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Ridge Monte Bello Wins Cabernet Sauvignon Taste-Off
Top Vintners Club honors in Cabernet Sauvignon this year went to Ridge Vineyards for its 1991 Monte Bello, a wine named after the 50-acre estate vineyard situated at an elevation that ranges from 2,300 to 2,600 feet in a cool pocket of the Santa Cruz Mountains above the winery near Cupertino. The vineyard overlooks the Santa Clara Valley and San Francisco Bay to the east, and the Pacific Ocean, just twenty miles to the west.
The taste-off brought together 12 wines that had finished either first or second in earlier qualifying tastings, so we were judging only the best wines that had been through the Club's program of blind tastings. Five of the top-quality Cabs came from Napa Valley, three from Alexander Valley, and one each from Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Northern Sonoma, and the Santa Cruz Mountains. Vintages spanned 1991 to 1993, and prices ranged from $16 to $80.
In an interesting sidelight, the least expensive wine, a $16 bottle of 1992 Gallo Sonoma, Frei Ranch, came in second to the $75 Ridge Monte Bello. Who says you have to spend a bundle for high quality?
Ridge Monte Bello has one of California's most highly regarded pedigrees among red wines. If we organized our wines the way the French do in Bordeaux, it would unquestionably qualify as a "first growth" -- a consistently outstanding wine. A couple of years before this latest taste-off, the 1990 version of the Monte Bello took top honors in an all-star Vintners Club tasting of California Meritage wines and Bordeaux first and second growths, including Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux, Opus One, Lafite- Rothschild, Haut-Brion and Clos du Val Reserve. Not a bad track record.
There has been a vineyard on the Monte Bello site since 1892, when it served the needs of the Montebello Winery, the old stone buildings of which now serve as the production and aging facility for Ridge Vineyards. In 1949, Monte Bello was planted to cabernet sauvignon in well-drained soils made up of red decomposing Franciscan rock mixed with clay, with fractured limestone underlying the vineyard as a whole. Later, small blocks of cabernet franc, merlot and petit verdot were planted, broadening the vineyard mix to more resemble a Bordeaux property.
The cool, mountainous climate -- between a warm Mediterranean zone and a colder maritime zone -- limits quantity to about two tons per acre or less, and produces small, intense berries from stressed vines.
The Monte Bello fruit is picked block by block, as the grapes develop full color and flavor; harvest here can extend over several weeks. Usually, only about twenty percent of the grapes make the cut for the Monte Bello. After final blending, the wine ages sixteen months in new French and American cooperage.
Overseeing winemaking operations since 1969, C.E.O. and winemaker Paul Draper is firmly committed to the concept that terroir is essential to making distinctive wine. "At Ridge," he says, "we have always looked for wines that show that distinctive core of individuality that a piece of great ground can give."
Taking this philosophy to its logical conclusion, Draper is committed to a less-is-better approach in winemaking. "We are the lowest tech producer in California," he says. This attitude results in fermenting with natural yeasts instead of cultivated, commercial strains, avoiding acid adjustment (acidulation), no filtering except in rare cases where light filtration is necessary for stability, and only minimal fining with egg whites, as is the practice in Bordeaux.
"To maintain our 'low tech,' hands-off winemaking," Draper explains, "we have developed sophisticated, high-tech, analytical techniques. We over-analyze the wines to give ourselves the option of minimal interference with the natural transformative process. It means we take more risks, but they are conscious and calculated. In both fining and filtration we look at each wine individually and choose the lowest level of action that will produce the finest wine."
The 1991 Monte Bello commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of Ridge Vineyards as a winery. In 1991, harvesting the Monte Bello vineyard took place over 18 separate days, as each of the blocks or half blocks fully ripened, and 18 separate fermentations were made. The first and second pressings were kept separate to allow Draper to control the quality and quantity of tannin in the wine. The wine was aged in 100 percent new barrels, about 70 percent American and the remaining 30 percent from three French coopers. Small amounts of Monte Bello petit verdot and merlot were included in the final blend.
1991 Ridge Monte Bello, Santa Cruz Mountains ($75)
Forward, quite fragrant scents of blackberries, cassis, tobacco leaf, cedar, toasty oak and vanilla. Smooth, round and supple in the mouth offering lots of concentrated black fruits accented by notes of chocolate and mild herbaceousness. An elegant and generous wine exhibiting great finesse.
