Vintage report: Napa Valley Cabernet 2018
Matthew Luczy shares 30 of his top picks from an excellent year
A ‘seamless season of heavenly hangtime’, according to the Napa Valley Vintners association. Matthew Luczy tasted 330 Napa Valley 2018 Cabernet Sauvignons in all and reviewed 250 for Decanter. Here we show off 30 of those: his selection of the best quality, most notable and best-value wines of the vintage. For the full set of reviews, visit Decanter.com/Premium
The 2018 Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon vintage is one of the finest of the past two decades, absent of the challenges that plagued previous years, such as destructive wildfires, drought, low yields and heatwaves. The best wines show control, poise and stylistic delineation between vineyards, and highlight individual characteristics of each appellation – however, this is still a vintage in which to read the reviews and buy with care.
When compared to recent years, 2018 is most synonymous with the highly acclaimed 2016. ‘There were a lot of synergies in both the growing season and the wines,’ explains Chris Carpenter, winemaker for Cardinale, La Jota, Lokoya and Mt Brave, all part of the large Jackson Family Wines portfolio. ‘They have a lot of the same energy, expression and life.’
In terms of weather, ‘slow’ and ‘easy’ were consistent descriptors. After the heatwaves and wildfires of 2017, this calm was met with open arms. Pilcrow’s Jonah Beer says: ‘Mother
Nature allowed us to walk through 2018 rather than sprint. Everything came in like a parade instead of a stampede.’
Chimney Rock winemaker Elizabeth Vianna gave similar praise: ‘2018 is a beautiful, cool vintage. We got fully ripe but nothing was overripe. The fruit integrity was pristine and there were no heat spikes. It was just a dream.’
Winter brought February rains, leading to a temperate, dry spring. Budbreak and flowering occurred slightly later than normal, and summer was warm overall. Dan Petroski at Larkmead points out: ‘It was a cooler year, but when I say “cool”, it was still 90°F [32°C].
That’s “cool” in Napa.’
Yields were up 20%-30% on average. Harvests like this almost remove the variable of vintage altogether, producers being left free to express their individual styles.
Ripeness & alcohol
Alcohol-by-volume levels have been Napa Valley’s ‘elephant in the room’ since the late
90s/early-00s. In the early 2010s, winemakers, viticulturists, PR firms and winery presidents alike spoke of a ‘return to our roots’, a ‘reeling in’ and ‘dialling back’ of ripeness and extraction. In actuality, the back-to-back blockbuster vintages of 2012 and 2013 largely kickstarted the ripeness parade all over again.
From valley floor to mountain slopes, the average alcohol of the wines I tasted was 14.7%. In a vintage like 2018, this can’t help but feel excessive. Numerous examples simply burned on the nose and finish – and not just wines labelled upwards of 15%.
If the ageing potential of a fine wine is a factor in its perceived value, these levels are worrisome. Ethanol is static, thus a wine that is overtly hot in its youth will only be edged further out of balance as time sheds the fruit around it. Is the variance and complexity of Napa’s terroir truly being expressed, or are uniformity and manipulation masking it? There seem to be precious few influential wineries truly producing hands-off wines, and far too many where narratives of ‘expressing place’ are varying degrees of disingenuous.
The majority of the 2018s I tasted were remarkably tastefully seasoned and well integrated with their oak. However, on multiple occasions, I was quoted sugar levels at harvest that equate to 16%-plus alcohol on wines labelled 14.5% or thereabouts. This indicates that either grapes were harvested extremely ripe and watered back, altered with reverse osmosis post-fermentation, left with residual sugar, or some combination thereof. An opposite but equally bothersome situation
‘Mother Nature allowed us to walk through 2018 rather than sprint’ Jonah Beer, Pilcrow (pictured below with wife Sara)
was a winemaker telling me they were worried at labelling their sub-14% alcohol wine as such due to consumer perception of a ‘lighter’ style.
There is more than enough diversity and diligence to go around in Napa. It is very possible for producers to make decadent wines that retain balance and authenticity, while their neighbours hang their hats on more understated expressions.
2018 was a blank canvas for each winemaking team. As much as producing world-class wine is contingent on grape quality, it is equally dependent on choices in the cellar. Over-treatment muddies the identity of any wine, however amenable the weather is.
