Sunday, March 8, 2009

2008 Ridge Monte Bello varietal components tasting

Ridge Monte Bello is considered by some to be the finest Cabernet blend made in the USA. Though others may point to high-priced, high scoring cult wines such as Screaming Eagle or Levy & McLelland the simple fact is that for over 40 years Ridge has quietly been making elegant, balanced, ageworthy wines at a reasonable price. In fact if you place a futures order you can get half a case for less than the release price of some cults.

Though the first vintages were 100% Cabernet, since the mid 1970s it's been blended with Merlot and sometimes Cabernet Franc and/or Petit Verdot. The winemakers sample each lot blind several times to determine whether it's right for Monte Bello or not. Lots that don't make the cut will typically end up in the Santa Cruz Mountains bottling, though small lots may be released as part of the ATP wine club.

Every year in early March, Ridge hosts a tasting of barrel samples from the latest vintage. For me it's one of the highlights of the tasting year. It's a backstage pass to Monte Bello land; you get to see the dress rehearsal followed by the real thing.

The 2008 vintage was a second drought year in a row. The dry weather led to some large wildfires, both in the Santa Cruz Mountains and elsewhere. Frost followed by heatwaves resulted in a very small crop; Ridge estimate that they picked around 1.25 tons per acre. However the small crop has turned out to be of very good quality.

Merlot sample. Bright garnet in colour. Nose of Parma violets and plums. The samples were rather cold; my first impression was of a wall of tannin with very little fruit. Later I resampled it; after it warmed up the fruit began to show, but it's still hard to assess at this stage.

50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Cabernet Franc sample. Much darker in colour than the Merlot. Nose of blackberries and tea. On the palate there's less tannin and lots of black fruit. The finish is quite long, but there's a green streak. This has not made the first assemblage.

100% Cabernet Sauvignon sample. Nose of espresso and blackcurrant. On the palate there's beautiful sweet fruit. The tannins are a little harsh at this stage. Nice finish.

Petit Verdot sample. Last year the Petit Verdot was stunning all by itself. This year it suffered badly from the frost, and ripened unevenly. It still has a rather pretty floral nose. Although rich there's less fruit than last year and there's a herbaceous character to it that Ridge are hoping will dissipate. This has not made the first assemblage.

2008 Monte Bello Barrel Sample: 81% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Merlot. Colour is dark purple. Nose of coffee, graphite and black fruits. Nice balance and structure, good, layered fruit and a long finish. Certainly has the potential to be a great wine.

See also Wes Barton's tasting notes