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Ridge Lytton Springs Bloggers’ Tasting: 10 vintages of Lytton Springs plus small format Monte Bello

2010 October 7
by Richard Jennings

RIDGE LYTTON SPRINGS BLOGGERS’ TASTING: 10 VINTAGES OF LYTTON SPRINGS PLUS SMALL FORMAT MONTE BELLO – Ridge Lytton Springs Crush Pad, Healdsburg, California (9/26/2010)


Ridge’s Monte Bello Tasting Room Manager Christopher Watkins started organizing quarterly tastings of Ridge wines for bloggers in the area this year. For this third installment of these tastings, Christopher decided to take us on the road from the South Bay (the prior two tastings were at Ridge’s Monte Bello tasting room in the Santa Cruz Mountains), up to Ridge’s winemaking facility and tasting room at Lytton Springs, in Healdsburg. This permitted an in depth review of the very ageworthy, Zinfandel-dominated Lytton Springs blend in the very facility where it has been produced since the ’03 vintage (Ridge has been producing wine from Lytton Springs since 1972). In so doing, Christopher was able to attract (ensnare?) some additional bloggers to join those of us who have been attending the tastings at Monte Bello. The new participants included a blogger from Atlanta (Ed Thralls, winetonite.com), one from Los Angeles (Samantha Dugan, sansdosage.blogspot.com), a few bloggers from the North Bay (Amy Cleary, Deborah Kravitz and Marcy Gordon), and anti-wine blogger emeritus (assertedly now retired) Ron Washam (hosemasterofwine.blogspot.com).

The focus of the tasting was on the Zin blend Lytton Springs, through a fascinating 10-vintage retrospective. I am not a fan of most California Zinfandel, which is so often jammy, raisiny and lacking structure, but Ridge’s Zins are an exception, as they have the balance, complexity and ageability lacking in most California Zins. This tasting reinforced for me the wonderful ageability of Ridge Zins like Lytton Springs, made me acutely aware of the distinctive raspberry puree character of the Lytton Springs fruit, and also drew our attention to the impact of vintage and slightly varying vinification techniques. We also tasted three maturing Ridge Monte Bellos from the half-bottle format–’91, ’92 and ’94–and Monte Bello is always a treat, one of California’s most consistent and elegant Cab blends. For more specifics on both the Lytton Springs and Monte Bello bottlings we tasted, see the detail below.

Christopher Watkins

Mature Lytton Springs Flight

Our mature Lytton Springs flight was comprised of ’87, ’92, ’93, ’96 and ’97. My favorite was the ’93, followed by the ’92 and ’99. All but the ’92 exhibited the tart red raspberry character I now associate with Lytton Springs, and the older ones were also showing secondary and tertiary flavors, like tobacco and cigar box. Even the oldest, the ’87, showed as surprisingly youthful–more like an eight or 10-year-old Zin than one with 23 years on it. The ’96 was also surprisingly youthful and should be very long lived, given the high Petite Sirah component that year.

Ridge produced its first Lytton Springs Zin in 1972. The vineyard had been planted over 80 years before, on land owned in the 1870s by Captain William Litton, who had developed the springs and built a hotel just east of the vineyard. (The spelling evolved to “Lytton” by 1903.) In the early 1940s, the vineyard was substantially replanted to a field blend dominated by Zinfandel, but also containing Carignane, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Mourvedre (which Ridge calls “Mataro”). There are still some Grenache, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vines remaining, however, that are over 100 years old. In 1991, Ridge purchased some of the vineyards from which they had been producing the Lytton Springs wine, followed by the purchase a few years later of the former Norton Ranch Vineyard. These estate vineyards are now designated Lytton East (42 acres planted to old vine Zin, Grenache, Petite Sirah and Carignane) and Lytton West (33 acres of Zinfandel, Grenache and Carignane planted in 1953, and 27 acres of Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Grenache and Mourvedre, or Mataro, planted 1989 to 1996). Ridge labeled the wines “Ridge California Zinfandel Lytton Springs” until 1993, when they dropped Zinfandel from the wine name to emphasize the blend’s geographic origin.

The staff at Ridge supplied us with copies of the label information for each of the vintages in the tasting, and Ridge’s labels are famously full of information about the vintage and winemaking process, and also contain estimates on drinking windows (which can be amusingly modest with respect to earlier vintages, often suggesting a drinking window of only five to seven years, when these wines have now proven to last and even improve for decades). The following vintage information is taken from the label details.

