Saturday, March 8, 2008

Barrel tasting at Ridge

Ridge Monte Bello is one of the undisputed "First Growths" of California, with a library of vintages going back over 40 years. In a good vintage it will age superbly; witness the success of the 35 year old 1971 vintage at the "Judgement of Paris" anniversary tasting in 2006. But despite its history and reputation for quality it still has a relatively reasonable price compared to the typical new Napa cabernets; last year the release price was increased for the first time in 5 years to $145, and the futures price from $65 to $80.

Futures? Yes, Ridge is one of the few California wineries that makes its wine available on a futures basis. You pay for the wine now and it will be delivered in two years when it is released. In return you get a substantial discount off the release price. And since you wouldn't want to open the wine for a few years anyway it could be said that you are getting two years of free storage.

Today was the first Ridge Monte Bello barrel tasting. The focus is on the four varietal components; there's an opportunity to taste each in its own right, then as the first assemblage or blend. Later, in May, there's a second tasting which gives a chance to sample the final assemblage.

Barrel tasting is an interesting experience. For winemakers it's a chore; they need to taste through every barrel to decide - at such an early stage - whether or not it makes the cut. For the rest of us it's an opportunity to see behind the curtain, to be a part of the process. It also gives a first chance to see what the much heralded 2007 vintage might be like.

The barrel tasting events are always popular, and the place is heaving. It's free to members of the Monte Bello Collector list, $40 to non-members. You have the option to purchase a commemorative Ridge glass ($5) or a huge Spiegelau ($10) but since I have more glasses than I need I just went for the complementary option.

First a warm up - a couple of already released wines.

Table 1: 2004 Monte Bello Chardonnay
After the success of the 2005 Santa Cruz Mountains (95 points and #2 wine of the yera by Wine Spectator) I had hoped that they would be pouring the 2005 Monte Bello, but apparently that's still a couple of months from release. This is a delicious chardonnay, with stone fruits and lots of crisp acidity. Should certainly repay cellaring for a few years. I just have a hard time with the $60 price tag when I can find great wines like Varner and Mount Eden at half the price.

2004 Santa Cruz Mountains Cabernet Sauvignon
The lots that don't make it into Monte Bello go into the Santa Cruz Mountains blend. It's intended to be drunk much younger than its big brother, but for a wine that has been on release for a year this was surprisingly tight and tannic; it needs to be locked away for at least 5-8 years.

Then on to the components:

Table 2: Merlot 13.5%
The first component poured was the Merlot. It had an almost smoky nose. On the palate there was bright acidity with some sort of red fruits - raspberry, possibly cranberry. Good structure.

Cabernet Franc 12.5%
A huge contrast to the previous sample, the nose was faint and dusty. On the palate there was a wall of tannin; none of the characteristic tobacco, graphite or any fruit to speak of, just a hint of violets. None of the Cabernet Franc made it into the first assemblage, though it may come around by May.

Table 3: Petit Verdot 12.9%
This was just beautiful. Lovely floral nose, massive fruit on the palate, fine tannins. I could have drunk the whole bottle. It's such a pity that Petit Verdot is rarely bottled in its own right. All the Petit Verdot was included in the assemblage (Ridge has about 1.2 acres of Petit Verdot)

Cabernet Sauvignon 13.1%
The final - and largest - component. Although it's only been in oak for a few months (as have the other components) the oak was showing much more here than on the others. Great fruit, plenty of structure, big chewy tannins on the finish.

Table 4: 2007 Monte Bello First Assemblage 13.1%
72% Cabernet Sauvignon, 16% Merlot, 12% Petit Verdot

As expected, the whole is very much greater than the sum of the parts. It had a very pretty nose; on the palate it was very elegant, with blackcurrant and a strong minerality - slate or graphite. Good acidity, bags of tannin and a good finish. And as usual the alcohol level is kept in check at around 13%.
The pourer likened it to the 1997 vintage in its youth.

Finally the just-released vintage:

2005 Monte Bello
The nose on this is just awesome, it jumps right out at you. On the palate there's so much sweet, dark fruit, it just keeps going. Despite its youth it seems remarkably drinkable, but clearly it has a long and glorious future ahead of it. I believe that Josh Reynolds rated it a 95.

So there you have it. With the exception of the backward Cabernet Franc all of the components showed great potential. 2007 looks like being another classic vintage, not just for Monte Bello, but potentially for the Santa Cruz Mountains generally.

More photos online at Flickr


rama said...

gah- wine shouldn't be sounding so good this early in the morning. will be looking at the futures program again... gimme a heads up if you have spare tix for the may tasting.