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Ridge Monte Bello Vertical Blindtasted 1977-2010

2011 June 24
by Richard Jennings


RIDGE MONTE BELLO VERTICAL BLINDTASTED 1977-2010 – Black Mountain Tasting Room, Monte Bello Vineyard, Cupertino, California (6/17/2011)

As I’ve written before here, Ridge is the jewel of our Santa Cruz Mountains AVA. Their wines have a proven track record and incredible longevity. The apex of the many wines Ridge produces–including the best Zins in California; small lots of old vine Carignane, Alicante Bouschet, Ruby Cabernet and other obscure varietals; powerful and long lived Petite Sirahs; and reliable Chardonnays and Cabernets–is their Bordeaux or meritage blend, the Ridge Monte Bello. The first vintage of this classic California meritage was 1962, which was also the first vintage for Ridge, the partnership of Stanford University engineering school faculty members led by David Bennion that purchased the long abandoned vineyards at Monte Bello in 1960. That first Ridge Monte Bello was based on vineyards first planted on a mountain overlooking Silicon Valley back in 1886, with a major replanting of eight acres of Cabernet Sauvignon in 1949. Paul Draper became the winemaker in 1969, and it was his 1971 vintage Monte Bello that came in fifth in the famous Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976. (When Paul found out, after the fact, that the 1971 vintage had been selected for the tasting, he was regretful that no one at Ridge had been consulted, as they would have recommended the 1970, which they considered a much greater and more structured vintage.)

Ridge’s Tasting Room Czar and blogger Christopher Watkins inaugurated these quarterly wine blogger tastings two years ago, and they’re a great opportunity for us local bloggers (with occasional visitors from the East Coast and elsewhere) to check in on a producer that has been remarkably consistent, and consistently excellent, for almost five decades now. We had no idea what wines Christopher had in store for us for this second quarter tasting of 2011, but they turned out to be a blind vertical of the Monte Bello–ten library offerings that are now being made available for purchase at the tasting room, plus a barrel sample of the 2010 vintage. Christopher let us know that our task for the afternoon was to place the blind samples in order from oldest to youngest, and that there would be a prize for the one of us that came closest to the correct order. Of course, this being an assemblage of wine bloggers, there were other tasks to be performed too, including the tweeting of our reactions to the wines to Ridge’s and our Twitter followers, and the usual distracted, multi-tasking banter that goes on at such events between bloggers, electronically and otherwise.

We started with the very tasty 2008 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay, as Christopher filled us in on the day’s challenge. The tasting took place in Ridge’s brand new Black Mountain tasting room, which is adjacent to the old barn, where the annual Monte Bello assemblage tastings take place, which was also the site of Monte Bello’s original winery. Christopher gave us no clues as to the 11 vintages, which we tasted in pairs. I ultimately got the age order right on six of the 11 vintages, tying me for second with NorCal Wine‘s Fred Swan. My favorite Monte Bello of the day, and the only one whose vintage I accurately guessed exactly, was the elegant and youthful 1985. For more details on the rest of the wines, including my tasting notes, see below.

Inaugural tasting in the new Black Mountain Tasting Room at Ridge Monte Bello

Starter Wine

The Black Mountain tasting room is outfitted with wifi and a large screen monitor, so we were able to follow each other’s tweets on the big board. My favorite was when Fred tweeted an otherwise very accurate description of one of our first few wines that included the term “erupt leaves.” I brought the phrase to Fred’s attention, and he confirmed that iPhone’s maddening auto correct feature had changed his “dry” to “erupt.” References to volcanoes and erupting foliage then became the running joke for the rest of the tasting.

following our tweets

  • 2008 Ridge Chardonnay Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bright light lemon yellow color; nice lemon cream, vanilla, baked pear, pineapple nose; tasty, creamy textured, youthful, lemon cream, baked pear, pineapple, baking spice, nutmeg palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)

Blindtasting (re-ordered in vintage order)

As mentioned above, the Monte Bello is a Bordeaux style blend, the precise components of which vary with the vintage. The 1994, for example, features all four of the Bordeaux varietals available from the Monte Bello Vineyard–with 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc–whereas the 1977 is almost entirely Cabernet Sauvignon, with only 3% Cabernet Franc. Monte Bellos generally require 10 years or more in bottle before they really enter their ideal, long drinking window. One of the curious things about these excellent Bordeaux blends is the predominance of American oak–100% in most of the early vintages represented here, with small percentages of French oak in later vintages. The sweet, often dill-flavored, nature of American oak is typically evident in these wines, but with age it is certainly integrated, and becomes part of the overall signature of Monte Bello. Paul Draper has been quoted as saying that if all French oak was used, with the relatively high acid, Bordeaux-style grapes that make up the blend, the wine would simply be an imitation of Bordeaux and not the inimitable “wine of place” that it has become. I do think the much beloved Mr. Draper is right about this.

