After the stress of 2017, Sonoma winemakers hoped for a more relaxed harvest this year, and Mother Nature gave it to them. Last year brought scorching temperatures that triggered picking on Labor Day weekend. And that was before the wine-country wildfires began. But 2018 brought moderate temperatures and a long growing season, leading to relaxed picking and promising 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 cool start
Despite a warm February, the 2018 growing season started off cooler than the past few vintages. Stonestreet winemaker Lisa Valtenbergs reported a two-week cold snap in Alexander Valley, with frost fans blowing for two weeks straight. "We even witnessed some snow in our higher elevation vineyards," she said.
A cool spring meant bloom lasted longer than usual, but fruit set was consistent. "There were a couple small weather events during set, but most Russian River and Sonoma Coast sites were not affected, and fruit set was very good in almost every vineyard site," said winemaker Jeff Stewart of Hartford wines.
Summer temperatures were moderate with fewer heat spikes than in recent years. Veraison started later as well. "A cooling [period] in late July put the brakes on and meant that we avoided the late summer heat spikes that drove an early and compressed harvest in the two previous vintages," said La Crema winemaker Craig McAllister.
Pick when ready
As a result, harvest started two to three weeks later than in recent years, but some winemakers said it was historically more typical. "Harvest stared 'later' but really back to 'normal' compared to the previous four years," said Valtenbergs. "It was the first Labor Day holiday our team enjoyed in the past six years or so."
"The 2018 vintage required patience from growers and vintners alike, given that the development and flavor maturation took extra time," said Nicole Hitchcock of J Vineyards & Winery. "Wet weather in early October was followed by dry spells and moderate heat, rewarding those patient enough to sit tight."
For Paul Hobbs, 2018 was "the most benign growing season in over 40 years," he said. It started with near-perfect fruit set in the spring, which led to large grape clusters that translated into a large potential crop, leading him to reduce the fruit ripening on the vine to enhance quality.
"I was forced to convert several per-ton to per-acre contracts mid-growing season to coerce growers to perform the intensive thinning work needed—up to four full thinning passes," said Hobbs, adding that two passes is typical. "This long growing season, largely a function of fine weather—a full two weeks longer than average—is always a highly desirable thing. We are already seeing the benefits in the cellar with fully mature, sweet tannins, outstanding color and brightness, depth of fruit, naturally beautifully balanced wines." He called 2018 an exceptional vintage.
Potential for greatness
Vintner David Ramey, based in Healdsburg, concurred with Hobbs' characterization of the harvest as one of the smoothest on record. "Honestly, [it was] the easiest harvest ever," he said. "Never had to force a picking decision to stay ahead of rain or a hot spell—just beautiful, from start to finish."
" has a lot of potential for greatness," said Jason Kesner, the winemaker at Kistler Vineyards in Sebastopol. "I was very pleased with all of the fruit and the resultant juices. In general, the weather being as mild as it was allowed for a relatively relaxed pace of things and excellent development of flavors and retention of great natural acidity across the wines. In most instances, we were waiting almost solely on pH [a marker of acidity] to shift to make our picking call. That applies to both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir."
Yields varied, depending on site, variety and clone, but overall appeared to be average or slightly higher. "Across the board, Pinot Noir yields tended to be up, with crops reminiscent in size of 2012 and 2013," said McAllister. He reported that Chardonnay yields were also higher, but varied more based on site and clones.
Winemakers report that the long growing season means that wines are showing structure and concentration without being overripe. "The Chardonnays really stand out to me," said Valtenbergs. "Harvesting with cool mornings compared to the heat waves of 2017 was a pleasure and far less stressful. The quality of the clusters, the juice and the natural acidity are going to produce some stunning wines."
"At this point the 2018s seem to have good backbone, acidity and balance," said Stewart. "Chardonnay in the Russian River has good fruit intensity, with Chardonnay on the Sonoma Coast having more acid drive and finesse. Pinot and Zinfandel are both fruit-driven, but with very good sense of place and complexity showing from all our vineyard sites."
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