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

William Kelley looks back at the 1997 vintage in Napa, and picks out some of his top scoring wines...

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.

Scroll down for William Kelley’s top-rated 1997 Napa Cabernets

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.

What I’ve been drinking this month

The ageing potential of village red Burgundy from great producers is routinely underestimated. I recently enjoyed the Domaine Lafarge, Vendanges Sélectionnées, Volnay 1993 – a bottling from Lafarge’s best village Volnay parcels abutting the commune’s 1er crus. Even after 24 years it is still mesmerisingly good. Notes of griotte cherry, cocoa nib and panforte introduce a supple, silky wine with melted tannins.

William Kelley’s top 1997 Napa Cabernets:


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