Looking on from the outside—especially from Old World wine regions—Napa Valley appears to enjoy such consistent warm, dry weather during the growing season that making wines with generous, ripe fruit and approachable tannins is a veritable walk in the park, year after year. Telescope the lens, though, and it’s not that easy. Winemakers describe the year the skies let loose with a long, drenching rain just before most vintners pulled the trigger to pick (2010), the year it was so cold and socked in “it was like being in London all summer” (2011), the vintage affected by epic fires and a vicious heat spike over Labor Day weekend that upended all picking decisions (2017). The dance of leaf pulling, crop thinning, hang times and berry sorting in response to the weather, is no easier here than in other parts of the world.
Occasionally, though, a year comes along when temperatures are so mild and even-keeled that winemakers’ decisions are not so much in response to the weather as much as to their vision for the outcome of the wine. They can play offense more than defense. The summer of 2018 was just such a growing season. Mild temperatures held from spring, late into harvest, with no severe heat spikes. Winemakers had a long window of time in September and October to let their fruit hang until sugar levels, acidity and tannin maturity reached just the balance they were looking for between ripeness and freshness, lushness and structure.
Many of the 2018s have just been released and they’re a spectacularly beautiful lot. We’ve collected 11 of our favorites here (including a couple of bottles just released from other vintages that deserve the company). The view here is of the winemakers’ style and skill, not the effects of Mother Nature.
Chappellet Vineyard 2018 Pritchard Hill Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Pritchard Hill is one of Napa’s most enviable wine addresses, thanks in large part to the Chappellets. The latest release of their icon-level Pritchard Hill Cabernet is proof perfect—opening with a savory-sweet and complex layering of mountain-forest notes, warm underbrush, crushed rock, dark fruit, baking spices, dark chocolate, mint and pipe tobacco. The palate—with the power and depth of a mountain wine—extends that blend, with spiced plum and dark berry flavors carried with vibrant acidity and well-managed tannins that come off as substantial and plush at the same time. Give this one some time in your cellar.
La Pelle Wines 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
This newest Cab from winemaker Maayan Koschitzky (manager and partner of Atelier Melka) and his La Pelle partners Miguel Luna and Pete Richmond of the Silverado Farming Company takes advantage of six different vineyard sites, from the Coombsville AVA in the south to St. Helena in the north, to find a balance that previews the lovely 2019 vintage in the valley. A beautiful nose opens with savory, minerally notes mingled with resiny herbs and florals. Loam and dark fruit come together at the core, both aromatically and in generous, juicy flavors. On a palate that manages to be both full-bodied and delicate, plum and berry liqueur with hints of anise are backed by firm but rounded tannins. This is a lot of wine for the money!
Amici Cellars 2018 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley
One of about half a dozen single-vineyard Bordeaux-style reds that Amici produces—from some of Napa’s most-acclaimed sites—Morisoli might have one of the best addresses of the lot, surrounded by Staglin Family, Scarecrow, Joseph Phelps, Inglenook … This gorgeous 2018 opens with a savory swirl of resiny herbs, gravel, graphite and tobacco sweetened with dark chocolate, crushed berries and cassis. Concentrated and juicy mulberry liqueur carries the palate, brightened with a kick of orange peel and densely textured with elegant tannins. The finish is quite wonderful.
13th Vineyard 2018 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain, NV
From a historic Howell Mountain property—the 13th bonded winery in California, dating back to 1886—recently acquired by CADE Winery, this reserve Cabernet offers all the power and depth Howell Mountain is capable of. Just give the wine a little time. Slightly wild notes open: mint, bay, pepper, forest, cedar and graphite unfolding to blackberry and mocha. The palate is intense, as it should be from this mountain. You might say it’s very berried, from red to black, dripping with a little dark chocolate and finished off with a lovely savory edge. An impressive structure promises age.
