Vintage Information Edit
Since the main wine critics tend to gloss over the SCM/SCV area and rate Northern California as a whole, there isn't really any definitive guide to the region. So here is a rough guide to past vintages based on reports from various sources.
A note on Current Releases Edit
Santa Cruz Mountains wineries tend to release their wines much later than the rest of California; it's not unusual for releases to occur 5 years or more after the vintage. This can make it difficult to get an accurate view of the wines early on and thus the information here has a greater emphasis on vintage conditions and growers' notes than actual tastings.
A note on scoring Edit
Personally I'm not that keen on the 100 point tables, especially given that anything below 80 isn't worth drinking. I've rated the vintages as Excellent, Very good, Good, and Avoid. Caution indicates that while there are good wines there are also some not so good ones, so shop wisely and taste first.
This guide is divided up into two sections: Bordeaux Grapes and Burgundy Grapes There are many other varieties in the area but these aren't widely planted.
Acreage by County Edit
The NASS website has a breakdown of how the various types are planted, county by county. Though this doesn't map precisely to the AVAs it does provide a guideline. The most recent figures posted at the time this list was compiled were for 2005. These are the most significant plantings:
|Grape||Santa Clara||Santa Cruz||San Mateo||San Benito|
|Chardonnay||339 +4||137 -15||28||972 -57|
|All Whites||465 +2||141 -17||31 +1||1196 -50|
|Cabernet Franc||21||2||0||21 +2|
|Cabernet Sauvignon||327 +9||29 +1||6||445 -91|
|Merlot||224 -1||38 +4||3||376 -84|
|Pinot Noir||61 +2||131 +25||26 +3||280|
|Syrah||79 +2||35 +2||0||61 -4|
|Zinfandel||93 +1||9 -6||2||80|
|All Reds||1071 +113||253 +31||38 +5||1413 -178|
Note that the totals includes all types of grape, not just the ones listed. +/- figures indicate increase or decrease since 2004. Figures include acres planted in 2003-05 which would not have been producing yet.
Main Information Sources: http://www.ridgewine.com/taf/tn_sky_search.taf - Ridge's extensive database of tasting notes. The "Backgrounder" sheets are of particular interest. http://www.hockeyguy.com/vintage.html - Paul Romero of Stefania Wine's vintage guide http://www.cantrall.net/Rain/Rain.shtml - Santa Cruz Mountains rainfall data, by Ted Cantrall, from the west side of the mountain. http://www.well.com/user/dmsml/rain.html Don Mussell's rainfall and weather data around Bonny Doon Wine Spectator scores, particularly from the 7th edition Ultimate Guide to Buying Wine. (2000). As well as the web sites of various local wineries, notably Ahlgren, Cinnabar, and local wine enthusiasts such as Rich Gibbons.
If you have comments or opinions on the accuracy of the charts I would like to hear them.
Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux Grapes Edit
The main grapes planted are Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. There is a little Cabernet Franc and a few acres of Petit Verdot and Malbec. Note than very little of the white Bordeaux grapes ( Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, etc.) are planted. The western side of the mountains faces the Pacific ocean, and consequently is the cooler side. It's always been difficult to get Cabernet grapes to ripen completely on that side, but when they do the results can be excellent. The Eastern side faces the Bay and is warmer. Most of the great Cabernet vineyards are located on the eastern side; Bates Ranch, Monte Bello, Mount Eden, La Questa, etc.
