By Erin Brooks
August 13, 2020
2018 MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Chardonnay Sonoma Coast – 91 Points: An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines
“The 2018 MacRostie Wildcat Mountain Chardonnay has leesy Bosc pears and white peaches with notes of gunflint and honey-nut notions. It’s light to medium-bodied with a good core of peachy fruit, bright freshness and a long, clean finish. 992 cases produced.”
2018 MacRostie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir – 90 Points: An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines
“Pale ruby, the 2018 MacRostie Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir offers blackberries, cranberries and rhubarb with notes of woodsmoke, black tea leaves and earth. The palate is light-bodied, soft and juicy with a good core of fruit and a satisfying finish. 4,181 cases produced.”
“USA, California: Sonoma County 2018 Vintage”
“2018 in Sonoma has been hailed as a spectacular vintage, and for many top wineries it is. But this is not a great vintage across the board—if something looks too good to be true, it probably is. The 2018 vintage carried the potential for near-perfect wines, but it also carried the potential for mediocrity. The 2018 vintage provided, undisputedly, the opportunity to make world-class wines. It was also replete with hidden dangers—both natural and manmade—that resulted in more than a few washed out, dilute, flavorless wines, from unfamiliar and familiar names alike.
2018: The Good News
2018 was an unusually long, cool growing season, and there are many gorgeous wines to choose from. Regional character is clear across appellations, particularly for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. There were no heat events to stunt growth or erase regional character, and both varieties are pure and precise in this vintage. The extended growing season allowed for winemakers to harvest at leisure, and many properties expertly captured a perfect picture of ripeness. Cooler nights maintained very bright acidity across varieties, and in general, the best wines of 2018 are lifted, layered, energetic and dynamic, with incredible movement and texture in the mouth. The best Chardonnays are silky, with precise and mineral entries, broad and layered mid-palates and long, linear finishes. Pinot Noirs are incredibly pure and nuanced, with high-toned, ethereal aromatics, replete with the layers of fruit, earth, spice and bitterness that make for the best examples of this grape. Later-ripening varieties show very finely grained tannic structures and Goldilocks ripeness rather than simple fruit or power. The best 2018s are tight right now but will age very well in bottle, as cooler nights resulted in incredibly vibrant acidity across varieties, and the best wines have plenty of fruit to carry the wines in the cellar. With time in bottle, the best 2018s will gain nuance and depth.
A Bumper Crop of Unripe Grapes
For the last several years, California has led the charge of the ‘new normal’ with a string of very warm, very dry years. To set the stage for 2018, it’s important to understand the past several years in California. Beginning in 2012, growers faced increasing challenges with drought and extreme heat events, capped by the devastating Labor Day heat wave of 2017. Readers will recall that temperatures reached 117 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas, and that the extreme heat lasted for several days. To top things off, early October brought wildfires that ripped through Sonoma, destroying vineyards and bringing the issue of smoke taint to the forefront. Mother Nature did ease some suffering with the arrival of heavy rains during the winter of 2017/2018, officially ending the years’ long drought. Many parts of Sonoma also experienced rainstorms in late spring, adding to mildew pressure.
After the late spring rains, the season returned to normal, and fruit set was perfect across the region. At veraison, growers began to notice large crop loads—by all accounts, 2018 was a massive bumper crop, as ample winter and spring rain plus perfect fruit set combined to result in incredible vine vigor and up to seven or eight tons per acre of fruit in some cases. Most notably, there was not an increase in the number of clusters but rather unexpected increases in berry size that crept up after veraison and the first thinning passes. Berries continued to swell up in size during the season, distorting the picture revealed by cluster counts at veraison. In many cases, final yields were up over 30% from what was predicted at lag phase.
Six years of drought taught winemakers and growers in California to hold their breath for the inevitable heat waves in August and over Labor Day weekend, but they never came. Instead, it cooled considerably. Many growers reported steady temperatures in the 70s and 80s (Fahrenheit) for the remainder of the season. Nights were especially chilly, and fierce wind on the Sonoma Coast slowed ripening. All across Sonoma County, vines loaded with crop in anticipation of a warm year struggled to ripen. Viticulture is always a gamble, and cooler vintages present a different set of challenges. A polar opposite vintage from 2017 and the first cool vintage in six years surely caught people off guard: growing degree days in 2017 far surpass those accumulated in 2018. Donum winemaker Dan Fishman says, ‘2018 was a little bit like 2012—if you weren’t paying attention, it could turn mediocre because there was nothing to force your hand. A vintage like that can lead to a lot of okay wines.’
