After the turbulent 2017 harvest, Napa vintners would have been happy with a simply quieter 2018. Instead, this year delivered an ideal growing season, followed by a long, slow-paced harvest. Winemakers are excited by the potential quality of the young wines.
Welcome to Wine Spectator's 2018 Wine Harvest Report, our coverage of Northern Hemisphere wine regions. (Our Southern Hemisphere 2018 harvest reports were published earlier this year.) While we won't know how good a vintage is until we taste the finished wines, these reports offer firsthand accounts from top winemakers in leading regions.
A year for patience
Last year's harvest was marred by devastating wine-country wildfires, including two blazes that scorched parts of Napa, destroying some wineries, filling the valley with smoke and making it hard for some winemakers to access their wineries during key moments. And while 2018 has brought more fires to California, including this week's deadly blazes in Butte County to the north and Ventura to the south, Napa has been largely spared.
The near picture-perfect growing season began in late February. Spring was mild, with extended flowering yielding uniform grape clusters. Temperatures remained steady and warm throughout the growing season, without any significant heat spikes, making for a cool, unhurried harvest. The only mildly concerning hiccup came in the form of rain on Oct. 2 and 3.
For winemakers like Jeff Ames, that unhurried harvest felt like a marathon. In addition to being a consultant for several wineries, Ames is the winemaker for Rudius and Tor, and produces everything from Sauvignon Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon. "The hang time this year was just nuts," groaned Ames. "This is easily the longest harvest I have seen in a long time. We finished picking on Oct. 29—two to three weeks later than normal."
For sparkling-wine producers like Domaine Carneros, picking started at the usual time, but then just kept going, thanks to cool temperatures that slowed ripening. "Temperature was a defining factor in this vintage," said winemaker T.J. Evans, noting that 2018 was actually cooler than 2011, which many regard as the coolest vintage of the past decade. "I think I will remember 2018 as the year we picked Chardonnay in October."
In the cellar, Evans said fermentations for both sparkling and still wines were clean, with vibrant flavors. Renée Ary, winemaker for Duckhorn Vineyards, thought highly of their white wines. "Most of our Sauvignon Blanc saw riper flavors at lower alcohols, which is ideal, and the quality is some of the best we have seen in over a decade," she said.
The extended growing season meant Cabernet winemakers had to cool their heels before seeing any action. "The first 20 days of August were the hottest on record at Larkmead, and the last 11 days were the coolest," said Dan Petroski, winemaker for Larkmead Vineyards. "September remained cool until the 8th, when a warming spell came over the valley, which coincided with the start of our red grape harvesting." They picked all of their grapes over the next 26 days. But Petroski notes that they picked earlier than many because Larkmead is a warm site.
Other winemakers had to wait until October before things started progressing, and picking did not wrap up until the first week of November. "Patience has been the name of the game this year," said Jeff Owens, winemaker for Odette Estate in Napa's Stags Leap District. "It's been cooler this year compared to recent vintages so I had to retrain myself to think like it was 2012 all over again."
Owens wasn't the only one to evoke 2012. Many winemakers see 2012 as a benchmark for both quality and quantity. That year also delivered a mild spring and summer and an extended growing season, and the resulting wines showed balance and good concentration. Winemakers are seeing similar results in 2018. "Wines coming out of the fermentors are imbued with incredible flavor and density on the palate," said Petroski.
Ary at Duckhorn echoed Petroski's remarks, particularly regarding Merlot. "The Merlots are incredibly polished and focused," said Ary.
Owens at Odette agreed. "The color and texture are magnificent, with a great sense of freshness. I think it's one of the better lots of Merlot we've seen yet off of the property."
Yields have been down for several vintages, due to several years of drought conditions. For 2018, winemakers reported that yields were much closer to normal averages.
The improved yield was largely attributed to larger grape clusters. "Usually when we're thinking about doing crop-load estimates, the average Cabernet cluster weight is somewhere around 0.25 pounds per cluster," said Daniel Ricciato, who oversees 60 sites for winemaker Thomas Rivers Brown. "This year's clusters are clocking in at around 0.5 pounds to 0.6 pounds per cluster." Ricciato noted that they saw the large clusters coming, even before bloom, but despite aggressive thinning, some crop loads were still upwards of 40 percent above average.
While it will be some time before the finished wines can be judged, vintners are pleased so far. "We are very optimistic about the 2018 vintage in Napa Valley," said Ary.
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