Wil­liam Kel­ley

‘Was the 1997 Napa vin­tage the cat­a­lyst for a stylis­tic shift?’

Decanter - - CONTENTS -

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

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