The annual Monte Bello futures tastings are the first glimpse that many of us get at the quality of the most recent vintage. 2011 was a tough year in California; a late, wet spring delayed budbreak; rain during flowering impacted the fruit set resulting in low yields; a cool summer increased the pressure of mildew and botrytis, and also meant that many regions struggled to get fruit to ripen.
The more experienced producers are used to difficult years, and this year they needed to tap that experience. There are lots of techniques that can be used to help the vines such as green harvesting (dropping fruit to allow the rest to ripen) and leaf pulling (removing leaves that aren't wanted). Then there are high-tech solutions such as reflective sheeting to direct sunlight back up at the plants. But even if you do all the work you're still reliant on the weather to do its share, and in 2011 it wasn't exactly cooperating.
On a sunny weekend in March Ridge opened the doors to their Monte Bello Collectors and gave us a taste of 2011. Barrel samples of the four varieties that make up Monte Bello as well as a taste of the first assemblage.
2011 Petit Verdot, Olivos Block. 12.2% Alcohol
I love the nose on Petit Verdot, and I'm always disappointed when it doesn't make the final blend. It opens with bright violet and blueberry notes, but the palate is disappointingly simple; light tannic fruit. This won't be in the blend, but should add some nice aromas to the Estate blend.
2011 Cabernet Franc, North Gate Block. 12.0% Alcohol
The nose shows lots of espresso coffee beans; that comes through on the palate too. It's got a green, leafy note to it and some tart brambly fruit. These young vines won't make it into the final blend, but another parcel will.
2011 Merlot, La Vasseur Block. 12.5% Alcohol
Merlot was hit particularly hard by rain during flowering, and the yieldsa are much lower than usual. There's not much going on on the nose. In the mouth it's rustic and tannic; plenty of acidity but very little fruit. Yet another block that won't be in the Monte Bello.
2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, La Vasseur Block. 12.8% Alcohol
Monte Bello has always been a Cabernet Sauvignon based wine, and this year looks like having the highest proportion of Cabernet in a good few years. But as with all the other varietal samples, this one hasn't made the cut, though is still under consideration. The nose is light, with wafer, berry and meat. On the palate it's lightweight, with flavours of blueberry, bramble, tobacco and smoke.
2011 Monte Bello, First Assemblage.
87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Merlot, 4% Cabernet Franc.
The nose is rather shy at this stage, with smoke, tobacco and berry emerging with some coaxing. There seems to be a lot less fruit than in a typical Monte Bello at this stage; instead there's lots of coffee, graphite, tannin and cocoa. It's probably going to be a long wait for this to reach its peak. 90-92
The winery was also pouring some new and current releases
2009 Monte Bello
New release. There's an odd, volatile note in the nose and it seems lighter than usual. There's plenty of red fruit and loads of tannin. Sometimes Monte Bello can be approachable on release with some air, but this one seems to need a good rest. 92+
2009 Klein Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon
One of three "Classic Vineyard" wines released earlier this year - they were presented at the December bloggers' tasting, which I missed. The other two are a Perrone Vineyard Cabernet Franc and a Torre Ranch Merlot.
Nose is smoky, with plenty of berry fruit. On the palate it explodes with cassis, bramble and blueberry, with a long finish. 93+
2006 Monte Bello
I've had this a few times and it continues to delight. Stuck between two vintages that generally have been more highly regarded, the 2006 stands well. Lots of graphite, smoke and rich, smooth blackberry and blackcurrant fruit it tastes great now and will only get better. 94
2009 Estate Merlot
Ridge don't usually bottle a Merlot on its own; any that doesn't make the Monte Bello tends to end up as a significant proportion of what used to be called the Santa Cruz Mountains blend. In 2009 they had enough fruit to make two Estate wines. The Merlot has a soft, floral nose and soft yet rich fruits - black plum and blueberry. Something to drink now while you're waiting for the others to mature. 91
2009 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon
Smoky, berry nose; lovely rustic blackcurrant and bramble fruit. 92
So in conclusion, the 2011 Monte Bello will probably turn out to be a very nice wine in
time. However Ridge is such a reliable producer that you can say that about almost everything they make. I may be proven wrong, but I don't see this being one of the greatest vintages; at the moment it's my least favourite since 2004 and possibly since 2000. Right now they have some excellent wines from the 2009 vintage; in addition to the ones above there are also the superb 2009 Geyserville and Lytton Springs to consider. Because of this I passed on the 2011 Monte Bello and instead bought a mixed case of 2009s.
2011 was a tough vintage for growers. It will be an even tougher vintage for sellers. I certainly don't plan on buying anything without tasting it first.