It happens from time to time that a fairly long time has passed between a tasting and the time when I actually blog about it (hey, don’t get upset, I don’t get paid for this!), but as of this post I officially launch a new category: “Lost and found – tasting notes that should have been converted into a blog post a long time ago” intended for the worst posts of that type. When I use that label the reader should be observant that some wines may have evolved since the tasting notes were taken. The tasting that is the subject of this post was held in November 2011, and was a Masterclass at the Decanter Fine Wine Encounter in London. Some 20 months of delay may not mean too much for the evolution of a truly long-lived wine such as Monte Bello, unless you drink it exclusively on the primary fruit, in which case I have to add naughty you!, and in which case you will most likely drink the latest two releases anyway, irrespective of any tasting notes. However, for the “second wine” this period of delay may perhaps play a greater role. During the same weekend I also attended two other Masterclasses, featuring respectively Krug and Sassicaia and Ornellaia. (And I just realised that I’ve never translated my blog post about the Sassicaia and Ornellaia tasting into English, which sort of makes it seem like I don’t care about having my blog read…) A weekend to inspire shock and awe in the most staunch of wine tasters, not to mention what it did to me. At least the Krug bubbles served to refresh and invigourate the palate from the sustained Cabernet attacks by the three red heavyweights. But despite this, I was still obviously stunned enough to take quite a long time to come around to blog about some of the Masterclasses.
Well, why did I try to relocate these old tasting notes now? It actually wasn’t just to ramble about why I take a long time to write blog posts. The real reason was that Ridge’s legendary winemaker Paul Draper was in town (that town being Stockholm, Sweden) invited by their Swedish importer Vinunic, and held two tastings, of which I attended one. So, by writing about Ridge in connection with this new tasting I tried to make it look like I’m slightly less out of joint from a timewise point of view.
What is there to say about Ridge Vineyards and their Monte Bello vineyards? Well, for those who haven’t heard about them, we’re in California, just south of San Francisco, in the AVA of Santa Cruz Montains. The prehistory starts is 1885, when a local doctor bought land near the top of the Monte Bello Ridge – there’s both the name of their flagship wine (Monte Bello) and the current name of the producer (Ridge) – and built terraces and planted vineyards. The vineyard lay later abandoned – a natural but sad effect of the prohibition era – before a new owner planted some Cabernet Sauvignon towards the end of the 1940s. A set of new owners, Dave Bennion, Charles Rosen, Hewitt Crane and Howard Zeidler, all engineers at the Stanford Research Institute, took over Ridge around 1960. It seems that they initially mostly intended it to be a hobby project, but that the quality of the small amount produced in the vintages 1959, 1960 and 1961 – using the vines from the late 1940s – convinced them to start commercial wine production from the 1962 vintage. Paul Draper, who hadn’t jointed at this time, said that the vintages 1962 and 1964 convinced him that Monte Bello was as good as the top wines of Bordeaux. He became a partner in 1969 and started to work as winemaker, curiously enough with an educational background in philosophy, but with some practical experience from winemaking in Napa and Chile in the 1960s. The 1971 vintage of Monte Bello was included in the lineup at the so-called Judgment of Paris in 1976, where it ended up in the fifth place out of ten red wines.
Characteristic of Monte Bello is the high altitude that provides lower night temperature than in Bordeaux and a large proportion of limestone (apparently not that common in California), factors that both contribute to high acidity and freshness of the wines. Under Paul Draper’s tenure, Ridge has always aimed for moderate maturity of the grapes, in particular by contemporary Californian measures, or to put it otherwise, they avoid producing overalcoholic jam and instead produce classically styled wines. And three cheers for that! Although Bordeaux wines have naturally been the original yardstick (or would that be the “meter stick”, since the metric system is French in origin?) by which they have been measured, they did not want to produce Bordeaux copies as such, and therefore they use almost only American oak for their barrels. For the Estate they use 100% American oak, and for Monte Bello close to 100% American oak and a small amount of French oak. They have started to use more oak from the Appalachians. The use of American oak is however not that obvious in the wines, that show a very fine oak treatment and not very much of the sweet vanilla notes that is often associated with that type of oak. This is apparently related to which American oak they use, and how they treat it.
