2018 Napa Valley – First Impressions…


After a tumultuous, hugely stressful 2017, Napa Valley winemakers and owners welcomed an essentially trouble-free growing season in 2018. As I have done for many years, this past spring I tasted the new vintage from barrel to get a first look at the wines ahead of my fall tastings. Based on what I have seen so far 2018 looks like a strong vintage, although there were some challenges, as well, especially in August and throughout harvest. Readers should note that, because the wines are in such an embryonic stage, this article does not include reviews for specific wines.

Tasting the 2018s, block by block, at VHR – Vine Hill Ranch.

One of the things I enjoy most about tasting young Napa Valley Cabernets in the spring after harvest is that in most cases the wines have not been blended (or even racked) at all, which provides an incredible opportunity to see the wines in a very pure state, almost always straight from barrel. Of the producers I tasted (a full list is below), only Harlan and Promontory had created blends, which is unusually early for both, while Kapcsándy presented working base blends, typical for them at this time of year.

Based on what I have tasted so far, 2018 is shaping up to be a year with mid-weight structure, along the lines of 2012, but with the darker tonalities of fruit found in years like 2014. Alcohols and tannins are lower than the norm across the board. It is a vintage with a tremendous capacity to express precision, something I saw at Screaming Eagle, where a tasting of numerous blocks on the property showed just how nuanced these wines can be and how complex the estate is as a whole.

Tasting component wines at Harlan Estate.

But 2018 is also a vintage with its own set of challenges. Yields were naturally very high. How yields were managed will likely prove to be major criteria in determining where wines ultimately end up in terms of quality. Big yields put added stress on vineyard crews and winemakers, as dealing with large quantities of fruit can create logistical and space headaches. As an example, in 2018 the wines extracted very slowly. That was an issue, especially in custom crush facilities where tank space is assigned with a time limit because the tanks need to be turned over for other clients. Another trouble spot is the higher-altitude slopes of Howell Mountain, which were in some cases affected by smoke taint in mid-August, during veraison. I was in the area then with my son, and I remember seeing the hazy skies from St. Helena. For now, fire and smoke taint seem to be limited to just some spots in Howell Mountain, but there is no denying that some wines are affected.

This survey of key blocks at Blankiet was one of the most educational tastings of my May visit.

"It was a cool year, with long hang time,” Thomas Rivers Brown explained as we tasted through a large number of the wines he makes for both consulting clients and his own labels. “Winter was cold, and we don’t inoculate, so the malolactic fermentations took a long time to finish.” Philippe Melka had a similar take. “The fruit was very clean. As a result we did more native ferments than is often the case. We observed wines with deep color, high anthocyanins and lower tannins than in most years. We also extended macerations a bit longer than usual."

The 2018s at Kapcsándy are very promising at this early stage.

It is hard to narrow down favorites at this stage, especially as the estates I visited are all comfortably part of Napa Valley’s elite, and the wines I tasted are likely to all be among the highlights of the year. Even so, a few visits in particular stood out. Kapcsándy was one of those. The Kapcsándy base-blend 2018s were impressive, especially the Rapszodia (Cabernet Franc), which was really popping with energy and vibrancy when I tasted it. “We had good winter rain. As you know, the potential size of the crop is determined during the flowering of the preceding year. In 2017, we had optimal conditions during flowering, and then in 2018 we had very favorable weather during set. In terms of weather, it was a very moderate year. We only had one day over 90° in September. It was a rare year in which phenolics developed early, but sugars lagged. The balance of phenolics, sugars and acid we are looking for really only came together at the end.”

Tasting the main component wines at Dalla Valle.

Dalle Valle was another highlight. The 2018s are stunningly pure, with tremendous freshness and aromatic intensity. “Harvest started on September 22 and lasted the entire month, whereas in most years we pick everything in two weeks. Just as importantly, we had no heat events during that time,” longtime consulting winemaker Andy Erickson detailed. Graeme MacDonald echoed a similar theme during a fascinating block-by-block tasting at Blankiet, where the 2018s are immensely promising. “We harvested over 30 days, as opposed to the 16-18 that are more typical here.”

I will taste the 2018s again this coming fall. By then, most estates will have assembled at least working base blends, and the potential of the vintage will be easier to see. For now, 2018 is a vintage of gorgeous, super-refined Napa Valley Cabernets that are quite a bit more understated than what we have seen in recent years.

This tasting at Atelier Melka provided great insight into a large number of 2018s.

Wineries tasted for this report: Abreu, Accendo, Bella Oaks, Blankiet, Bond, Bryant, Alejandro Bulgheroni, Casa Piena, Caterwaul, Colgin, DMVH, Fairchild, Gandona, Gemstone, The Grade, Harlan Estate, Heritage School, Jones, Kapcsándy, Kinsella, Kinsman, Lail, Melka, Mending Wall, Moone-Tsai, Outpost, Pine Mountain, Promontory, Pulido-Walker, Rivers Marie, Round Pond, Quixote, Screaming Eagle, Seaver, Seavey, Selah, Stone the Crows, Philip Togni, VHR – Vine Hill Ranch, Wallis, as well as several new, as yet unnamed projects.

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