A California Grand Cru: Visiting Ridge’s Monte Bello Vineyard

Monte Bello's oldest vines from 1940

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Abe Schoener is right. The greatest legacy of changing sentiments in the “new” California is increased focus on California’s best vineyards – its premier and grand crus. One of the undisputed and longest running grand cru vineyards in the state is Monte Bello.

What Makes a California Grand Cru?

Ridge began making wine from the Monte Bello vineyard in 1962 but the vineyard has been planted since 1886. Much of those vines fell into neglect during prohibition, and the vineyard was replanted in 1949. It was these vines that provided the fruit for the inaugural Monte Bello. Since then vineyards have been slowly replanted, but the average age of the fruit remains very old for Cabernet Sauvignon.

Diagram of Monte Bello's Elevation

Diagram of Monte Bello’s Elevation

Monte Bello’s unique features derive from numerous factors. First, the elevation at the top of the Santa Cruz Mountains, between 1300 and 2760 feet above sea level, means crisp Pacific air without the excessive dampness from the bay area’s famous fog. In fact, this is the coldest Cabernet Sauvignon growing climate in California. The elevation makes for dramatic views of the hills running into the ocean and Silicon Valley beneath. You can see Apple’s flying saucer like hq from atop this holdout from the region’s agricultural past. Change has rendered most of the land around Monte Bello too expensive for newcomers to purchase and plant, meaning only a handful of wineries exist in this AVA. That radical juxtaposition of pre-Silicon Valley vines with the wealth and power represented by the strange suburbia below is a distinctly California contradiction.

A second key ingredient to grand cru status is the fractured limestone soils, which are overlaid with decomposing green stone mixed with clay and loam. In other words, these are not alluvial soils, but are much older and have been in this place for a very long time. The soils are such that irrigation is not necessary.

old-vines at Monte Bello

old-vines at Monte Bello

Vine age is another key component. The current Cabernet Sauvignon vines are planted 1949-1995, the Merlot from 1968-1997 and the Cab Franc from 1969-2008. Chardonnay vines were mostly planted in the 1970s. Visiting the vineyard is important to understand the strange uniqueness of these vines. Perched on the crest of a hill, craggly and old. Surviving.

Viticulture is careful here. Old diseased vines are not ripped out, but re-grafted. It’s beautiful to see new green shoots bursting out of a nearly dead vine, restored for a new generation.

Re-grafted diseased vine

Re-grafted diseased vine

Vinification bears the unique Ridge stamp with wines fermented almost entirely in air-dried american oak. The estate Chardonnay sees a tiny percentage of french oak, usually around 5-6% and the Monte Bello Cab blend even less at around 1.5%.

Pre-Industrial Winemaking

I cannot isolate the greatness of a site with any scientific rigour. No one can. But we can recognize and question. Consistency of caretaking and winemaking seems an important condition. Paul Draper has been at the helm of Ridge since 1969, shortly after it was founded. Paul calls his winemaking philosophy “pre-industrial” rather than natural or organic. He has been using this style since the 1960’s and he explains that it derives from the winemaking techniques used by those pre-prohibition winemakers who came to the US from Europe. After prohibition, not many pre-prohibition winemakers were left and the U.S. needed more. New winemakers became trained in industrial techniques that allowed considerable manipulation during winemaking.

Monte Bello's Perrone Block

Monte Bello’s Perrone Block

What are these “pre-industrial” techniques? Paul describes them as they are used at Monte Bello as follows:

Our winemaking philosophy includes fermenting entirely with native yeasts from the vineyard, rather than cultured yeast strains; extracting color, flavor, and tannins from the grapes without use of commercial enzymes; determining – by tasting for tannin extraction during fermentation how long to continue pump-overs; allowing malolactic fermentation to occur naturally, without inoculation; achieving wine clarity through settling and racking; making major winemaking decisions, including blending, based on tasting rather than a pre-determined recipe.

