Summer has finally arrived and last Friday was a gorgeous day for a drive up Black Mountain for another of Ridge's regular wine bloggers' tasting. This event was held in the newly opened Black Mountain Suite - a brand new conference area located above the existing tasting room. The room is accessible via the old winery building, which now boasts fine new reproductions of some old photographs featuring the Ridge founders, a youthful Paul Draper and even Oseo Perrone, who first planted grapes on the mountain top over 100 years ago.
To celebrate the opening of the new suite we were being given the opportunity to taste through the latest library releases of Monte Bello. Ridge maintains a significant stock of older vintages and regularly tastes them to follow their progress. The wines were to be poured blind; our task was simply to put them in chronological order. Sounds easy enough, right?
As we settled down and prepared ourselves we were offered a sample of the as-yet-unreleased 2008 Monte Bello Chardonnay. Nose of green apple, lemon and wet stone; flavours of tart apricot and lemon with fresh grassy notes and some vanilla; the oak was not obtrusive despite it's youth. 92
We then began to taste through 11 vintages of Monte Bello. The wines were labelled A through K and were poured in pairs, which meant that you couldn't go back and compare against a wine from a previous pairing. This made the task harder still. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
A My first impression of this was that the colour suggested a young wine. Unfortunately that can be deceptive with Monte Bello. It seemed lighter than the accompanying wine B. The nose seemed ripe and fruity nose, with lots of black fruit, some mint and eucalyptus; the palate had plenty of tannin and blackcurrant, but overall it seemed a little lean and tart; a bit closed. Overall I think it was my least favourite and I guessed that it was from a 'lesser' vintage, such as 2004, 2000 or even 1998. 91
The colour of B was noticeably darker than A; a deep garnet. The nose was very rich and rustic; a much thicker mouthfeel, with stacks of tannins, less evident fruit and lots of earth, though less acidity. A big and meaty wine. I guessed it to be significantly older than A; probably mid 1990s. 92+
C seemed darker still than B. Plenty of that eucalyptus and mint; rich and balanced. Lots of bramble, blackcurrant and black cherry flavours. The tannins are much smoother. I could drink this all day. It still had plenty of life, but I doubted I'd want to keep it much longer. Mid 1980s? 95
D was the first wine that really showed significant age. The colour was a deep brownish red, and despite having been double-decanted there was still some sediment. It smelled old - lots of leather and cigar box notes. In the mouth there was still some fruit but loads of secondary characteristics. The tannin was mostly gone. It was certainly the oldest so far; I guessed it would probably be the oldest overall. It didn't improve in the glass beyond the first delicious taste; this was a fine example of a mature Monte Bello. Certainly 1970s, maybe even older. 96
E was the first controversial wine. The color was a dark red, with some bricking around the rim. However the nose was odd; almost cheesy - Fred to my right called it soy. Certainly it had some savoury notes; it tasted fine and the odd note blew off somewhat with time. 92
Chris took note of the various comments on the nose and reappeared with a second example of the same vintage. The colour of this bottle seemed slightly redder; the odd note wasn't present and overall it showed significantly more fruit. It was alittle cold to start with and improved as it went on. I began to wonder if this was the much-maligned 1986, though it didn't seem quite that old. Early 90s? 94+
F was another great mature example though it didn't seem as old as D. There was a nice red-brown colour and a fascinating nose of rich leather and dried fruit.
I guessed it was younger than D but not by much. Probably mid 1970s. 96
G was another dark one, again showing plenty of sediment despite the decanting. The nose didn't seem to be giving that much away; some smoke and earth. On the palate there was huge fruit; lots of bramble and blackcurrant. The tannins are chewy, so it's clearly a younger wine that will improve with age. Mid to late 1990s? 95+
H Looked older than G. It was very earthy, both on the nose and the palate. I took a wild stab and guessed early 1990s. 94
I think of all the wines I surprised me the most. There seemed to be some browning on the meniscus; Lots of coffee and chocolate and stacks of delicious fruit. I jokingly suggested the 2005; it seemed a big wine from a ripe year so I guessed 1990. Wes thought it seemed older. 95+
I think everyone instantly recognised J as a barrel sample of the 2010, if only by the bright purple colour. This has got better each time I've tried it; there's huge primary fruit and immense structure - it's likely to be a particularly long lived vintage. Some of the tasters went so far as to declare it their favourite. 95+
Finally K was clearly a very recent release; I couldn't be certain which but the youngest wine poured (after the barrel sample). At this point we were wrapping up and I failed to take detailed notes. 93+
So after much umming and ahhing I finally decided on the ordering J K A G I B H C E F D. Boy was I wrong; the only ones I correctly spotted were the oldest and the newest. The actual ordering was J K B C A E G H I F D. I only managed to put 4 out of 11 in their correct positions. I was only slightly encouraged by the fact that the best score anyone managed was 7 out of 11!
D 1977 ($400) - Perhaps it should have been easier to spot, given that I only tasted it a month ago. In comparison to the rest it seemed even older, though still holding its own.
F 1978 ($475) - I got this too. 1978 was a very good year, so it's unsurprising that it seemed noticeably younger than D
I 1981 ($185) - I was astonished by this. I'd have said it was a decade younger. I don't recall having tasted anything from 1981; the advice I've been given in the past was that 81-83 was a run of three weaker vintages. Excellent value.
H 1985 ($300) - This one fooled me by a decade as well. I had it as early 1990s.
G 1990 ($250) - Getting a bit closer; I had it as late 1990s
E 1994 ($250) - I went for early 1990s. I think that qualifies.
A 1995 ($300) - I was wrong about the lesser vintage, but I'll stand by the 'closed' comment. I think this needs more time.
C 1999 ($225) - Chris was amused by my comment that I could drink this all day, since the genesis of these tastings can perhaps be traced to comments that Wes and I made on the same wine a couple of years ago - see my original post and the notes from the follow up tasting. I think the 1999 is showing rather well right now and would again question whether it's one to hang on to in the long term.
B 2000 ($225) - Slightly younger than I thought. Surprisingly big for what's generally considered a weak vintage.
K 2006 ($150)
J 2010 ($NR)
Huge thanks to Chris and the staff at Ridge for a hugely enjoyable - and somewhat humbling - event.