Controlling yields was critical for success in 2018. ‘The big news this year was the crop size, following the end of the drought,’ Paul Hobbs said. ‘We had tremendous rain, and the vines were ready to go. They were in hyper-fertile productive mode. On average, we dropped at least a year’s worth of fruit on the ground, and we still went over yield by 5% to 10%. That’s essentially saying we had two vintages in one in 2018, if we had harvested all the fruit. We couldn’t believe the berry and cluster weights we were seeing. We did four yield thinnings, so it was a horribly expensive year for us, because of all those passes.’ Some winemakers opted out of late-season thinnings, feeling it was too little, too late. This may have been true in some instances, but in general, the best wines in 2018 are from properties that kept a tight watch on their vineyards and continually adjusted crop load to the cooler season. Those who did little or no thinning at all were left with a bumper crop of unripe grapes, and there were still grapes hanging on vines as I drove around the valley in late October and early November. ‘People didn’t thin,’ says Hobbs. ‘It blew my mind. We thinned to the point where the ground was literally covered in grapes, but no one around us was doing that.’ Kistler winemaker Jason Kesner agrees that controlling yields was critical for quality in 2018. ‘I remember looking at other vineyards that are normally picked a week or two after ours that still had fruit on the vine three weeks later. You can only ask so much of a grapevine. There is something about setting vine balance early in the year so your vines can do all the work on their own. Crop load is the biggest factor for dilute wines in 2018—if people are honest about how much tonnage they brought in!’
Economic and logistical factors also played a role in quality potential. The heavy crop load in 2018 was a relief for many who had lost significant portions of their production in 2017. Expecting a warm year, it would be tempting to hang some extra crop—winemakers need inventory and growers need to get paid. A big crop also results in a myriad of logistical problems in the winery: not enough tanks for fermenting, not enough space for storage, not enough barrels for aging, etc. Labor has been scarce in recent years, and finding enough labor for such a large harvest was also a challenge. Romantic as winemaking is from the outside, at the end of the day, it’s a business. Economic and logistical challenges, rather than quality, drove winemaking decisions in many cases this vintage. ‘2018 could have been a logistical nightmare for winemakers,’ notes Kosta Browne winemaker Julien Howsepian. ‘Not enough capacity to take in fruit at the right time, fermenting in any container you can find, etc. That constrains a winemaker’s ability do things in a way they might have anticipated from the onset. It’s almost like the vintage took control of them, even if the fruit was really good. A great vintage doesn’t mean the wines will become great.’
Keeping yields in check was the biggest factor for potential quality, and many top growers and winemakers reported having to make up to five extra passes through the vineyards throughout the season once it became clear that the crop was much larger than initially anticipated. Not every property can afford to send crews out to make the extra thinning passes critical for success in 2018, and not everyone could round up a crew with the shortage of labor.
Heavy yields and well below average summertime temperatures combined this year to produce many washed-out, dilute, hollow and flavorless wines—Burgundian varieties were especially affected. ‘If you’re carrying too much fruit, it shows with dilute, washed out wines,’ says Arista winemaker Matt Courtney. ‘Over-cropping sticks out like a sore thumb with those Burgundian varieties.’ There are plenty of Pinot Noirs that lack color, aroma and flavor. Many Chardonnays are neutral in character and have very tangy acidities without much fruit support. Later-ripening varieties can be quite soft or feel over-extracted and manipulated, as if saignée rather than viticulture was used to concentrate the wines made from unripe grapes. The least successful wines this year are inherently boring and will not age, despite their high acidities—there’s just no fruit to carry them forward.
Some producers made potential ‘career’ wines in 2018, and the lineup of wines from Kistler and Dumol are the best I have ever tasted. Although I have only tried one 2018 from Occidental, I suspect Steve Kistler’s 2018s will be some of the most exciting of the vintage, due to their unique character and terroir expression—these are detailed, pure, crystalline Pinot Noirs. There are some incredibly promising wines from Jesse Katz’s Aperture—the 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley is very compelling. Hirsch excelled in this cooler vintage, and the wines are crystalline, pure and singular in character. As always, Paul Hobbs has crafted a gorgeous lineup of Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that continued to improve after four or five days of being open.