Napa Valley Climate - 50 Year Perspective
Napa is covered in unique microclimates and Palmaz Vineyards' three distinct elevations where grapes grow are no exception. Establishing a baseline to compare against is important when discussing subtleties amongst vintages. Here we look at 50 years of Napa climate data to establish the averages referenced by each specific vintage.
The 2019 vintage got off on the wrong foot. Spoiled from the 2018 vintage, one of the best in recent history, an unusually late wet and cold pattern in May delayed bud break by more than a week. Temperatures finally climbed into a warm summer with good night time recovery. However, the nearly two week delay perpetuated through the growing season. Aggressive leafing and cluster dropping aided to minimize the delay.
Harvest began late on September 17 in the usual order and by Oct 10th only the lower vineyard elevations had been harvested. Fortunately, with no threat of rain in the foreseeable forecast, the team took their time to develop final ripening characteristics. Just 8 days later, the final parcel arrived putting a sigh of relief from a stressful vintage. Like 2018, although later, 2019 will make excellent wines. Check out the Harvest Tracker here.
After a challenging 2017, 2018 brought relief and the harvest completion we were hoping for from 2017. 2018 was the vintage of slow and steady development -- a return to a normal pace. With textbook spring and summer temps and sun exposure, harvest began unceremoniously exactly 8 days later than 2017. The team even noted a predictability to harvest order and cadence sighting ample time to develop nuance characteristics considered a luxury in more challenging vintages.
Nature did remind the team not to take her for granted, as a small under-forecasted rain event dumped .27" of rain in under 12 hours. However with sun and breeze returning the next day, the rain served only to dampen down dusty roads.
Additionally, it's notable that cluster weights were above average in 2018 with some parcels reporting 10% yield increases despite an aggressive post veraison cluster dropping program. Given the lower yields in 2015 and the lost upper vineyard fruit of 2017, this was a welcomed treat.
Tina says 2018, reminds her of wonderful vintages such as 2013 and 2008. Definitely one to be cherished. Check out the Harvest Report here.
This vintage will forever be infamous in Napa Valley due to the fires that tore through several parts of both Napa and Sonoma. Although nearly all of the wild land area of Palmaz estate burned, fortunately only one structure was lost, the vineyards were spared, and team and family were safe.
Just prior to the unanticipated fires, the vintage was shaping up to be wonderful. Warmer than 2016, the growing season provided significant volume, depth and structure across all parcels. By the end of September, the team was feeling quite confident with a 10 day forecast showing no rain threat. The end of harvest was in sight...
On Oct 3rd, the unthinkable happened. Multiple wild land fires ripped across Napa and Sonoma in the middle of the night on Sunday. With 90% of the harvest complete only the upper vineyard fruit was left. Sadly, due to the intense smoke, the team decided that the fruit was unsalvageable and should not be incorporated. The 2017 vintage will forever be remembered as a tragedy. Fortunately the wine, thanks to the teams unwillingness to compromise quality, will tell a story of a wonderful vintage without apologies. Check out the Harvest Tracker here.
The team refers to this vintage as a return to "normalcy". Similar to the 2012 vintage, 2016 spring and summer were textbook with ample growing season length. A warm 2nd and 3rd week in September contributed to rising brix. After modest temperatures in August, the team was wise not to overleaf, a Palmaz property tactic that was worked in previous vintages. By the time harvest was on the horizon so were minor threats of rain. On Oct 2nd, a minor 30 minute isolated rain event occurred that did not delay harvest plans. The wine making team beamed about the quality and were pleased with the significant yields. This will go down as a great vintage for Napa Valley. Check out the Harvest Tracker here.
Lower yields and loose clusters can be attributed mostly to a significant cold pattern during berry set (mid April). Temperatures steadily climbed through spring ending with a hot summer. Again it was critical to resist the temptation to overleaf following such a colder spring. Rains also lingered longer than usual through spring contributing to lower sunlight totals. Fortunately the rest of the season was free of any major issues allowing harvest to happen through October.
Strong aromatics and textures were noted coming from upper vineyard fruit and Tina was excited to see the benefits of new cane pruning showing through in the Clone 6 Cabernet fruit. Check out the Harvest Tracker here.