Through years of experience, we have found that minimal additions of sulfur are essential to avoiding the ever-present risk of wine oxidation or spoilage, which destroys the individual vineyard character of the wine. We add a small amount of SO2 when the grapes are crushed, after malolactic fermentation, and very small amounts at quarterly rackings, rigorously maintaining the minimum effective level for each wine. Occasionally, if we have a wine lot (or an entire, assembled wine) with excessive tannin, we may fine it gently, using fresh egg whites. The egg whites precipitate to the bottom of the tank or barrel, improving balance by removing a portion of the tannin, and by further integrating the wine. When the whites have formed a firm layer, we slowly rack the clean wine off this sediment. Pad filtration then removes any remaining trace of egg white. We avoid membrane sterile filtration, a process which – to a minor but noticeable degree – affects flavor and complexity.

After years of experience, we have found that the parcels can be divided roughly in half based on the style of wine each has produced in past years. One group is more approachable, and develops its full complexity earlier; from these, we select the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (formerly the Santa Cruz Mountains). The other, though balanced and enjoyable as a young wine, begins to develop its full depth, complexity, and superb quality with a minimum of ten years’ aging. The Monte Bello is selected by blind tasting from these parcels. The first assemblage for both takes place in early February, following vintage. A second, that considers press wine and lots that were not yet stable in February, takes place in May. Thus, from one vineyard, we make two wines – distinct in style, but sharing the vineyard’s individuality.

It is a philosophy that has now inspired dozens of young ambitious winemakers who are employing similar techniques to allow other sites in California to find their true expression. The “new” California is about the focus on vineyard-specific wines that Ridge has been dedicated to for decades.

The Monte Bello Wines

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Estate Chardonnay 2014: The Chardonnay comes from Monte Bello’s lowest vineyards and represents only 4% of Ridge’s total production. It is one of my favourite wines in their portfolio with its characteristic hazelnut the distinctive flavour that returns me again and again. Of course, the wine has exceptional structure from the higher elevation and is made in a more acid-forward style, with a saline finish and a lactic component coming through the wine not unlike some Chablis. Excellent. $50 USD at the winery.

Estate Merlot 2013: The Merlot was first bottled on its own in 1974. It is to my palate one of the best Merlots in California and bears a classic profile of chocolate, leafiness, roots and strong mid-palate acidity. This is merlot for food and will be adored by claret lovers. The Merlot that goes into this bottle also comes from the lower portions of the vineyards as the Merlot planted higher up is used for the Monte Bello. Excellent. $50 USD at the winery.

Estate Cabernet 2013: This is delicious, age-worth Cabernet that is yet made for early drinking. The younger vines used for this wine offer juicy fruit, but there is significant structure underlying all that pleasure. It’s one of California’s great values in age-worth Bordeaux variety wine. Expect to enjoy this for up to 15 years. 75% Cab Sauv, 20% Merlot, 3% Petit Verdot and 2% Cab Franc. Excellent and Highly Recommended Value. $55 USD at the winery.

Monte Bello 2012: The 2012 is a masterpiece. Deep, pure fruit – blackberry and plum fruit leather. The classic graphite and earthy components that make up great Bordeaux blends are here, but this is a wine all about the perfection of the fruit and the supreme elegance of the wine’s structure. There is little doubt this compares to the very best in Bordeaux. It will be best at 5-40 years from today and will likely go down in history as one of the great Monte Bello’s of all time. Excellent++. $175 USD at the winery.

Monte Bello 1988: The ’88 was initially a little barny and funky. With air that blows off and reveals delicious cool fruit with soft but still hanging tannins. This wine showed me that Monte Bello’s ageabilty is all about its acid-profile. At nearly 30 years old, the wine remained juicy! Excellent. $400 USD at the winery.

Where to Buy

If not journeying down to the estate vineyards in California, you can find Ridge’s Monte Bello wines at Marquis Wine Cellars, Kits Wine, and the BCLDB.

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