1992 Gallo Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon, Frei Ranch, Dry Creek Valley ($16)
Fragrant, appealing aromas of black cherry, cassis, wild strawberry and blueberry fruit, enhanced by smoky notes and mild tobacco-leaf herbaceousness. Juicy and generous on the palate, with black cherry-cassis-cranberry fruit mingled with black pepper and black olive. Nicely concentrated; medium tannins.
1992 Whitehall Lane Cabernet Sauvignon, Morisoli Vineyard, Napa Valley ($36)
Somewhat restrained, although complex, nose of vanillin oak, cherry-berry fruit, roasted grain, black pepper, light mint and chocolate. Intense flavors focus on sweet, ripe blackberry and black cherry fruit with black olive herbaceousness. Medium-full tannins; slightly peppery finish.
1992 Chateau Souverain Cabernet Sauvignon, Winemaker's Reserve, Alexander Valley ($20)
Slow-to-open nose of pleasant cherry-berry fruit, cedar, violets, anise and warm cinnamon-clove spice. Bright raspberry- cassis fruit on the palate with medium tannins. There's good depth of fruit here, but the wine is a bit rough in texture at this point. An intriguing tobacco-leaf note appears in the finish.
1992 J. Stonestreet Legacy, Alexander Valley ($35)
Good dose of oak char here, along with forward scents of black cherry-cassis fruit, eucalyptus and a touch of earthiness. Generous, juicy and delicious, the wine offers ripe black fruits black pepper spice, a good mouth-feel and medium tannins. This Cab's bright acidity adds much to its enjoyment.
1992 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cask 23, Napa Valley ($80)
Distinctive nose of vanilla custard, peppery spice, eucalyptus and plumy cherry-cassis fruit. Almost jammy on the palate, with vibrant cassis-black cherry fruit, medium-full tannins and evident oak. The mild, pleasant herbaceousness appears again in the back palate and on the finish.
1991 De Loach Cabernet Sauvignon, O.F.S., Russian River Valley ($25)
Attractive, complex, slightly tarry "old vines" scents of cigar box, shy black cherry-cassis fruit, cedar, mint, clove spice and a hard to define gamey note. Very impressive on the palate, with intense, extractive black fruits, moderate herbaceousness, medium tannins and a supple texture. An elegant wine with lots of stuffing. By the way, "O.F.S." stands for "our finest selection."
1993 Stag's Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon, Fay Vineyard, Napa Valley ($40)
Lots of warm clove-cinnamon spice in the nose, along with rich red fruits (cherries, currants), chocolate, a touch of wild mushroom earthiness and a hint of leather; quite distinctive and appealing. Bold and round on the palate with medium-full tannins, the wine offers lots of spicy cassis-berry fruit, peppery spice and evident oak.
1993 Hanna Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($18)
Pleasant mix of dusty, brambly berry fruit, mild herbs, vanilla, and a pronounced leathery note that some tasters thought might be due to brettanomyces, a wild yeast that lingers in barrels and can impart such a smell to the wine. "Brett" is a love-hate thing among most winetasters; some folks find that a modest amount of brett adds a pleasant complexity, while others can't stand it at any level, complaining of its mousy-horsey smell. On the palate, the wine is plumy and jammy, with lots of ripe fruit and medium-full tannins.
1993 Rodney Strong Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander's Crown Vineyard, Northern Sonoma ($22)
A much better wine than its ranking would imply, the nose exhibits ripe berry-cassis fruit, toasty oak, tobacco-leaf herbaceousness, vanilla and spice; quite fragrant and attractive. Generous and luscious on the palate, with lots of ripe black fruits and plenty of oak to match; medium-full tannins. A big wine with good balance, exhibiting great depth and concentration of fruit.
1991 Oakford Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon, Napa Valley ($27.50)
The fruity black cherry-blackberry-cassis nose is the wine's best aspect, since the excessive tannins and intrusive oak dominate the palate. A brawny wine that offers little pleasure now.
1993 Smith Madrone Cabernet Sauvignon, Spring Mountain, Napa Valley ($20)
Fragrant scents of black raspberry-black cherry fruit, vanilla, green olive, mushrooms, mint and leather. If there's an element of brett here, it's not exaggerated or off-putting. Lots of ripe berry-cassis fruit on the palate and hints of black pepper spice and tobacco leaf; medium-full tannins.
Steve Pitcher is a freelance wine writer based in San Francisco. He is vice president of the Vintners Club and president of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the German Wine Society.