The spring began with a water deficit inherited from the previous year’s drought; however, just enough rain came to entice an early bud-break on the vines. The fruit, set in the early summer, was exceptional, enabling one of the most consistent and abundant crops ever recorded on the property. Diligent green thinning and dropping of fruit prior to veraison resulted in a harvest of exceptional quality. On August 24, a few weeks before harvest began, the whole team was shaken up by a 6.2 earthquake whose epicenter was just 12 miles from the winery. Thankfully, there was no damage on the Palmaz Estate, and the operation was not interrupted.
Once the vineyard and winery teams were able to get back to work following the quake, the harvest proceeded smoothly, and the quality was once again exceptional. The fruit was ripe and balanced, anticipating another delicious vintage. At the time of this book’s printing, none of the red wines had been blended, but there are high hopes for the resulting wine.
Mother Nature continued her cooperative weather pattern in 2013 with similar temperatures and timing as the previous vintage. While rainfall was dramatically less in 2013, what rain fell was well-timed. The few showers came right at the times they were most needed: in the early spring and post-harvest. In addition, the lower temperatures associated with this vintage helped prevent the drought from negatively affecting the quality of the wines.
Harvest was a little earlier than the previous year, and berry size was markedly smaller. This resulted in a wine of exceptional concentration. Generally speaking, the 2013 Cabernets have abundant tannins and a long finish. The Cabernet blends can be expected to age a little longer.
After a couple of challenging vintages, nature finally provided a wine that was a joy to farm. Spring and bud break occurred almost at the same time as the previous year; however, the summer was consistently warm, averaging 59.2 degrees Fahrenheit without spiking into extreme heat, and mostly dry (total rainfall for the year: 19.2 inches). The vines, as a result, were prolific. Harvest was a little earlier than the previous three years due to the warm summer; thankfully, it wasn’t rushed by any sudden autumn rains. The generous growing season provided plenty of time to develop both flavor and aromatic fruit qualities.
Gaston in 2012 featured Cabernet from the upper vineyard. This was the first vintage in which the upper-elevation vineyard exhibited such remarkable qualities as to be highlighted in this vineyard-designate wine. The arid and breezy conditions of the 1,400-foot-elevation vineyard, combined with the warm summer, delivered a Gaston of exceptional concentration and depth.
By the time the challenges of 2011 appeared in earnest, the farm- ing team was ready for them. First, a wet spring and early summer delayed the season; Christian and Tina compensated through early pruning and dropping of clusters, paired with repeated canopy passes throughout the summer. (Average temperature: 59.7 degrees Fahrenheit; total rainfall: 19.2 inches.) By the time harvest rolled around, each vineyard had been walked through at least 35 times, and it was clear that the yields that year would be low.
What fruit the family harvested, however, was of high quality, with a delicate aroma and moderate tannins. Fermentation resulted in wines with exceptionally intense structure and color, but the family and wine- makers had to sacrifice Gaston in order to focus on the quality of the flagship wine, which would develop significantly over the next decade.
Lessons learned in 2009 proved invaluable in 2010, the wettest vintage since the birth of Palmaz Vineyards — over a 12-month period, an incredible 36.2 inches of rain soaked the area. Fortunately, the preceding winter had been quite dry, so the ground happily soaked up all the water that poured down throughout the first quarter. As the weather persisted into May, however, Christian grew increasingly concerned about the cold spring, and began an aggressive campaign to thin the fruit and canopies to encourage ripening. (The average temperature again held steady at 59.2 degrees Fahrenheit, showing how the single metric doesn’t always tell the complete story.)
Thanks to that campaign, the fruit ripened on an accelerated time- table, and harvest occurred without any major losses due to mildew. The resulting wine has a lovely perfume lift and delicate structure. However, only traces of the fruit from the upper-elevation vineyards shined in this vintage, and so the winemakers mostly withheld it from the main blend; replanting the lower vineyard resulted in fruit with exceptional power and depth, which compensated for the lack of upper-vineyard fruit.
By this time the family had begun hosting asados — Argentine barbecues — and decided to use the Malbec from the 1,200-elevation vineyard to create a very small amount of barbecue wine. The result, Brasas Cabernet, is a Cabernet-Malbec blend that relies heavily on that upper-elevation fruit and is designed to pair well with the smoke of outdoor cooking and roasted meats.