An intresting thing was what Paul Draper said about the oak in historical perspective, and what had been used in France in former days. In the 19th century, apparently a lot of Baltic oak was used. Originating from some of the colder locations where oaks grow naturally, this should reasonably have been a very tight-grained oak of more neutral charcter, and similar to the large barrels (such as Fuder or Stückfaß) of domestic oak used in Germany today. On a side note, the oak grows in south of my native Sweden (which borders the Baltic Sea), but not the central and northern parts. Later, American white oak was used, and finally oak from central France. First by the time of World War I, French oak was preferred, due to the somewhat strained relations to Germany, where some of the Baltic oak was sourced.
In general, Ridge uses a lot of 19th century techniques in their winemaking, that thay prefer to label “preindustrial”. This means that they prefer to see themselves as a stylistic continuation of the early Californian wines from the pre-prohibiton era, rather than as a part of what later became the typical way of doing things in the Californian wine industry.
Ridge produces two Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated wines: their flagship wine Monte Bello and the second wine Cabernet Sauvignon Estate, that until the 2007 vintage was called Santa Cruz Mountains. Interesting enough, this “second wine” tends to be a few tenths of a percent higher in alcohol than Monte Bello, which shows that it isn’t high grape maturity as such that is the most important criterion in selecting batches for Monte Bello. (Ripeness is often an important factors for selecting batches for second wines in many European wine regions, at least the colder ones.) The vineyards consist of 33 parcels, or about 40 components after some parcels have been divided in two. All vines used for Monte Bello are at least 10 years old. The grapes used for Monte Bello receive more pump-overs and a longer maceration time than the grapes that are used for the Estate.
Ridge also produce wines from Chardonnay, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, but they were not part of this tasting, so I will not say anything more about them.
The current winemaker of Monte Bello is Eric Baugher, although Paul Draper (born 1936) is still active, and is the CEO of Ridge.
I repeat: these tasting notes are from November 2011.
Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2009
77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 13.8% alcohol.
Deep red colour with some hits of purple.
Nose with ripe blackcurrants, some tar, spice, restrained sweetish impression, hints of vanilla. Good concentration of aromas, a warm but balanced impression.
Fruity palate, blackcurrants with red berries – including red currants and lingonberries – definitely a good acidity, medium tannins.
Very fresh and balanced palate for a Californian wine and for a young Cabernet. No alcoholic fire in evidence. Young, but accessible due to the reasonably mild tannins. 89-90 p?, possibly worth a little more.
Cabernet Sauvignon Estate 2008
77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 13.8% alcohol.
Deep red colour with hints of purple.
Nose with ripe blackcurrants, some blackberries, some tar, spice with hints of herbs. Slightly darker notes with more tar than the 2009, but a bit less sweet in the impression.
Medium bodied+, fruity palate, blackcurrants, sour red berries, medium(+) tannins, some spice, fruity aftertaste with sour berries.
Slightly tougher than the 2009, but very fresh. Young, probably needs a little more time than the 2009 to peak. 90-91 p?
Remark: I encountered this wine blind in May, and was considerably less impressed by it. (No specific notes taken and I didn’t score it.) My thoughts when reviewing my tasting note from November 2011 is that the wine could have entered a “dumb phase”, which wouldn’t be too surprising for a “non-jammy” Cabernet at five years.
Monte Bello 2008
72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 28% Merlot, 13.2%(?) alcohol.
Deep red colour, hints of purple.
Nose with ripe blackcurrants, aromatic notes with violets, tar and liquorice, well integrated oak, hints of vanilla and caramel. Very concentrated nose, slightly more aromatic and impressive than the 2008 Estate.
Medium bodied++, palate with blackcurrants, sour red berries, noticeable acidity, quite present but well integrated tannins.
Young, will need time to develop fully, but is actually pleasant now. 92-93+ p?
Monte Bello 2006
68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 13.5% alcohol.
Deep red colour, hints of purple, slightly faded at the edge.
Nose with ripe dark berries, spice, hints of barnyard aromas, slightly sweetish impression with hints of vanilla, some mint. Not as dark notes as the 2008, but slightly developed.
Medium bodied+, palate with dark berries with some sour red berries, noticeable acidity, rather noticeable tannins. No quite as concentrated as the 2008, but elegant in style.