I had previously tasted every vintage in this lineup with the exception of the 1990. Some of them, like the 1977, I’ve tasted multiple times. For the older vintages, like any older bottles, there is bottle variation. I once wrote here about a rare chance to sample four bottles of 1977 Monte Bello–all from the same case that had been impeccably stored at the winery all these years–and the fact that one of the four bottles was stellar, while another was somewhat corked, and the other two were good but not as great as the best bottle. So bottle variation amongst aged bottles is a reality of life, and some of these samples were better, and some were not as good, as examples of the same vintage I’ve tried before. The nose on one vintage in particular, the 1994, seemed a little funky (with a touch of pickle juice) to at least a few of us, so Christopher generously fetched another one to compare. It was definitely better, so my score for the 1994 is based on that second bottle.

There were really no runts in this litter–my lowest score was 90+ points, for the very good 1977 and the 1990. The 1977 had clearly reached its peak, but will hang in there for many years yet to come. The ’90 should go for at least eight to 10 years yet. My favorite vintages in this tasting, in order, were the 1985, 1999, 2006, 2010, 1994, 2000 and 1995. The 1985 was the most Bordeaux-like of all of these wines (which isn’t the only reason I rated it number one). It was as elegant and complete a California meritage as they come, IMHO. And the 1999 is, for my money, the best value library wine currently available.

A couple of the bloggers on hand admitted that they particularly go for younger California Cabs, and they went nuts over the barrel sample. I agree that the 2010, which I’ve previously reported on here in covering the recent assemblage tasting, is going to be a remarkable Monte Bello, eight or ten years, at least, down the road. For younger Monte Bellos, though, that are closer to their drinking window now, I’d highly recommend both the 2006 and the 1999.

  • 1977 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bricked, cloudy, medium dark garnet color; mature, weedy, herbal, pencil lead, marjoram nose; mature, herbal, marjoram, cassis, stewed plum palate; long finish 90+ points (quite mature compared to other bottles of this I’ve tried, but hanging on; 97% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot) (90 pts.)
  • 1978 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bricked medium garnet red color with pale meniscus; mature, weedy, soy sauce, cooked herbs, tart cassis nose; tasty, mature, tart cassis, tart raspberry, soy sauce, cedar, seaweed palate with good structure; should go 10-plus years or more; long finish 92 (92 pts.)
  • 1981 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bricking medium garnet red color with pale meniscus; mature, dill, weedy, cedar nose; mature, solid, balanced, tart cassis, dill, cedar palate; long finish (I was guessing this was several years younger than ’81; 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Merlot) (92 pts.)
  • 1985 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Bricking medium garnet red color with pale meniscus; mature, appealing, tart plum, iodine, Bordeaux-like nose; tasty, mature, iodine, tart cassis, cedar, tart plum palate with fine grained tannins; long finish (most Bordeaux-like of our 11 vintage vertical; 93% Cabernet Sauvignon, 7% Merlot) (95 pts.)
  • 1990 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Slightly bricking medium ruby color; mature, weedy, dill, tart plum nose; silky textured, mature, tart plum, dill, weedy, cedar, chocolate shavings palate; should go 8-10 years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (I was guessing this was a much older vintage; 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot) (90 pts.)
  • 1994 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Dark ruby color; mature, baked plum, baking spice, berry, raspberry nose; tasty, maturing and accessible, ripe cassis, raspberry, berry, baking spice palate; needs 2-3 years; medium-plus finish (73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc) (93 pts.)
  • 1995 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium dark ruby color; nice, mature, herbal, cedar, stewed plum nose; mature, tasty, tart plum, cedar, herbal, American oak dill palate with medium acidity; at peak, should go 5-7 more years; medium-plus finish 92+ points (tasted much more mature than only 16 years old; 69% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 3% Cabernet Franc) (92 pts.)
  • 1999 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Medium dark ruby color with slight bricking; lovely, lifted, raspberry, ripe plum, herbal, seaweed nose; tasty, silky textured, maturing but still youthful, tart cassis, cedar, herbal, dried seaweed palate; long finish (72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot) (94 pts.)
  • 2000 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Slightly bricking dark ruby color; lifted, herbal, thyme, tart cassis, roasted plum nose; mature, tart cassis, thyme, iodine, tart plum, graphite palate; should go 15-20 years; medium-plus finish (more mature tasting than the bottle I tried six months earlier; 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc) (93 pts.)
  • 2006 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Very dark ruby color; beautiful, berry, lavender, blueberry, caramel nose; tasty, rich, berry, blueberry, caramel, blackberry palate with sweet, fine tannins; needs 7-8 years; long finish (68% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 10% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc) (94 pts.)
  • 2010 Ridge Monte Bello – USA, California, San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains
    Barrel sample – dark purple red violet color; youthful, red berry, berry, vanilla, caramel, cinnamon nose; very youthful, berry, roasted berry, coffee, cinnamon, plum, baking spice, creosote palate; needs 15+ years; long finish 93-95 points (74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 4% Petit Verdot, 2% Cabernet Franc) (93 pts.)


tasting room view

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