Early pruning in January and trellis thinning in the summer paid off when the family was able to harvest all the remaining fruit before the fateful rains of October 23.
Few events in Napa were as catastrophic as that particular downpour; and while the Palmaz estate wasn’t affected, it was difficlut to see friends and neighbors lose fruit to mold in the aftermath. The tempera- ture that year was identical to 2008 (59.9 degrees Fahrenheit), while rainfall totaled 21.8 inches.
The Chardonnay, for the first time, included fruit from the Carneros- Hyde Vineyards, while 40 percent derived from the property.
In 2008, for the first time, every vineyard parcel yielded a crop. Harvesting from 36 individual parcels gave Tina a glorious array of flavors and textures from which to work. The family had all five Bordeaux blending varietals available, and the first vintage Malbec made it to the final blend. Even though 2008 is considered a “cooler” vintage compared to 2007, the presence of all the blending varietals contributed to a rounder, riper expression.
As a Mother’s Day gift, the family named the 2008 Chardonnay after Amalia; the Riesling was named Louise in honor of Jessica Louise. There was no Muscat made this year, as the family chose to wait for its estate Muscat to produce in 2009.
Following the 2008 harvest, Christian began compiling data from previous blends and vineyard performances. As a result, the family initiated an aggressive vineyard improvement plan for the bottom vine- yard, with 40 percent of the acreage either ripped out and replaced or grafted to preferred clones. Average temperature for the year hovered at 59.9 degrees Fahrenheit, while rainfall totaled 20.3 inches.
This vintage was the beginning of Palmaz Vineyards as we know it today. With the vineyards from all three elevations bearing fruit, and the caves finally completed and receiving visitors, Christian took over all farming midway through the year.
The dry, warm year of 2007 was a welcome contrast to the rains of 2006. Rainfall totaled only 14.7 inches, and the average temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit translated into great flavor development in the grapes. This vintage was late to pick, with some of the last harvests pushed into November. The family expects this vintage to prove one of the most cellar worthy of its first decade of wines.
The Riesling was contracted from Oak Knoll in anticipation of our vineyards being established.
The flood of December 2005 kicked off a wet spring of 2006 throughout Napa, which translated into some vigorous vines that summer. The family had to push the harvest season to later in the year, and thankfully the rains held off until all the grapes were picked and in the winery. Rainfall totaled 31.5 inches, while the average temperature for the year held steady at 59.8 degrees Fahrenheit. The upper-elevation vineyards, now in operation, became an important component in the concentration and structure of the Palmaz blend; throughout the vineyards, suppressing and ripening the fruit remained a major focus.
The family and winemakers continued refining the style of the Chardonnay. The wine spent eight months aging in barrels composed of 50 percent new French oak, and 50 percent one year-old French oak.
The Riesling, sourced from Lake Hennessey, featured a slight botrytis character. The Muscat, harvested early in the season, came from Pope Valley. While both of these “cellar toys” were developing nicely, the family faced an increasing challenge in managing the outside grape growers, from whom they bought little fruit; Tina wanted greater control over fruit quality and the harvest timing of the grapes. So the family took another look at a few of the cooler parcels on the property, and began making plans to replace a parcel of Merlot with Muscat, and plant more Riesling and Chardonnay in the vineyard at 1,200 feet.
It was a very good year for Napa (average temperature: 60.1 degrees Fahrenheit; total rainfall: 34.9 inches), although some vintners would later find that the bumper crop of 2005 resulted in excess inventory. The Palmaz winery played things a little more conservatively, choosing to retain the yield at one to two clusters per shoot, focusing on producing intensity and quality over quantity (a practice that lives on today, even in the most prolific vintages). The resulting grapes were small and concentrated, with bright fruit flavors.
Improvements in the vineyards helped the family better achieve a balance of ripe fruit character and structure in the wines. It was time to release another Gaston, this one boasting aromas of black fruit and cocoa, with prominent tannins and long finish.
The 2005 Riesling was the last vintage that relied on the Riesling grapes from Pritchard Hill. The Chardonnay that year was the first vintage to source fruit from both cool-and foggy Carneros and sunnier Atlas Peak. This combination of sourcing fruit from two distinct locations became the hallmark to the balanced style of Palmaz Chardonnay.