Brandlin Estate 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Mount Veeder, Napa Valley
Fresh and high-toned aromatics lift from the glass of this Brandlin Estate Cab, with purple flowers and crushed rock joined by hints of tobacco, forest and dark fruit. The palate is powerful and complex, as you’d expect from a ridgetop vineyard in a near-perfect year that allowed much hangtime, but it’s also immediately appealing. Crushed berry liqueur and black cherry pop, with tannins that are impressively elegant for Mount Veeder.
Theorem Vineyards 2018 Voir Dire Cabernet Sauvignon Diamond Mountain District, Napa Valley
From the oldest of Theorem’s vineyards, tucked away on Diamond Mountain, Voir Dire (yes, Jason Itkin, who owns the historic gem of a winery with his wife, Kisha—with Thomas Rivers Brown at the winemaking helm) is the signature. A complex and intriguing nose unfolds through toasted spices, dark loam, delicate florals and black fruit with hints of smoke box. Vibrant and deeply layered on the palate (35-year-old vines talking), the wine is appealingly powerful, with firm tannins acting as foil to juicy black raspberry and plum. This one deserves a few years in the cellar.
Louis M. Martini 2018 Crown Collection Stagecoach Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Here’s a delicious reminder that the Gallo Family knows their way around terrific high-end wines from some of California’s best pieces of vineyard land. Having bought iconic, high-elevation Stagecoach Vineyard a few years ago, E.&J. Gallo—which owns Louis Martini, under the helm of winemaker Michael Eddy—is crafting a concentrated Cab with that mountain fruit. Dusty blackberry, mocha, warm spices, savory herbs and fresh forest notes lead into juicy and ripe (the alcohol here is north of 16 percent) blue and black fruit, with a layer of earth underneath. Power is disguised by generosity and an oversized yum factor.
Vida Valiente 2019 The Movement Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
From the team of Sam and Nancy Kaplan and Hayes and Susana Drumwright (Sam—notable winemaker for Arkenstone, among others, and Memento Mori, which Hayes also co-founded), Vida Valiente was created with a purpose: to support first-generation American, low-income students on their path through college into the professional world. (Susana Cueva Drumwright lived that struggle.) A full $100 from the sale of every bottle will be donated to the cause. The 2019 opens with deep layers of loam and spiced blackberry under high-toned florals, cedar and mocha followed by a beautiful lush palate full of black raspberry and black cherry backed by plush tannins.
The Setting 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville, Napa Valley
From seriously talented young winemaker Jesse Katz and partners, The Setting’s 2018 Oakville Cab is both powerful and rich. On the nose, a gravelly background is foil to a complex mélange of mint, cedar, blackberry, unsweetened cocoa, smoke box and savory crushed-herb aromas. Dense and concentrated raspberry and black cherry flavors follow on a broad-shouldered structure.
Meyer Family Cellars 2016 Bonny’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Oakville, Napa Valley
A worthy homage to the late Justin Meyer, co-founder of iconic Silver Oak, and the Oakville vineyard he planted for his wife, Bonny. Today, Matt Meyer carries on Meyer Family Cellars, which he launched with his father, now with his wife, Karen, the winemaker. A dip of the nose into the glass, and it’s clear another legacy is carried forward here from Silver Oak—100 percent new American oak (in this case for a full 34 months)—with cedar, warm spice and a hint of coconut showing, along with lovely black cherry and tropical florals. Great balance on the palate incorporates more of that juicy black cherry and cassis with baking spices, crushed herbs and red licorice against elegant, finely knit tannins—ripe but fresh.
Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars 2018 S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Judgment of Paris tasting, in which Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ 1973 S.L.V. Cab famously beat the top Bordeaux, scored by a jury of all French judges. The winery’s newest S.L.V. does that legacy proud, opening with an alluring aromatic tease of earth and florals swirling with cassis, dusty blackberries, anise, forest floor and pencil shavings. Juicy dark fruit—mulberry and plum—is layered generously over an elegant tannin structure, with a layer of savory minerality that lingers endlessly on the finish.