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Karen MacNeil: ‘2023 was as perfect as any Napa vintage in living memory’

For many people living in California’s Napa Valley, including me, the word ‘evacuate’ is no longer just a word. It’s a fear; a gnawing in the pit of your stomach.

Come August in the valley, even as the vines have taken on that beautiful, pregnant-with-fruit look, those of us who live here start to bite our nails. A kind of climate PTSD descends over the collective mood. It’s wildfire season – a term I’d barely ever heard, never mind used, just a decade ago.

I suppose that every wine lover thinks about the weather more than most other people. But having evacuated from my home four times over the last several years, I watch weather very differently now. I am wary. As the growing season unfolds, I can sense the winemakers around me holding their breath.

And 2023 was no exception. It was a year no one will ever forget. But not because of fire or frost or rain, or relentless heat; because 2023 was as perfect as any Napa vintage in living memory. It was Napa’s ‘1961 Bordeaux’.

Silky & captivating

It’s a tricky thing, evaluating a vintage. Even in a tiny 50km-long swath of land like the Napa Valley, there are so many factors that magnify the differential. Elevation alone has a 10-times spread here: some of Napa’s vineyards lie at 60m above sea level, some at about 600m. The rugged mountains, crevices and canyons present on both sides of the valley mean that vineyards face in every possible direction.

Warren Winiarski, the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars (now owned by Italy’s Marchesi Antinori group), once said to me that Napa makes ‘here-I-am wines’ – wines that bounce out in front of you like extroverted teenagers.

But two months after the 2023 harvest, the Cabernets and Merlots I tasted, at just a few weeks old, were nothing like Winiarski’s description. Instead, they were graceful, fresh, deeply flavourful, and so silky that they were absolutely captivating. The Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs were, at the same time, restrained as well as rich. Cathy Corison, who has made 47 vintages of Napa Valley wine, expressed the feelings of many winemakers when she said: ‘After so many challenging years, I am so grateful for the abundant and delicious 2023 vintage.’

The growing season itself proceeded like a slow, steady heartbeat. It was exceptionally long and very cool. Many vineyards were harvested in November, a full two months after they would have normally been picked.

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The season also started cool and late. During the 2022/2023 winter, when the vines were still dormant, northern California had been drenched by more than a dozen atmospheric rivers that dropped huge amounts of rain, replenishing underground aquifers, but also keeping the ground wet and cool.

As the summer rolled on, we all braced for late-summer heat spikes. None came. August melded into September and still the gentle weather continued. ‘By 15 September, we were all in a state of fear,’ said Lee Hudson, owner with his wife Cristina of Hudson Vineyards in Carneros. ‘What if it rained? What if a wildfire started?’ But the clear skies and the cool sun continued. No heat domes, no wildfires, no rain.

September became October, and the grapes continued their magical slow ripening. The tannins matured gently; layer after layer of flavours were laid down; sugars progressed evenly.

By the time that picking began in the vineyards, the valley’s winemakers were ecstatic. ‘The Cabernets are so complex, so precise and so focused,’ said Matt Crafton, winemaker at Chateau Montelena. ‘The energy, freshness and tension in the wines is extraordinary. Even at just a few weeks old, they’ve gone beyond mere fruitiness; they are sophisticated.’

Matt Crafton, Chateau Montelena standing among vines

Matt Crafton, Chateau Montelena. Credit: Chateau Montelena

Magnificent value

The ‘beyond fruitiness’ allowed for other flavours to show themselves, too, among them savoury and floral notes. In a hot vintage, these can be baked out of a Cabernet or obscured by alcohol. But in my tastings, many of the 2023 wines showed lavender and violet notes, as well as a wild, Californian, foresty character – a heady aroma of chaparral with bay, fir and madrone trees.

‘One of the things I look for is energy in Cabernet grapes,’ said Meghan Zobeck, winemaker at Burgess Cellars. ‘Energy makes a Cabernet that’s lively and ready to drink now, but also one that will age for decades.’

For me, the 2023 Cabernets have something more, too – they have beauty. They are rich without being heavy. Freshness hums through the fruit, giving the wines an exceptional sense of aliveness. They possess an electrically vivid blue-red colour. And even young, they have long, long finishes.

Like every Napa winemaker I’ve talked to about the 2023s, I have never witnessed so magnificent a vintage in the Napa Valley. In 2023, ‘here-I-am’ became ‘here’s once-in-a-century’.

In my glass this month

Lacourte Godbillon is a grower Champagne I’d never heard of until a few weeks ago, when I bought its Terroirs d’Ecueil 1er Cru Brut NV on a whim (US$50-$57 Hi-Time Wine Cellars, Liquor Barn, Saratoga Wine Exchange, Wine.com; £43.32-£47.85 Shelved Wine, The Fine Wine Co). Oh my, what beauty, what grace. I felt as if I’d been showered in snowflakes of purity. Lacourte Godbillon is the kind of Champagne that can hover ethereally and yet at the same time be grounded in richness and yeastiness. I loved the thousand points of minerality. I loved its vividness and refinement. I drink a glass of bubbles – usually Champagne or California sparkling wine – every night of my life. (On an annual basis, this is less expensive than driving a fancy car and, for me, more satisfying, if not imperative.) Lacourte Godbillon is now among my favourites. The wine is mostly Pinot Noir from the village of Ecueil in the Montagne de Reims region of Champagne.

Bottle of Lacourte Godbillon Terroirs d’Ecueil 1er Cru Brut NV

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