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, keeping moisture in the upper root zone of the soil. Temperatures remained below-average through much of spring, which slowed vine growth. Bloom was delayed into June, finishing in early July.
Given 2018’s lack of winter rain, by late-August signs of water stress began to show in the vines. Mild summer weather kept harvest on track to occur after the fall equinox. This is typically when we harvest at Monte Bello. However, for the past several years it has been moving earlier. The shorter days, lower sun angle, and cold nights provides a more gradual ripening, triggering greater flavor, color, and tannin development. Early October weather was cold with a threat of rain on October 2nd. Very little precipitation occurred but, temperatures plummeted and a heavy fog blanketed the mountain. Sugar levels had been moving ahead of flavor, so this cold weather was welcomed for re-balancing flavor and sugar. Fair weather returned once the clouds cleared. Heat started to build on October 6th, increasing flavor intensity, but sugar was once again on the rise. To avoid overripe grapes, we brought our Sonoma vineyard team to join Monte Bello’s crew and combined they picked more parcels per day. With each day resulting in 10-15 tons brought in, the winery quickly filled. Although there were a few test picks in late September, which showed flavors lagging, the majority of harvest was done between October 5th and 18th.
Natural yeast fermentations were slower to start, increasing the number of days the tanks were occupied. Fortunately, there was enough tank space to keep the grapes coming in without delay. Being on the skins longer required greater care to avoid excessive tannins, thus pump-overs were reduced. For several days we aerated and circulated the fermenting juice under the cap to keep the yeast stimulated and fermenting. Press fractions were collected for each lot and tasted for complexity and tannin quality. Most were kept out of the already perfectly structured free runs. Natural malolactics were unusually vigorous. This allowed us to barrel down the wines so they could finish fermenting and start to settle out and gravity clarify.
The first assemblage tasting was held on January 23. Sixteen of the most complete lots, with Monte Bello character, were blind tasted with fifteen ultimately chosen. This made a blend of 68% cabernet sauvignon, 18% merlot, 11% petit verdot, and 3% cabernet franc. It was, however, an unusually small production since an additional fifteen lots needed to be held out. Fortunately, they continued to ferment in barrel and finally went dry. Prior to the sit down blind-tasting on May 2nd, six lots were eliminated just from a flavor and complexity standpoint. We began the second assemblage by comparing two glasses, with and without one of the remaining lots added to the first assemblage. Scores were collected, discussion held, and a decision was made for which glass to proceed with. We did not reveal what glass contained the addition or what lot was being considered. The next lot was then tried added to the winning glass of the prior flight, then the third, and so on and so forth until all nine were tried. Again, no details were given to prevent prejudice or bias toward making more volume of Monte Bello. The details were revealed once we finished trying all nine lots. Through this rigorous selection process we ended up choosing only six. To conclude the assemblage we compared it to the prior three vintages. Not only was the 2018 showing excellent Monte Bello character, it had the most wonderful flavors and sensuous textures of the three. Appealing and elegant, this Monte Bello will drink well over the next several decades.
– Eric Baugher, May 2019
The 2018 Monte Bello is scheduled for release in the fall of 2021.