2009. The Wine Institute described the vintage as High in Quality and Quantity. In the Santa Cruz Mountains winter was not as dry as the last two years, but still slightly below average. Growing season was long and cool, with a little late season Powdery Mildew to watch out for. Early predictions of a bumper crop proved largely unfounded thanks in part to some green harvesting. Many growers are reporting a slightly above average year. The late season storms in October came in after the lion's share of grapes were harvested and were not as heavy as feared, but did knock back growers with later ripening grapes in cooler areas. With that one caveat, another Excellent vintage. 2008. Another drought year. Rainfall was up slightly on the previous year, but still below 50". The growing season was crazy; wildfires caused by lightning storms and humans coupled with extreme weather conditions. Outside the area frost was a huge issue; within the area most growers were unaffected. Yields were extremely low; some growers reportedly harvested less than half of what they expected. As a result, early releases are showing good concentration of flavours. For their 2008 "report card" Wine Spectator did not call out the AVAs separately; however they awarded the Central Cost region a B-, the lowest grade they gave. Very Good/Caution 2007. A drought year - the mountains saw the lowest rainfall in 16 years, less than half of what fell in 2006. While some growers up in Napa began picking early to avoid rains (perhaps too early according to some reports), further south things were progressing more slowly. This is the first time in recent memory (over 10 years) that Napa has started picking before the Santa Cruz Mountains (typically the harvest begins 2-4 weeks ahead, starting in the Hecker Pass area.) Additionally the weather around harvest was cool, with significant rainfall in late September and early October. This resulted in a long, drawn out harvest; several growers reported as much as a six week spread from the start to the final picking. Paul Romero described the acidity and alcohol levels as closer to Bordeaux than California; the fruit is very pure, tannins ripe and smooth, colors are dark and the wines seem very well balanced. Many critics have declared the vintage Excellent, the best in at least 10 years. 2006. A very wet year indeed; Mussell reported over 93 inches of rainfall, with 36 inches falling in March and early April. The year started particularly cold, with several snowfalls. This was followed by a hot summer, with temperatures exceeding 100 for several days. Conditions around harvest were good, with moderate temperatures and little rain. After the challenging 2005 vintage 2006 was much easier; provided you didn't over-crop the results should be good. Initial releases suggest an early-drinking vintage. Good. 2005. A cold, wet start to the year with storm after storm, resulted in a late start to the growing season and much more work in the vineyard. Growth of both vines and weeds was very vigorous, requiring careful control. Mildew was a problem for some. Both Ridge and Mussell note an inversion in July which at higher elevations meant meant increased temperatures, both day and night. Fall conditions were ideal. Growers who managed the vineyards well in the spring were rewarded with excellent fruit; those who didn't risked some significant issues such as overcropping, green flavours and rot. If in doubt, stick to producers with a proven record. Very Good/Caution. 2004. Another relatively dry year. As in the previous year, bud-break came early, but bloom was delayed by cold spring weather. Set was low - around 2/3 of normal. Summer was cool, with no days over 90, but spores left over from the previous season's rot kept some farmers busy. September saw a heat spike, and some growers harvested early. Those that waited had to time it right; the second half of October saw over 8in of rain. Overall a challenging year. Some very good wines, particularly from lower elevations, but shop wisely. It remains to be seen whether the tannins will soften before the fruit fades. Caution. 2003. A cold, wet spring delayed bloom resulting in a late season. Unusually variable weather conditions and growth patterns (France saw heatwaves that caused many deaths). Romero notes that "small crop, estate wines should do best and those who practiced active viticulture". Although Napa and the Central Coast were hit by late season rainstorms, Cantrall noted no precipitation at all until the last day of October. Some growers reported rot. Good. 2002. A relatively normal start to the season. May rains affected the set in some vineyards, but overall the growing season was balanced and most growers seemed to be happy all year long. Draper reported that the summer heat spikes were moderated by the cool climate and as a result "the Bordeaux varieties have fully ripened flavors. Tannins are highly extractable and color is intense. Potentially a great vintage”. Romero noted "Rich, dark, intense wines from barrel. Very similar to 96, will take years to develop." As of 2009 some wines are starting to shut down; consider holding rather than drinking. Excellent. 