family Winery State Lane Cabernet Sauvignon $329.00