1987 was a cool growing season with low yields and considerable tannins. 1992 was an unusually ripe vintage, as was 1993. In 1993, they fermented half the wine with the grapes submerged; the Petite Sirah, Grenache, Carginane and a third of the Zin were fermented with the grapes floating. Most of the fermentation was done in small tanks, on indigenous yeasts, and the wine went into 100% air-dried American oak. 1996 saw very decreased yields due to difficult weather during flowering and set, which was followed by very warm weather, including an extended heat wave, with over 30 days exceeding 100 degrees. Five percent more Petite Sirah was used in that vintage than ever before. 1999, the fifth vintage of our mature set of bottlings, had a late growing season, which held up harvest for an entire month. The weather was fair and clear from summer through mid-November, and they harvested from late September through the first week of November, as each block ripened fully. All the Zin was fermented with the grape skins held below the surface of the liquid by a grid (submerged cap), while the other varietals were fermented with a floating cap of skins. The wine was assembled from a selection of the 18 separate blocks, and racked to air-dried American oak for 15 months.

  • 1987 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Bricking medium dark red color with pale meniscus; dried currant, earthy, dried red fruit nose with incipient tobacco notes; tasty, tangy, dried currant, ripe cranberry, tart raspberry palate with a hint of tobacco and some juice, remarkably youthful, more like a 10-year old Zin than a 23-year-old; medium-plus finish 91+ pts. (82% Zinfandel, 13% Carignane, 5% Grenache) (91 pts.)
  • 1992 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Bricking medium dark cranberry red color; maturing, mushroom, tart red plum, red currant dried berry, cigar box nose; tasty, mature, dried plum, currant, mushroom, dried cherry palate, plush but nicely mature; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (last vintage that had Zinfandel on the label; 88% Zinfandel, 8% Petite Sirah, 4% Grenache) (92 pts.)
  • 1993 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Bricking medium dark red color with pale meniscus; nice dried currant, dried red berry, cigar box, tobacco nose; tasty, sexy, complex, plush tart red fruit, dried currant, dried red berry, cranberry tart raspberry palate with good balance; medium-plus finish (1st year just designated as Lytton Springs, without Zinfandel appearing in title; 85% Zinfandel in a vineyard blend with 8% Petite Sirah, 3% Carignane, 2% Alicante and 2% Grenache; 25% new American oak, 25% one-year-old, and the rest between two and six years old) (93 pts.)
  • 1996 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Bricking medium dark cranberry red color with pale meniscus; lovely herbal, dried red berry, dried raspberry, raspberry, baked cranberry, dried leaf tobacco nose; tasty, complex, tart and sweet red fruit with underlying core of dried red berry and cranberry, with near medium acidity, very youthful yet; medium-plus finish (high Petite Sirah component seems to be keeping this one very youthful; 78% Zinfandel, 19% Petite Sirah, 2% Carignane, 1% Grenache; 16% new American oak, 21% in one-year-old oak and the rest in older barrels) (92 pts.)
  • 1999 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Slightly bricking medium dark red violet color; appealing, ripe raspberry, baked raspberry, dried red berry nose with a background of satsuma plum; very tasty, rich but poised, tart red berry, tart raspberry, satsuma plum palate with depth; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (70% Zinfandel, 17% Petite Sirah, 10% Carignane, 3% Mataro) (92 pts.)

Young Lytton Springs Flight

Our young Lytton Springs flight, poured in order from youngest to oldest, included the ’07, ’05, ’03, ’02 and ’01. My favorite of this flight, and of the entire tasting (tied with the ’91 Monte Bello), was the ’05, which Christopher reported to us was also Ridge winemaker Paul Draper’s favorite Lytton Springs. The ’05, which had the longest finish and great structure, was followed for me by the ’02 and ’01. All were showing the characteristic red raspberry, and sometimes baked raspberry. All should age beautifully for another couple of decades, at least. The ’07, which had the highest Petite Sirah proportion of all the wines we tasted–at 22%–is still showing very primary now, and will need at least four to five years in bottle before it starts to show everything that’s there. The ’03 was noticeably softer and less complex than the other recent vintages, presumably due both to the high temperatures that year, as well, perhaps, to the vinification, which involved a high degree of carbonic maceration, as described below.

By 2001, all the grapes used for Lytton Springs were estate fruit. 2002 was John Olney’s first vintage as Lytton Springs winemaker. By 2003, Ridge completed construction on a new, sustainable winery, so ’03 was the first time they made the wine on the estate where it was grown (from ’72 to ’76, and ’84 to ’02, the grapes were picked early in the morning and trucked to Monte Bello, three hours south).

The following vintage information is taken from the label details. The 2001 vintage had less rain than normal, and there was water stress by August. As harvest began, at 25.5 degrees average brix. it was found that the tannins were potentially excessive, so they left half of the grapes uncrushed to slow extraction. They also reduced circulation of the juice over the skins and pressed at six days. In 2002, the weather was relatively cool and even. The grapes were harvested at 26.1 degree brix. To better control extraction, they allowed the grapes to float as a cap rather than submerging them. Both the Petite Sirah and old vine Zin were destemmed, but left as whole berries. Structure was still felt to be too firm, though, after a year in barrel, so they fined with fresh egg whites. The wine spent 13 months in barrel. 2003 was marked by intense September heat that caused all the fruit to ripen at once. The average brix at harvest was 24.8 degrees. To avoid overly high tannins, almost half the grapes were left uncrushed and the number of pump-overs was reduced. After 12 months in air-dried American oak barrels, the wine was fined with nine egg whites per barrel. 2005’s growing season was delayed by Spring rains and cool temperatures. The growing season was long, with record yields. The average brix at harvest was 25.1 degrees. Finally, the 2007 vintage had below average rain and early budbreak. This wine spent 15 months in barrel. The average brix at harvest was 26.3 degrees.