2001. The season began with about average rainfall and temperatures. Budbreak occurred on or before schedule; April brought showers and nights below freezing, but that didn't create too many problems for mountain vineyards. Spring was followed by a moderate summer punctuated with brief periods of intense heat and an early harvest. Cantrall measured 36.73in of precipitation, the lowest since 1994. Romero observed "a ripeness outside of Mount Eden that many don't usually see". Ridge reported low Cabernet yields; the 01 Monte Bello blend featured an unusually high percentage of Merlot and an almost unheard of 14.2% alcohol. Very Good. 2000. The growing season began on schedule, but late season cool weather and rains affected much of Northern California. Cantrall measured 2.6in from a storm on October 26th - roughly twice what typically registered for the whole month. The effect was much worse in Napa; in a report on the vintage Ed Weber, Viticulture Farm Advisor at UC Davis wrote "Many blocks saw little if any change in sugar content from the end of September to the end of October. October became a waiting game to see if sugars would go up or flavors would improve before the fruit degraded." In contrast, the Santa Cruz Mountains saw a cool but unhurried end to the season. Good. 1999. A particularly cold, wet spring - one of the wettest since records began, with 108 consecutive days experiencing measurable precipitation. Ahlgren reported that the weather had growers worried. "Things have been wet enough to prevent tractors from moving into the vineyards to dust against mildew". Eventually the rains subsided and some areas experienced a reasonable growing season. The late start resulted in a very late harvest indeed; Ridge didn't start until October 30th - a record for them. Romero reported that the wineries on the Eastern side of the mountains produced the best wines. Caution. 1998. A particularly strong El Niño year. Cantrall measured the rainfall at over 86in, the highest since 1983 (another strong El Niño season). I well remember the storms that lashed the area in Jan/Feb. This caused fruit to set late again; the ensuing cool summer didn't help. Ridge even deployed reflective foil in an only partly successful attempt to get the grapes to ripen. The vintage was a disaster; "worse than Napa" notes Romero, "many wines taste green and harsh". Avoid. 1997. Of the 48in. of rain measured by Cantrall, over 41in fell in the three months Nov-Jan. The next few months saw less than 4in total. Yields throughout the state were high and of good quality - Ahlgren called it "a dream vintage", noting that "the cooling that followed a hot July allowed for extended hang time during which the grapes developed lovely flavors". Draper observed "the largest crop - vine for vine - that our low-yield vineyards have ever produced". The vintage was one of the ripest in years so consequently harvest was earlier than usual. Excellent. 1996. While 1994 and 1997 are generally considered the best years of the 90s in Napa, Romero considers 1996 to be the best here. "Small crop, perfect season. Backwards, intense, age worthy wines. The best will need 10-15 years and should hold for 20 more. Great complexity and typicity." Around 5in of rain over 3 days in mid May did not adversely affect the grapes since the clusters had already set. Good conditions resulted in an early harvest. Excellent. 1995. The year began with heavy rains and cool weather. Once again the fruit set late but even weather and no rain resulted in another late, October harvest. Draper said of the Monte Bello that the vintage "stands as one of the biggest-structured and most complex" of the 1990s. Romero called the wines "Very big, ripe wines. Concentrated with massive but ripe tannins". Very good. 1994. Cool spring weather caused fruit to set late. The rest of the growing season went well; it was a particularly dry year (Cantrall measured about 32in, most of which fell Nov-Feb). Draper called it "a near-perfect growing season", but harvest was late - well into October, amid some rains and a late warm spell. Romero describes them as "Intense tannic wines, needing many years in bottle to come together." Very good. 1993. 1992. 1991. 1990. This was a great vintage in just about every part of the world. Excellent. 1989. Second of two leaner years. Ridge fared well. Caution. 1988. First of two leaner years. Good structure. Caution. 1987. Ripe. Very good. 1986. Similar year to 1984 . Very good. 1985. Generally tannic, needing cellaring. Good. 1984. Very good overall structure. Good. 1983. Third weak year in a row. The best did well, but Monte Bello was declassified. Avoid. 1982. Second of three weak years. Avoid. 1981. Start of a bad run. Avoid. 1980. Ripe. Some very good wines. Good. 1979. An under-rated vintage, many wines had very good structure. Monte Bello was declassified, with just a few cases produced for employees. Good/Caution. 1978. Very ripe, close in quality to 1974. Excellent. 1977. Another drought year, similar to 1976. Very good. 1976. A drought year. Many quality wines. Very good. 1975. Similar to 1973 but better. Very good. 1974. Ripe - a great vintage. Best of the decade. Excellent. 1973. Good structure, overshadowed by 1974. Good. 1972. Late rain diluted many wines. Avoid. 1971. Problematic - a difficult vintage. Caution. 1970. Excellent. 1969. Overshadowed by 1968 and 1970 1968. A Gemello was still showing well 35+ years later. Excellent. 1967. 1966. Monte Bello was declassified. Avoid.
