It would be a mistake to think that, in sun-drenched Northern California wine country, all vintages are created equal. It’s true that California vineyards rarely struggle to ripen as those in Old World regions often do, but a late frost can threaten after bud break; a sudden August heat spike can send sugar levels surging; a fire…enough said.
But then there was 2018. After several years of drought, generous rain set vineyards up with the moisture they needed. Cool, foggy mornings, warm afternoons and cold nighttime temps—sans heat spikes—held through the summer into fall, giving winemakers the choice to let their fruit hang (without losing crucial acidity), to develop complexity. As it turns out, Mike Sullivan, winemaker and co-owner at Benovia Winery—known for beautiful Pinot Noir and Chardonnay—made Cabernet Sauvignon for the first time under the brand in 2018 (one from Napa and one from Sonoma). It was a brilliant vintage debut. The Cabs, in his view, “have exceptional color and structure, with ideal balance. Ripe tannins, bright acidity, hedonistic aromatics …”
In short, the best of the 2018 Bordeaux-style reds from Napa Valley and Sonoma County are stunningly beautiful. They’ve captured the holy grail of finesse and power together, pure fruit with classic tannin structure. These are the wines you’ll want to drink the day they land on your porch, but also hold in your cellar for years (good luck with that). Now is the time to order or join mailing lists, to make sure bottles head your way come September. Here are 13 you really shouldn’t miss.
Accendo Cellars 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley
Two generations of the Araujo family teamed up on this brilliantly balanced Cabernet, which opens with savory, fresh-turned earth, brambly fruit and hints of tobacco, toasted spice and herbs. Plush plum and black raspberry flavors follow, with powerful tannins building through the mid-palate for depth and grip.
Acumen 2018 Edcora Vineyard Peak Cabernet Sauvignon Atlas Peak, Napa Valley
Opening with crushed rock and graphite, this concentrated Cabernet from Acumen tastes of a specific place. Deep black fruit and dark chocolate aromas join the earthy notes, leading into a lovely core of spicy, juicy fruit on the palate. Structure, length and complexity combine in this one.
Bella Oaks 2018 Proprietary Red Rutherford, Napa Valley
This inaugural vintage from arts advocate Suzanne Deal Booth and the historic Rutherford vineyard turns the region’s famous “dust” into a lovely cocoa. Complex floral, cassis, warm spice and crushed-rock aromas lead to intense blackberry flavors edged with fresh herbs—think wild fennel—and fine tannins.
Benovia Winery 2018 Cooley Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Northern Sonoma
Fresh and generous at the same time, this lovely new Benovia Sonoma Cabernet leads with aromas of earth, violets and berries together, with a touch of dark chocolate and sprinkling of pepper. Its beautifully balanced palate layers dark cherry and boysenberry flavors against elegant tannins.
Boich Family Cellar 2018 Beckstoffer To Kalon Vineyard Napa Valley
The combination of vintage and iconic vineyard produced a terrific Cabernet (100 percent) from Boich Family, under the hand of winemaker Jeff Ames. A savory swirl of herbs, dark chocolate and spice opens around classic cassis, high-toned florals and the French lavender, cloves and damp earth that the vineyard often offers. Plush fruit follows—blackberry and plum—on an intense, concentrated, structured palate.
Castiel Estate 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon Howell Mountain, Napa Valley
This marvelously complex Castiel Estate Cabernet comes from seasoned Napa Valley winemaker Celia Welch, working with proprietors Dave and Kathleen DiCesaris. Layer after layer unfolds on the nose—cedar and loamy forest floor following blackberry, cassis, warm spice, mocha and hints of graphite and tobacco leaf. Plush and generous fruit opens in the glass—blackberry, black raspberry and cassis—on a palate that toggles between dense textures and brightness. The mountain tannin structure here comes off as stately (definitely age-worthy), lingering elegantly on the finish.
Cliff Lede Vineyards 2018 Poetry Stags Leap District, Napa Valley
This perfectly balanced beauty of a Cabernet earned Cliff Lede a perfect-100 score from The Wine Advocate’s Lisa Perrotti-Brown. Spiced berry aromas are layered with dark chocolate, fresh floral notes and enticing underlying minerally loam. The juicy berry and cassis flavors are as generous as they are bright, with great complexity lurking underneath. The tannins are serious but elegant, the profile is lush but focused and the finish is incredibly long.
Cornell 2018 Estate Grown Cabernet Sauvignon Fountaingrove District, Sonoma County
Director of viticulture and winemaking Elizabeth Tangney, working with consulting winemaker Françoise Peschon (Araujo, Viader), has created a mountain beauty from Cornell Vineyards estate, high in the Mayacamas Range not far from the Napa border. Exotic spices on the nose run to cardamom and coriander, layered with blackberry, cassis and high-toned florals over great minerality. Juicy blackberry flavors continue on a vibrant, textural palate, with a cellar-worthy tannin structure carrying through an endless finish.
Lail Vineyards 2018 J. Daniel Cuvée Napa Valley
This 100 percent Cabernet Sauvignon from iconic Napa vintner Robin Lail is a striking contradiction of opulence and delicacy, with minerals and hints of smokebox underlying cassis, dark cherry and sweet floral aromas. The palate combines red and dark fruits, providing lovely texture with prodigious length.
Melka Estates 2018 Métisse Montbleau Vineyard, Napa Valley
Acclaimed winemaker Philippe Melka is responsible for some of Napa’s top bottles, but this beauty is a personal project from the tiny St. Helena vineyard he owns with his wife, Cherie. Earthy, savory aromas of forest floor mingle with crushed herbs, followed by an explosion of ripe blackberry and plum flavors carried by bold, plush tannins.
Patria 2018 Avoyelles Oakville, Napa Valley
This spectacular Patria blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon (with a little Petit Verdot thrown in) comes from Tony Biagi, former winemaker at PlumpJack, Sinegal, among others and current winemaker for Hourglass and Amici. Its aromas are seriously alluring—violets against gunpowder, fresh herbs with crushed brick. The palate is fresh but generous, with a gamut of macerated berry flavors, including mulberry and tangy red licorice and beautiful tannins giving way to a long, savory finish.
Scattered Peaks 2018 Morisoli Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Rutherford, Napa Valley
This Single Vineyard Selection from Scattered Peaks, the work of consulting winemaker Joel Aiken (icon winemaker at Beaulieu Vineyard for many years) and Derek Benham is structured to age but is also entirely appealing in the moment. Layers of earth and violets open on the nose, along with blackberries, cocoa and a touch of graphite. Red currant and black raspberry flavors are delivered with hints of exotic spice and the arresting texture of serious tannins—tamed into elegance—tapering on a long finish.
Spottswoode Estate 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena, Napa Valley
With a beguilingly complex nose—you’ll find layers of purple blossoms, cassis, blackberry and licorice, with hints of graphite and tobacco leaf—this vintage is worthy of the legend that Spottswoode Estate has cultivated. The palate is vibrant with black raspberry and cherry, balanced against fine-grained (but cellar-worthy) tannins.