Jeb Dunnuck The Wine Advocate
This report looks primarily at the 2014s and 2015s from Santa Barbara County. While both are drought years, the vintages are dramatically different.
The Classic 2014s
Starting with the 2014 Vintage, this year is characterized by an early bud break and almost no precipitation throughout the year. Like in 2012 and 2013, the warm, early spring resulted in a healthy fruit set and big (sometimes huge) yields. While it was consistently hot through the growing season, there were no heat spikes (as in 2010) meaning growers could achieve terrific phenolic ripeness, even with incredibly large yields.
The wines are ripe, voluptuous and sexy, with forward, supple styles imparted by the large yields. They’re not the most concentrated wines out there, however, the majority are already accessible and offer loads of pleasure. In short, it’s a classic, charming California vintage to drink while you wait on the 2012s and 2013s.
The Variable 2015s
The 2015 Vintage was the last in a historically dry four-year period that started in 2012. As in 2014, the vintage started off early with warm weather in the spring and an early bud break. However, several factors resulted in a miserable fruit set which dramatically reduced yields. Almost every winemaker I spoke with commented on the yields, yet most were split between the cause; some blamed the cold, windy weather in May while others looked more towards the accumulation of drought years, consecutive large crop loads, and toxic salt buildup in the soils.
Whatever the cause (and I suspect it’s a combination of both), this was a dry, stressful vintage for the vines, particularly in the coastal regions of the Sta. Rita Hills and the Santa Maria Valley. Harvest started early in August and was finished by mid to late September for most producers. Growers saw some of their smallest yields ever so there’s not much wine to go around. After the huge yields of 2012, 2013 and 2014, this was a relief for many producers, but consumers will need to jump on these top wines before they’re gone.
As to the overall style of the wines, these are elegant, lightly textured efforts that have more in common with a cool-climate year (2010s, and to a lesser extent, 2013s) than a hot, drought year.
Unquestionably, the thicker-skinned varieties of Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon fared better than the thinner-skinned varieties of Grenache and Pinot Noir. The top Syrahs are beautifully concentrated and rich, with notable tannin, yet have a freshness and purity that set them apart. Most will benefit from short term cellaring.
The top Pinot Noirs are silky and polished, with medium-bodied, racy profiles, moderate tannin, and lots of salty minerality. However, I found many Pinot Noirs (and to a lesser extent, Grenaches) to have firm, anemic personalities – and quality is far from consistent. Readers will have to be selective with these wines. While the Pinot Noirs will gain more weight with a few years in bottle, I’m less optimistic with regards to Grenache.
In addition, many wines are overtly stem-influenced. Due to the increased stem-to-juice-ratio (less berries per cluster equals more stem influence), producers who like whole-cluster fermentations had to be especially careful as a little whole cluster went a long way in 2015. I tasted many wines made with just 10-15% whole clusters in the fermentation, yet tasted as if they were made with 50-75% whole clusters.
As for the Chardonnays, harvest decisions and stylistic differences between estates continue to make it almost impossible to generalize about this variety. Suffice to say there are some incredible wines in the vintage for those who opted to harvest ripe fruit.
In short, 2015 is an incredibly interesting, intellectual vintage that yielded some thrilling wines. However, quality is far from consistent.
All of these wines were tasted at the end of June during two weeks spent in California. This was followed by numerous tastings at my office in Colorado.