Thinking of skipping the 2020 Pinot Noir vintage? Think again.
The 2020 vintage in Sonoma County was remarkably challenging due to the novel coronavirus pandemic and what seemed like an endless loop of devastating fires. Prior to August 17, 2020, when lightning struck and the LNU Lightning Complex and Walbridge fires broke out, however, it had been a spectacular growing year.
And so, there’s a silver lining for some winemakers. DuMOL, Williams Selyem and other Sonoma producers have or are getting ready to bottle exquisite Pinot Noirs from one of the most difficult vintages of the modern era. There might not be as much 2020 Pinot, but what there is will likely be amazing.
“The 2020 harvest was always going to be our earliest on record as our vines budded out on March 5th and had been ahead all season,” says Andy Smith, viticulturalist, winemaker and partner of DuMOL.
As a result, he started picking many of his Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards relatively early, beginning on August 16, 17 and 18 in some of the warmer sites.
“The fruit was exceptional quality, rich and vibrant, so almost zero sorting was required,” he says.
He picked Viognier seven days earlier than ever before, on August 21. He kept a close eye on Brix and pH numbers and was pleasantly surprised to see them in line with other vintages.
“I have no fear whatsoever of smoke taint on any of these lots,” he says. “The first time I became concerned was August 26, the first day the smoke felt like it was settling in, from daylight until 3 p.m. when it cleared.”
But before that date, Smith had harvested 65% of his grapes—the Pinot was harvested in eight days—and found the fruit mature, deeply colored and analytically ripe. He expected the vintage to be one of his finest ever for Pinot Noir and similar to 2015: the wines intense, vibrant, deeply colored and long-lived, and the fermentations incredibly aromatic and spicy.
The fruit quality was so giving, he did light extractions, used a touch less new oak and added no pressed wine.
He estimates he made about 14,000 cases of wine in 2020, whereas an average year is typically 20,000. Only one Syrah vineyard was picked, and he’ll make just one 2020 Cabernet Sauvignon from the Napa Valley instead of three single-vineyard designates.
Chardonnay yields were already down before the fires due to spring frost and poor flowering, but DuMOL will still have six Chardonnay bottlings and all of its Pinots except for one.
At Williams Selyem, Winemaker Jeff Mangahas had the added challenge of having his Westside Road winery within the evacuation zone for parts of harvest because the Walbridge Fire was due west.
He picked much of his Pinot Noir by August 12.
“Smoke effects depended on time and intensity,” he says. “The fire started on the 17th, but the smoke didn’t really settle until a week later depending on where you were. We had time to get the grapes off.”