This was the year that the current Palmaz winemaking team came together with almost euphoric energy. With help from vineyard consultant Mike Wolf, an intuitive guide to all things vine-related, the family adapted to the estate’s farming cycles. As if in apology for the challenges of the previous year, 2004 offered a mild and dry climate (average temperature: 60.7 degrees Fahrenheit; total rainfall: 24.5 inches). Although the upper-elevation vineyards weren’t quite mature yet, they nonetheless demonstrated great promise.
Inside the cave, the fermentation-dome carousel was now functional, and the wine could undergo the full gravity-flow winemaking experience. The presence of Tina Mitchell and Mia Klein as the winemaking team contributed greatly to the softer tannins, a fuller mid-palate and elegant spirit in the wines.
The winery’s chilled tunnel, now complete, hosted the first cold- barrel-fermented Chardonnay. After the lessons learned from the previous year, the family decided to change the aromatic white program, producing the first vintage of Riesling from old-vine grapes grown on Pritchard Hill and a small amount of semisweet Muscat from Pope Valley. With these two wines, dinner pairings were complete: Riesling for hors d’oeuvres, Chardonnay for the first course, Cabernet Sauvignon for two meat courses and a touch of Muscat to finish.
This year marked the beginning of the Palmaz transition from the firm tannin structure of the Dunn wines to the balanced expression that has become the winery’s hallmark. With the vineyards still young, executing this transition proved a bit of a challenge. Periodic rainstorms in the springtime (total rainfall for the year: 29.2 inches) and a sluggish summer (average temperature: 60.6 degrees Fahrenheit) stressed the vines, and some vineyards experienced an uneven ripening that required the family to retrain the vines to a lower yield system, resulting in very little Palmaz Cabernet Sauvignon for the year. At the same time, the family began development of the vineyards at 1,200 feet. The cave was partially complete, and the fermentation dome operational. There was no Gaston this year, and only a little Cabernet. The family made a barrel-aged Chardonnay, with a higher percentage of new oak and subjected to malolactic fermentation, resulting in a fuller-bodied, aromatic wine.
The summer of 2002 proved warmer than that of 2001 (despite the average annual temperature of 59.8 degrees Fahrenheit), with rainfall of 26.2 inches for the year. That resulted in riper fruit, which was crushed at Randy Dunn’s winery before aging in barrels on the Palmaz property. For the 2002 Gaston, the family selected grapes from the Tortuga block at the lowest elevation, planted with vineyard cuttings gifted by Joseph Phelps from the famed Backus Vineyard. This was also the first year for Chardonnay, with fruit sourced from Sonoma’s Russian River Valley; made at Amalia’s behest, it aged in barrels made from only 20 percent new French oak and underwent no malolactic fermentation, resulting in a lighter wine with bright acidity.
That year, the family wanted to add only a small quantity of aromatic white wine, to serve as aperitifs during the summer months. This desire led to the creation of a refreshing, fragrant Muscat Canelli, produced “dry” with no oak aging, which has never been released for public sale.
The estate’s next year produced a textbook vintage, thanks in large part to a moderate spring followed by a warm summer. Temperatures for the year averaged 60.4 degrees Fahrenheit, accompanied by 30 inches of rainfall. By this point, only the estate’s lowest elevation produced grapes (harvest took place in early September), and given that the winery wasn’t yet ready to receive fruit, Randy Dunn crafted the vintage at his Howell Mountain winery. In keeping with Dunn’s signature style, this vintage features firm tannins, and continues to demonstrate its worthiness more than a decade later. This was also the first Gaston vintage, born out of a parcel selection of Cabernet Sauvignon that had a distinctive character and barrel-aged for an additional four months.
With the winery having just broken ground, this was the estate’s first vintage. It was, in Florencia’s words, a “quaint adventure.” The harvest took place in one day, because there were just two bins’ worth of grapes from the young vines in the partially planted vineyards. Because the estate hadn’t yet purchased a de-stemming machine, Amalia and Florencia had to jump into the bins to stomp the grapes. “It was then that I realized that the romantic notion of stomp- ing grapes like Lucille Ball is not that glamorous,” Florencia said later. “Mostly I remember running in a circle, knee-deep in grapes, begging to be let out as the bees were chasing me.” Due to the vines’ extreme youth, the resulting wine’s aromas were green and imma- ture, and the family decided never to sell the vintage; it exists today only in the estate’s wine library.