2018 Stellar Sonoma Vintage

by Rob Davis

Mother Nature has a track record of rewarding grape farmers and winemakers the year after a challenging vintage. Luckily, history repeated itself in 2018 with an incredible vintage to follow the extremely difficult 2017.

She blessed us with one of the best wine vintages of my career in 2012 after 2011 brought a hard reminder that nature does have a cycle.

It’s remarkable how similar the 2018 vintage is to 2012. If you loved the Napa and Sonoma wines of what’s been called the “vintage of the century,” get ready to make the space for the next contender in your wine cellar. Looking back over the last year since bud break in the vineyards, there were four key factors that led to a phenomenal wine vintage for Sonoma County grapes in 2018.

Weather Returned to Normal

After years of drought, hot summers and early harvests, 2018 was the first vintage in recent memory that returned to what I call the “old normal.” The 2018 growing season was 3-4 weeks later than recent vintages. It reminded me more of classic vintages from the 1990s when winter stayed cool and bud break occurred at a more typical time in late March. This set the pace for the grape growing season to continue progressing at a normal pace. Very little rain or wind during the May flowering period led to a generous but not excessive cluster count.

August felt like the old days—very foggy, cool mornings where the sun didn’t peek through the marine layer until lunchtime. The only real weather concerns of the entire vintage were a heat spike in June during fruit set and a little rain in late September. Fortunately, all of the thin-skinned chardonnay grapes were picked for Jordan before the rain. We actually prefer a little rain between the white and red grape harvests to cleanse the Bordeaux variety grapes. The weather was glorious throughout October with cool, foggy mornings and sunny days.

Grapes Were Small in Size

When fruit set occurred in June, the 2018 crop looked average in size, and I called it an “average but not great” crop size in my first Facebook Live growing season report of the vintage. I even said that 2018 clusters weren’t going to be as full as 2012 or even 2016. But as summer progressed, the clusters kept filling out beautifully, and there were many more berries per cluster than usual. This is what happened in 2012. The similarities between the 2012 and 2018 vintages gave me cause to use the 2012 cluster weights in assessing the crop level for 2018.

It is always a big guess as to how many tons per acre a block of grapes will produce. Experience certainly helps, but grower and winemaker are still more often wrong than right with their crop estimates. And 2018 was no exception. As the cool weather prevailed through much of the summer, the vines kept drinking up the water from the irrigation and gleefully putting it in the clusters.

Ultimate Hang-time

August was quite cool, and the heat spikes that end of summer usually delivers never arrived in Sonoma. The days had such long, cool mornings and moderately warm afternoons in September that we called off all Jordan Chardonnay picks, giving the grapes more time to hang and develop more intense flavors. With no threat of rain in the forecast in early or mid-September, winemakers had the luxury of letting all the grapes further mature as the varietal aroma, mid-palate and depth of fruit concentrated.

The gorgeous weather continued in October, when winemakers usually worry about fall rains and the vines beginning to shut down for the season.

At the same time pumpkins were being harvested for Halloween décor, winemakers were able to work at a more relaxing pace, let fermentations progress naturally and wait to pick the grapes at just the right moment. This allowed the smaller berries of 2018 to develop a very intense level of dark fruit flavors and mature tannins in the red wine grapes and very bright, apple flavors in the chardonnay grapes. 2018 was the first vintage since 2010 that we were still harvesting grapes the morning of the Jordan Halloween party (October 21).

Despite the small berries, grape cluster sizes in many growers’ blocks were at a record high.

High Quantity and Quality Grapes

Both winegrower and winemaker are content with a bountiful harvest, but winemakers are only content when the bountiful vintage means abundant aromas, rich flavors and depth of fruit character. We were all smiles in September when the 2018 grape harvest began. It’s very rare that all of these things happen in concert—there’s usually some sort of issue with a little rain or a heat spike. But 2018, like 2012, was one of those phenomenal, special harvests where plentiful was the defining descriptor—lots of beautiful grapes with tremendous flavor concentration in the berries.

Even though the berries were smaller, the weight of the record-breaking cabernet sauvignon clusters was astounding—about 0.40 pounds compared to the typical 0.25 to 0.30 pound per cluster of grapes. One grower doubled his normal yield, but the depth of flavor wasn’t impacted at all from the copious cluster weights.

The blackberry and cassis flavors in the cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes were exceptional, and the natural grape tannins were ideal. Winemaking and grape growing are earth sciences, subject to the variable nature of each vintage. After a difficult 2017 with excessive heat and small yields from every grower, we believe that we all deserved a generous harvest like 2018.

With the “barn” full of race horses, our winemaking team began assembling the 2018 blend in winter. Barrels from our friends in France began to arrive, then we started the process of pumping out the 2017 vintage in barrels to make room for our new young child, the 2018.