Wine Talk: Remembering the 2020 Vintage

September 14, 2020 Updated: September 14, 2020

Who could forget the vintage of 2020? Lightning strikes, out-of-control wildfires, an epic heat wave!

Yep, that describes the wine-grape harvest of 2020, all right, except that it doesn’t. While it does describe much of the action in Napa and Sonoma, it’s only one piece, a relatively small piece, of the puzzle.

We sometimes forget that wine is produced from New York to California, with other important regions (can you say Virginia, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Texas, Oregon, or Washington?) in between. What happens in Napa and Sonoma doesn’t even begin to depict the overall goodness, or not, of any particular vintage.

All too often, however, what happens in Napa and Sonoma shapes the narrative for all domestic wines across the country, as silly as that is on its face. On top of that, the jury is still out on this vintage in Napa and Sonoma. It remains to be seen whether “smoke taint” becomes a huge issue. Smoke taint is very real and can make your favorite red wine smell and taste like an ashtray.

Because of the recent spike in northern California wildfires around the September harvest, which is frequently the California wine country’s warmest month of the year, wineries have become very good at spotting tainted fruit and cutting those grapes from the production line. As for the heat wave, that’s fairly typical, and it likely pushed many vineyards to better ripeness following a relatively cool summer. That’s not a bad thing.

But looking beyond Napa and Sonoma to the south, from the Santa Cruz Mountains to the border with Mexico, California vineyards enjoyed a normal growing season. No one need worry about the wines from Monterey County, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara County, or San Diego County. The sun never stopped shining; there will be no issues with smoke taint; and you should expect the same level of quality and abundance you would in a normal year.

The best thing to remember about the 2020 harvest when those wines come to market in a year or so is that vintage indicators aren’t one-size-fits-all.

Tasting Notes

Wines are rated on a 100-point scale. Wines are chosen for review because they represent outstanding quality or value, and the scores are simply a measure of this reviewer’s enthusiasm for the recommended wine.

Georges Duboeuf 2018 Beaujolais Villages, France ($13.99): When it’s good, it’s one of the greatest wine values in the world. And the 2018 Beaujolais Villages from Duboeuf is outstanding. This vintage has a distinctly floral nose, excellent palate weight, and inviting red and blue fruit aromas. The tannins are supple and soft, and this Beaujolais is ready to enjoy now. For the best experience, serve slightly chilled. Best value. Rating: 90.

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Georges Duboeuf 2018 Beaujolais Villages, France. (Courtesy of Quintessential Wines)

Calera 2017 Pinot Noir, Jensen Vineyard, Mt. Harlan ($100): This storied vineyard on the Calera estates gives us an earthy, spicy pinot noir loaded with raspberry goodness in this vintage. Throw in a black cherry note and a hint of tea leaf and you have a remarkably complex pinot from a great vineyard that only gets better with age. Rating: 95.

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Calera 2017 Pinot Noir, Jensen Vineyard, Mt. Harlan. (Courtesy of Calera)

Jordan 2018 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($35): Jordan is well known for its impeccable cabernet sauvignon but less so for its chardonnay. That’s a shame, for it’s among the most complex and beautifully balanced in all of California. The 2018 delivers notes of lemon oil, apple, and pear with that rare combination of richness and structure that can be found in all great chardonnays. Rating: 95.

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Jordan 2018 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley. (Courtesy of Jordan Winery)

Tongue Dancer 2017 Pinot Noir, ‘The Sly One,’ Sonoma Coast ($59): The sly one here is winemaker James MacPhail, whose genius lies partly in his knowledge of the pinot noir landscape. His grape sourcing is always spot-on and allows him to make the wines he likes to drink. Only 50 cases or so were made of this Sonoma Coast beauty, so finding it could be a challenge, but anything is possible with the help of the internet. It’s spicy, loaded with gorgeous red fruit, and it literally dances across your tongue, which is the only way MacPhail would have it. Rating: 95.

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Tongue Dancer 2017 Pinot Noir, “The Sly One,” Sonoma Coast. (Chris Blum)

Ladera 2017 Pinot Noir, Pillow Road Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($50): In this vintage, the Pillow Road vineyard has delivered a meaty pinot noir that expresses exceptional depth and palate weight, layers of black cherry and raspberry fruit, a gentle touch of wood spice, and firm but nicely integrated tannins. Cellar another four to six years, or drink now. Rating: 93.

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Ladera 2017 Pinot Noir, Pillow Road Vineyard, Russian River Valley. (Courtesy of Ladera)

Attilio Ghisolfi 2017 Nebbiolo, Langhe, Italy ($33): You can indeed drink exceptional Nebbiolo without the hefty price tag of Barolo and Barbaresco. This vintage of Ghisolfi Nebbiolo from Piemonte’s Langhe district is floral and earthy, with beautiful savory notes, hints of red cherry and spice, and moderate tannins that allow for easy drinking without extended cellar time. Rating: 90.

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Attilio Ghisolfi 2017 Nebbiolo, Langhe, Italy. (Courtesy of Quintessential Wines)

Follow Robert on Twitter at @wineguru. To find out more about Robert Whitley and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at Creators.com. Email Robert at whitleyonwine@yahoo.com. Copyright 2020 Creators.com