Around the AVAs Calistoga
The northernmost AVA in Napa Valley, Calistoga has some of the warmest daytime temperatures but also the coolest nights, helping grapes retain a zesty, clean acidity. Producer styles vary widely – from deep, plush styles at the far southern end of the appellation to a brighter, more energetic profile at the northern
end, where the Palisades and Mayacamas mountain ranges come together. What unites them is a consistently rich power, harnessed by an upright, sturdy, high-toned structure. Key producers: Eisele, Hourglass, Jericho Canyon, Jones, Montelena
This AVA, in the Vaca range above St Helena, was among the first Napa sub-regions to be split off into its own appellation in 1983. To be eligible for the AVA, vineyards must be planted at or above 425m – the level of the fog line. This results in both substantially more exposure to sunshine, as well as narrower diurnal swings due to the cooler average temperature. There is higher average rainfall than the valley floor, compensated for by the well-drained, rocky, volcanic tufa soils. Many of the wines are massive, rustic and built for the long haul, although there are an increasing number of flashy, slick styles being produced. But even in these modern showings, the persistently chewy tannin structure of Howell Mountain is not easily masked. Key producers: La Jota, Lokoya, Metzker, O’Shaughnessy
St Helena is the warmest valley floor region, with limited access to marine layer [fog] or ocean breeze. Shaped like an hourglass, it’s the narrowest section of the valley, thus trapping daytime warmth. Soils are varied, but gravel loam makes up much of the soil in the southern portion, with volcanic deposits in the north. Intensity and suppleness are unifying factors in the wines, with an elegant persistence to the tannins. Key producers: Corison, Hourglass, Merryvale, Spottswoode
The Rutherford Bench is an unofficially defined subsection of the valley floor and western hillsides. Its delineation is somewhat confusing when mapping it on to current AVA borders, but it is essentially the portions of Oakville, Rutherford and the southern tip of St Helena that are west of Highway 29. As with Oakville, there is considerable east-to-west variance. The wines are generally softer and less forward than those of Oakville, although no shortage of high-octane wines are produced. Key producers: Frog’s Leap, Inglenook, SR Tonella, Scarecrow, Staglin
Home to more posh addresses than any other sub-appellation, Oakville has become an epicentre of the modern, ‘luxe’ Napa Cabernet. Situated directly in the valley centre, it is far enough south to access the moderation of San Pablo Bay, and also bask in afternoon sun once the fog has evaporated. There is considerable east-to-west diversity: wines tend to be more ripe and lush in the western section where the soils are sedimentary, while the eastern portion exudes a more taut, high-toned minerality from its red volcanic soils. Key producers: Groth, Harlan Estate, Heitz, Opus One, MacDonald, Screaming Eagle, Turnbull
Stags Leap District
One of the smallest AVAs in Napa, with gentle slopes creating unique exposures for many vineyards. The region receives a direct funnel of marine layer from San Pablo Bay, with afternoon ocean breezes helping to tame midday temperatures. It borders the
Yountville AVA on three sides, with the Stags Leap Palisades forming its eastern border, the Napa river to its west and lowlands to the south. Soils vary greatly here, with volcanic deposits from the Vaca range in the east and sedimentary soils against the Napa river to the west. The best Cabernets are elegant and graceful with vibrant, clean energy. Key producers: Chimney Rock, Realm Cellars, Shafer, Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars
At the southern end of the Mayacamas range, Mount Veeder is rugged and remote, and the growing season here is the longest in Napa. Steep slopes render tractors useless, and low yields are the norm. It is the only mountain
AVA with direct exposure to San Pablo Bay, with Carneros at Veeder’s southern base. Most vineyards reside above the fog line atop loam, shale, sandstone and fossilised seabed. This combination of mountain structure and marine influence sets the region apart, producing broad-shouldered wines that are forward and tannic but balanced with a floral, saline freshness. Key producers: Mayacamas, Mount Veeder Winery, O’Shaughnessy, Progeny
Napa’s newest sub-AVA, established in 2011. At the southeastern corner of Napa Valley, it enjoys increased exposure to the cooling influence of San Pablo Bay. Daytime temperatures are as much as 6˚C cooler than the rest of the valley. Amphitheatre-like and tucked into the Vaca range, the soils include rocky gravel, alluvial deposits and volcanic loam. Stylistically, the wines split the difference between the svelteness of the valley floor and the rusticity of mountain appellations: powerful and burly yet fresh and vibrant. Key producers: Butala, Farella, Meteor, Sodaro
‘The fruit integrity was pristine and there were no heat spikes. It was just a dream’ Elizabeth Vianna, Chimney Rock (above middle-right, with her team)