Both Washington and Oregon vintners weathered a hot, dry summer in 2018, and even drifting smoke from wildfires in other regions. But timely rains and cooler temperatures in early fall led to lovely fruit and potentially great 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.
Willamette Valley's winemakers are accustomed to curve balls in the weather, especially during harvest, but 2018 is the fifth year in a row that nature cooperated. "It was a beautiful year," said veteran winemaker Ken Wright of Ken Wright Cellars, a man who's typically blunt about a vintage's flaws.
Josh Bergström of Bergström Wines agreed. "Oregon has never seen so much sunshine," he said. It was also one of the largest Oregon harvests on record.
The growing season was uneventful in the early months. Budbreak and bloom progressed smoothly. May was dry by Oregon standards and there was little or no rain in summer, which was also unusually sunny. "It wasn't as hot [overall] as 2016 or 2017," Wright said. "But throughout the summer it was crazy dry and crazy hot."
Those conditions touched off numerous wildfires in the Pacific Northwest, first in southern Oregon in July and then British Columbia and eastern Washington in August. As a result, a haze of smoke hovered over large parts of Willamette Valley for several days. Smoke taint doesn't appear to be an issue, winemakers said, although it can be difficult to identify early in the winemaking process.
By mid-September the vines were weary from too much sun and not enough water, and began shutting down as ripening stalled. Growers and winemakers started to worry, but then a half an inch of rain arrived, reviving stressed vines. What followed was about two weeks of cool nights and warm but not blistering days. "That cooling kind of saved us," said Argyle winemaker Nate Klostermann. "If we hadn't had cooler weather, it might have been off the charts, ripeness-wise."
As temperatures warmed again, harvest moved into a fast gear, with white and red grapes ripening quickly. "It was very compact at that point," Klostermann said.
Most vintners were pleased with their Pinot. Bergström was a bit concerned with tannins, because of the hot and dry conditions. "We suspected they might be hard and bitter," he said. Bergström has increasingly used a higher percentage of whole-cluster fermentation as recent vintages have grown warmer. This year he decided to go 100 percent for the entire crop. "The tannins are finely knit but there's structure," he said. "The Pinots are deeply colored and rich."
Despite the warmer than typical weather, Klostermann said his Pinots retained a much higher level of acidity than recent vintages. "There's lots of purity from the Pinot Noir. They're harmonious and balanced," he said.
To the north, 2018 delivered a kind growing season for Washington vintners. "The first surprise was how long it lasted," said Mike Januik, winemaker at Novelty Hill and Januik wineries. "But it was a great vintage overall."
As in Oregon, Washington experienced a warm growing season, but one balanced by moderate weather as harvest approached. "It was a hot start to the vintage and for a while we thought it would be the hottest on record," said Juan Muñoz-Oca, head winemaker at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.
Just before Labor Day, a brief rain shower moved through the state. It brought a breath of cooler air that lasted through much of September and October. "The weather was just perfect," said Muñoz-Oca. "It was warm, but not hot, during the day and really cold at night."
Ripening slowed, allowing more time for the grapes to develop mature flavors and for the white grapes to retain freshness and acidity. When it finally came time for harvest to start, Baron said, "The vines were just cruising. They were not under any stress."
Januik said it was a particularly good year for Cabernet Sauvignon. "Especially Red Mountain," he added. Syrah and other Rhône-style reds thrived in Walla Walla. "Especially in The Rocks [region]," said Baron. "There's a big tannin profile but nice, ripe tannins and very pure and full of fruit."
In the end, the 2018 crop was larger than expected, but by all early indications quality is high. Washington winemakers and growers aren't complaining.
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