This growing season was marked by unusually erratic and unpredictable swings in temperature and rainfall. January and February are typically the coldest and wettest months of winter, except in 2018. Both were warm and rain free. Winter was saved by a dramatic shift in the jet stream that brought sub-tropical moisture north to California. This “atmospheric river” delivered substantial rainfall in a series of powerful storms during the month of March. A few smaller ones passed through in April and May, wetting the upper root zone of the soil. Temperatures remained below-average through much of spring, which slowed vine growth.
Fortunately, bloom was delayed and occurred during fair weather. Fruit set went well for zinfandel, but at Monte Bello it varied between the varieties and different elevations of the parcels. To assure ripeness, fruit thinning was done allowing the vines to be brought into balance for more uniform ripening. This mountain vineyard’s steep terrain has significant variation of water resources running throughout a network of fissures in the limestone rock strata. In the areas of swales and bottom terraces, where underground water has moved, those vines grow with more vigor and take more time to ripen their grapes. Hiking through the vineyard, theses variations can be mapped out so that these areas can be sampled separately, tasted for ripeness, and harvested when ready. With chardonnay, vigor is actually desirable for controlling the pace of ripeness by slowing sugar accumulation while maintaining high acidity at the same time. That produces a finer, more elegant style of chardonnay. For the Bordeaux grapes, greater quality is achieved through less vigorous conditions, which produces smaller, more concentrated grapes. Given the lack of winter rain, by late-August the vines began showing water deficit. That and shorter days, as the fall equinox got closer, triggered veraison within the red grapes. Warm, gentle weather during harvest allowed gradual ripening and harvest progressed at an ideal pace. Chardonnay was picked between September 8th and 26th. As usual, we whole-cluster pressed the grapes for each parcel. The resulting juice was then barreled down for natural fermentation in the cool underground cellar. Low yields produced intensely flavorful chardonnay juice. The cooler nights during this vintage gave chardonnay higher-than-normal acidity. These lots are just now finishing primary fermentation. Lees stirring has just begun so that the autolyzing yeasts can contribute complexity and texture to the wines. The frequency of stirring is decided by taste, almost on a barrel-by-barrel basis. Stir too much and the sensitive, natural malolactic bacteria might stop fermenting. Stir too little, and a heavy reductive aroma and flavor could form. There is a careful balance that must be considered. Once malolactics are finished, we can begin the careful assemblage process sometime this coming summer.
The zinfandel harvest progressed smoothly. Yields returned to normal following 2017’s short tonnage. Gentle summer weather allowed the grapes to ripen slowly and with uniformity. It’s a rare occurrence to experience this with zinfandel, but when we do, those are considered special vintages. We picked throughout September, starting in Paso Robles at Dusi Ranch, then north to Mazzoni and Carmichael, continuing on towards cooler sites and finally ending with the field-blend parcels at Geyserville. Towards the end of September, advanced weather forecasts began warning of a threat of rain. Facing that possibility, our zinfandel harvest quickly came to a close on September 30th at Jimsomare Ranch, with perfectly ripe grapes. Our superb 2018 zinfandels show great color, depth of flavor, vineyard character, and rich tannin structures.
No rain fell at Monte Bello during the early October storm. However, temperatures dropped and several days of heavy fog provided the vines a chance to rest and re-hydrate the grapes. Sugar levels had been moving ahead of flavor as was the extreme acidity, so this weather was welcomed to bring sugars down. Mild weather settled in once the clouds cleared. Flavors began to move up and harvest was underway at a fast pace, picking every day from October 5th through the 18th. Just as we did in 2012, we brought additional crew members from our Sonoma vineyards to assist with bringing in more tons each day to keep up with ripening. We quickly filled all the small tanks in the winery. Fermentations were slow, on-average taking nine days for Monte Bello lots and seven days for Estate parcels before pressing. To keep tannins in balance, cap irrigation frequency and time were reduced. Still, the fermenting juice was aerated and circulated twice a day, taking juice off the bottom of a tank and returning it below the cap to keep the yeast stimulated and naturally occurring nutrients homogenized. This kept the fermentations progressing, albeit slowly, and most reached dryness. Some retained sugar in their free-runs, going into malolactic holding tanks where yeast continued their activity. Following press, malolactic fermentation is usually held off from starting until the wine goes dry. Every once in a while, we find malolactics starting early and concurrent with finishing sugar. That can develop into trouble as the yeast become inhibited from fermenting. Often this is done by a strong malolactic bacteria that can knock out the glucose uptake pathway of yeast. This happened on a number of 2018’s cabernet lots. Fortunately, once sent to barrel to finish malolactic there, the yeast have become re-invigorated. Though not ideal, fermentations are slowly progressing but do require a watchful eye to monitor wine quality and stability. It does, however, lead to the possibility that not all lots will be finished in time for the first assemblage tasting. In that case, they’ll be tasted and included at the second assemblage later in the springtime. The vintage has produced excellent quality, but a careful and rigorous selection will be necessary – mostly where ripeness and flavor didn’t align very well. This effects three parcels at Klein that are traditionally part of the Monte Bello. This year, those grapes began dehydrating before full ripeness was reached. They arrived at the winery with high brix, but with herbaceous flavors. A few young parcels at Rousten, Torre, and Perrone also hit similar water stress causing their grapes to shrivel. They made excellent wine but in a very rich, fruit-forward style. They will be ideal components to consider for the Estate Cabernet’s assemblage.
Not to worry, there are still many fabulous lots to try at the assemblage for Monte Bello. Merlot and petit verdot both ripened perfectly, fermented with ease, and have incredible quality. Though probably a smaller production at the first assemblage, if all goes well this spring, the second assemblage should increase the quantity. Nevertheless, it will be a limited production due to a few different factors related to the growing season. First, vineyard yields were down roughly five percent from normal. Second, press wine, which some fractions can be used most years, was extremely tannic and could not be added back to their free run lots. Third, where ripeness took flavors to the extreme, making any wine that shows raisin-like flavors, they are automatically declassified. After all, we have spent decades making a truly complex wine from this special limestone mountain vineyard. We believe a classic Monte Bello should show finesse, balance, freshness, exciting flavors, and contain a bold tannin structure to supports a long life in bottle. This can only be achieved from grapes that were picked within a range of 12.5-13.5% alcohol. Our goal at assemblage will be to select those particular lots that will blend well together and make an excellent wine.
—Eric Baugher, COO & Monte Bello Winemaker