Burgundy Grapes Edit
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are by far the most planted grapes on the West side of the mountains in Santa Cruz County. The cool weather suits these grapes very well. 25 acres of Pinot Noir were planted in 2005 alone.
2009. Several Pinot producers reported shatter, from Corralitos to Woodside. The early ripening grapes were picked before the storms and so were unaffected. Excellent 2008. For the first time several growers from across the west coast got together to document the 2008 harvest. The key word for the vintage seems to be uneven. A protracted flowering season led to the fruit maturing at uneven rates. The region was largely spared the spring frost that plagued most of California, but in spite of that the yields were exceptionally low; around 30% to 50% of expectations in many cases. The late summer heatwave caused sugar levels to spike as grapes lost moisture and some vineyards were picked early; rains in October put things back on track. The wines are expected to be big and concentrated, probably with lots of tannin, and good agers. Expect great things from top producers, but be wary at the lower end. Very Good 2007. In a post on Robert Parker's board, Kevin Harvey of Rhys wrote "I think 2007 was the best ever for CA Pinot. The dry conditions made for extremely concentrated wines while the cool fall conditions maintained freshness and precision. The wines have great flavors, excellent balance (low alcohol) and the structure to age. Yields were low but I have heard that quality is very consistent across vineyards and regions. The style is sort of reminiscent of 2005 Burgundy." Excellent. 2006. Reportedly a much easier vintage than 2005; for wineries that avoided the pitfalls of botrytis, mildew and overcropping the potential is there. The wines are expected to be balanced rather than concentrated, which suits the Santa Cruz Mountains style well. Overall though many critics and consumers are less impressed with the vintage statewide and the published scores reflect this. Whites seem to have fared better than the reds. Shop around. Good. 2005. Some excellent results from a tough vintage. Ridge's Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay was #2 in Wine Spectators Top 100 for 2007 and Varner's Chardonnays have been highly praised. On the other hand, some such as Rhys saw their crops almost entirely wiped out. Overall, it was a difficult year, but for many the results have been superb. Excellent. 2004. Some wonderful Chardonnays, particularly from Varner and Mount Eden. Very Good. However Pinot Noir doesn't seem to have fared as well. Good/Caution 2003. Some growers reported problems with rot. Caution. 2002. Excellent. 2001. A warm vintage, as noted above. The riper Chardonnays should mature sooner than the more structured 2000s, whereas the reds should repay ageing. Very good. 2000. Romero described the reds as "showing good fruit and complexity" and the whites as "Excellent, age worthy and pure". Good. 1999. Structured whites that will repay time in the cellar. Good. 1998. Ridge reported a very late harvest, with Chardonnay not being picked until the end of October. Overall the vintage was better than for the Bordeaux grapes, though not greatly. Caution. 1997. "Good typicity, complex, many spicy" reports Romero. Very good. 1996. Early bloom and set followed by good growing conditions led to an early harvest - Ridge began in late August. "Concentrated wines, with mineral intensity" said Romero. Very good. 1995. Late, cool spring resulted in a late harvest. Romero considered the whites "Intense age worthy wines, Ripe, rich and typical". Excellent.