Young, will probably develop well, 90-91+ p?
Considering the difference between my impressions of the 2008 Estate in November 2011 and May 2013, respectively, there is a definite probability that this wine (at five years and a few months of age) was going through a slightly closed or “dumb” phase, and therefore was scored lower by me.
Monte Bello 2005
70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 22% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 13.4% alcohol.
Deep red colour, hints of purple.
Nose with ripe dark berries – blackcurrants and some blackberries – slightly flowery with violets, some mint with hints of eucalyptus, hints of sweetness with vanilla. More similar to the 2008 than to the 2006, with less development than the 2006.
Full bodied, palate with ripe blackcurrants and some blackberries, very noticeable acidity, noticeable tannins, spice, balanced impression.
Young, fresh due to the acidity, will probably require a long time, 93-94+ p?
No signs here of any “dumb phase”.
Monte Bello 1997
Deep red colour, slightly faded at the edge.
Nose with blackcurrants, some plum compote, hints of eucalyptus and mint, some barnyard aromas and spice, some tar. More flowery aromas and violets developed with time in the glass. Some developed notes but very young and fruity nose, very nuanced.
Medium bodied++, palate with dark berries, good acidity, impression of sour berries, noticeable but softened tannins, spice.
Rather developed, but still slightly young, drinkable but should gain further from some five more years (2016+). 92-93 p
1997 was the vintage when many Californian wines topped 14% alcohol, creating the overripe style that many have ever since considered to be the Californian wine style. Monte Bello has continued to hover around 13% which, as you may have noticed, I think was a good idea.
Monte Bello 1995
69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc.
Deep red colour, hints of purple. Deeper in colour than the 1997.
Nose with noticeable barnyard notes, dark berries, noticeable spice with dried mild spices, some smoky notes and some flowery notes. Developed, wonderfully nuanced, Bordeaux-classic nose (of the left bank type).
Medium bodied++, palate with dark berries and sour red berries, spice, medium(+) tannins that have softened somewhat. Slightly hard aftertaste compared with many other other vintages.
Ready to drink, nuanced, but still somewhat young and could gain further from some additional cellaring. 91-92 p
Monte Bello 1992
13,5% alcohol. From half bottle.
Deep red colour, slightly faded at the edge.
Nose with noticeable barnyard notes, ripe fruit with blackcurrants, plum compote, dried spices, sweetish and nuanced. Very similar to the nose of a developed Bordeaux, possibly with some right bank character. Slightly more sweetish nose than the 1995.
Full bodied -, palate with ripe dark berries, quite noticeable tannins but of a softened character, spicy, quite concentrated aromas.
Accessible, nuanced, but still rather young! 94-95 p
19 year old wine from a half bottle, and it is so great that I award my highest score of the tasting here! Wow!
Monte Bello 1984
93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot, 12.9% alcohol.
Medium to deep red colour, faded at the edge.
Nose with noticeable barnyard notes, dark berries, tar, spice, nuansed. Reminds me of a classical developed Bordeaux, mostly of left bank character.
Medium bodied++, palate with ripe dark berries, some red berries, medium(+) softened tannins wit some dryness and tannic aftertaste.
Mature, nuanced, with a lot of vigour. 93-94 p
Monte Bello 1978
Medium red core, brick colour at the edge.
Nose with barnyard aromas, very flowery, red berries with some dark berries, some liqueur notes, spice. Developed, classical Bordeaux nose (some right bank character), but with a lot of vigour to it.
Medium bodied++, palate with ripe dark and red, noticeable spice, medium and softened tannins, very nuanced, slightly tannic aftertaste.
Fully developed with a tiny hint of bitterness of age and a tannic impression that comes through the fruit. Still has vigour but doesn’t need more time. 92-93 p
This tasting clearly demonstrated how long-lived Monte Bello is, how neat the oak treatment is, the good acidity and accompanying freshess showed by the wines, and how Bordeaux-like they become with maturity. The younger wines showed more New World notes than the older wines, with slightly more fruity sweetness and vanilla, but in this case I don’t believe it is due to any change of style between older and younger wines, but rather that the wines become more similar to a mature classical Bordeaux when they develop mature notes.
The Swedish version of this post can be found here.