  • 2007 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Very dark red violet color; rich, ripe raspberry, red berry, baking spice, baked raspberry, vanilla, powdered sugar nose; rich, baked raspberry, cranberry, red berry palate with depth, rather primary now, needs 4 to 5 years; medium-plus finish (71% Zinfandel, 22% Petite Sirah, 7% Carignane; 15 mos. in barrel, 21% new American oak, 48% one, two and three years old; 31% four and five years old) (92 pts.)
  • 2005 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Very dark red violet color; baked raspberry, baked plum, berry tart cherry nose with subtle, warming oak, sandalwood; tasty, focused, tart cherry, raspberry palate with good acidity, balance and depth; long finish 93+ pts. (this has much improved since I first had it on release a few years back; 77% Zinfandel, 17% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignane; 12 months in barrel, 20% new American oak, 25% one and two years old, and 55% in three to five-year-old barrels) (93 pts.)
  • 2003 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark red violet color; odd VA, baked berry, charcoal, berry, raspberry Kool-Aid powder, cherry rhubarb nose; solid, ripe red berry, baked raspberry, with a sense of sodium; medium-plus finish (76% Zinfandel, 18% Petite Sirah, 6% Carignane; first vintage made in Ridge’s Lytton Springs facility; 12 months in 18% new, 26% one-year-old, 56% two to five years old American oak) (91 pts.)
  • 2002 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Slightly bricking medium dark red violet color; ripe red berry, red plum, red licorice, baked red berry, red velvet cupcake, menthol nose; tasty, poised, vibrant, red berry, red raspberry, mineral, cassis palate with a touch of menthol, has years to go; medium-plus finish (75% Zinfandel, 20% Petite Sirah, 5% Carignane; John Olney’s first vintage as Lytton Springs winemaker) (93 pts.)
  • 2001 Ridge Lytton Springs – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark red violet color; beginning of maturity, spice, incense, dried red fruit, autumnal spice, allspice nose; plush, ripe raspberry, red berry, dried red currant palate with structure and sweet, firm tannins; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (76% Zinfandel, 17% Petite Sirah, 7% Carignane; 50% American oak between two and four years old, 20% new barrels and 30% one-year old; 13 months in barrel) (92 pts.)

Ridge Monte Bello from 1/2 bottles

By the time we got to this Monte Bello vertical from half bottles, the wines had been decanted for about two and a half hours. The 100-degree-plus temperatures outside the crush pad, where we were tasting, were starting to take their toll on us and beginning to volatilize the wines, so I’m not sure these showed as well as they might have on a somewhat cooler day. Nonetheless, all of these were good, and it was especially hard to spit the delicious ’91, which tied with the ’05 Lytton Springs as my favorite wine of the day.

The smaller format bottle provides greater potential oxygen exposure, and is therefore credited with causing wines to age a little faster, which seemed to be the case with both the ’91 and ’92, especially on the nose. The ’94, on the other hand, still needs further maturation, even in the half bottle format, as it currently seems to have different “moving parts” that are not quite fully integrated.

Christopher indicated that these three wines will be available to taste (and purchase) in half-bottle format in the Monte Bello tasting room during the month of October.

  • 1991 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    From 375 ml – slightly bricking dark red violet color with pale meniscus; nice maturing, mushroom, cigar box, dried cassis nose; dried cassis, cassis, with brightness at top and dried fruit below, subtle spices and anise palate; medium-plus finish 93+ pts. (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot; decanted for 2 and a half hours) (93 pts.)
  • 1992 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    From 375 ml – nearly opaque red violet color; maturing, tobacco, cigar box, dried berry nose; tasty, poised, ripe cassis, dried berry, tart plum, tobacco palate with a touch of menthol, much younger tasting than suggested by the nose; medium-plus finish (80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot; decanted for 2 and a half hours) (92 pts.)
  • 1994 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    From 375 ml – very dark red violet color; cigar box, smoke, dried berry, dried currant nose; tart currant, cassis, dried red fruit, tart red berry palate with depth, but needs to integrate yet, sense of different moving parts; medium-plus finish 92+ pts. (73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc; decanted for 2 and a half hours) (92 pts.)

Here’s a brief video clip of the gathering, showing the assembled bloggers in the Lytton Springs crush pad, and Christopher presenting the wine:


view from Lytton Springs

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