‘Was the 1997 Napa vintage the catalyst for a stylistic shift?’
In retrospect, It’s easy to interpret napa Valley’s 1997 vintage as a stylistic turning point. It was a year characterised by balmy weather and an above-average crop. Yields were generous and maturity came slowly.
‘For a long time, the grapes just didn’t taste ripe – there was a green quality, with grippy tannins,’ recalls David ramey, then winemaker at Dominus estate: ‘so people waited. And waited.’ the result was record levels of sugar – and alcohol levels. ‘It was the dawn of a new era,’ ramey concludes.
Many feared that the ensuing wines were fatally overripe. Yet the 1997s received rave reviews from writers awed by their impact. Wine Spectator’s James Laube dubbed 1997 ‘the vintage of the century’, admiring the ‘profound richness, depth, complexity, finesse and flavour’ of the wines. robert parker’s judgement was similarly laudatory. the valley breathed a collective sigh of relief.
By the beginning of the new millennium, the moral of the story was clear. More and more winemakers began picking later: some were relieved to be unshackled from convention, free to explore riper tannins and flavours; others simply followed the market. An accident had unleashed a revolution.
perhaps that’s why 1997 is a rather controversial vintage today. on the one hand, admirers of opulent, plush cabernet continue to celebrate it as napa Valley’s answer to Bordeaux’s 1982 vintage. on the other, commentators critical of contemporary napa have made the 1997s their whipping boy: writer W Blake Gray goes so far as to contend that the wines are now ‘mostly dead’.
revisiting the wines 20 years on immediately dispenses with any simplistic analysis. the best are dazzling, full of vitality; others are already tired and oxidative; some are simply rather dull.
conclusions? Most obviously, deft winemaking and a great site remain critical to attaining balance. But the wines also underline how vital logistics can be at harvest time. the sheer abundance of the 1997 crop, 20% larger than the valley’s 10-year average, made the vintage an unremitting juggling act.
‘Fortunately for us, everything fitted together like a puzzle and we were able to get all the cabernet picked at perfect ripeness,’ recall Doug shafer and elias Fernandez, whose 1997 Hillside select is still drinking superbly. But not all producers were so lucky. once wineries were full to capacity, many were forced to wait until tanks were empty again to harvest the remainder of their fruit – which was steadily ripening all the while. And that brought additional headaches. today, handling super-ripe grapes is par for the course for napa winemakers, but in 1997, such extremes were still unfamiliar territory. High levels of sugar and low acidities posed problems.
‘this was the first vintage in my experience where wineries had to systematically add water to the must to bring it down to a reasonable sugar level,’ remembers David ramey, adding that many wines finished with around 15%-16% alcohol.
so was the 1997 napa vintage a catalyst for a stylistic shift, or did it merely encapsulate changes that were already under way? By 1997, many producers had already begun to pick later, realising that the ripe tannins that could be attained at comparatively low sugar levels in France simply didn’t materialise until later in napa Valley. By the mid-1990s, moreover, winemakers such as Helen turley had gone considerably further, making waves with new and provocatively ripe wines which owed little to French benchmarks, instead asserting an all-American aesthetic of their own. perhaps the true significance of the 1997 vintage is that it taught winemakers all over napa Valley that they, too, could make wines like that if they wished.
the irony is that, tasted today, the wines of this tipping point vintage often seem to hark back to an earlier era as much as they point to the future. More structurally rustic than the polished cabernets of contemporary napa, they did foreshadow a new direction; but they also remind us how far napa has travelled.
William Kelley lives and works in Napa Valley, California. He is Decanter’s US correspondent and a DWWA judge