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A Horizontal, a Vertical and a Curve: Tasting 3 Ways at Ridge
- General Interest
- Written by Fred Swan
- Thursday, 27 December 2012 19:55
Truly blind tasting is an interesting exercise — and a substantial challenge. Even when you are able to make a few assumptions, such as all the wines being from a single producer, there are a lot of variables. If the host is devious, the wines not among those you’ve tasted frequently, and there are a dozen other tasters throwing out theories... So it was that Christopher Watkins of Ridge Vineyards sent a dozen writers home for Christmas with the gift of humility.
He presented nine red wines blind, poured from decanters. We evaluated the wines in three flights of three. His request was both simple and nearly impossible. “Tell me what unites the wines in each flight, what distinguishes them and what unites the entire offering.”
The first flight smelled and tasted like a Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend. Black cherry and blackberry were prominent across the board, accented by varying amounts of spice and vanilla. The color differed from one wine to the next, but not enough to indicate a substantial difference in vintages. Wine #3 seemed darker in flavor and more restrained than the other two, but also more open and complex. Wine #1 had more obvious oak, more purple in the color and seemed most in need of further aging.
I found the structure nearly identical for each of the three. The tannins were medium+ and chalky. Acidity was medium+ to high. That’s consistent with Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon, but the wines didn’t resemble the young Monte Bello’s I’d recently tried. Some writers more experienced with Ridge than I said it was the Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (called Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in some previous vintages). That was logical to me, but what accounted for the three wines’ differences?
Was this a vertical? It would be odd to have structure and flavors so identical from three different years. Were they slightly different trial blends? Different vineyard components? Someone suggested different barrel treatments. That was a definite possibility. Others went farther afield, suggesting different varietals, etc.
We moved on to the second flight. The first two wines showed clear signs of bottle age with garnet color visible at the rim. The first wine deposited flaky black sediment in my glass. The last was still ruby and sediment free.
Differences in age were also clear in the flavors and aromas. The third wine was full of relatively fresh, rich cherry plus cedar and spice. The middle wine was more complex, if less exuberant. It also showed herbal components not present in the other two wines. That could have been a vintage signature or an indication of another variety or vineyard. The first wine offered spice, cedar and stewed red cherry but was really about tertiary flavors: tobacco, dry herb, forest floor.
All three of these wines seemed softer than those of the first flight. Was that due solely to age or to something else? Some writers suggested Zinfandel. High-quality, aged Zinfandel can start to resemble even older Cabernet blends, so that suggestion wasn’t unreasonable. I was still thinking Cabernet Sauvignon myself but, again, didn’t find the wines reminiscent of 21st century Monte Bello, nor those from the 80’s and 90’s I’d tried in the past few months. So, I assumed a vertical of Estate Cab or, perhaps, a horizontal of older component wines that age at different rates.
While Christopher poured the third flight, we became even more vocal with our guesses. “A horizontal, a vertical and a diagonal,” I quipped. That got a laugh. Little did I know how close to right I was.
If you expect to find differences between three things, you will. Your mind will make sure of that. Mine did. The first and third wines of the third flight showed a hint of garnet in the rim that I didn’t find in the middle one. All three had powdery tannins of approximately the same weight. Was the first wine a little chalkier and less acidic though? I tasted chocolate in it too. I didn’t get that in the others. Both #1 and #2 had more of a dry forest floor note than the third.
The wines differed, but I couldn’t figure out why. They still seemed like Cabernet Sauvignon, but not Monte Bello. They were older than the first flight and younger than all in the second. Beyond that, I was stumped. I sat quietly without a solid theory. A few participants offered opinions with conviction, some conflicting with the few things I felt sure of. That reduced my confidence further.
Finally, Christopher took mercy on us. He unveiled the wines:
1. 2009 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from a magnum
2. 2009 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from a 750 ml bottle
3. 2009 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from a 375ml bottle
4. 2004 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from 750ml bottle
5. 2005 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from 750ml bottle
6. 2006 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from 750ml bottle
7. 2007 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from 750ml bottle
8. 2007 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from 750ml bottle
9. 2007 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon from 750ml bottle
There’s nothing like the sound of twelve palms slapping foreheads in unison. We had come to a general consensus that (most) of the wines were the Estate Cabernet. We could claim victory in that respect. But Ridge has only made two different Cabs (Estate and Monte Bello) for most of it’s history and one of them is iconic. That makes our victory less than glorious. None of us had guessed at different bottle sizes in the first flight. And none of us suspected for a moment that all the wines in the last flight were identical. On the contrary, after the unveiling, some of us insisted on going down with the ship. “Surely there must have been bottle variation!” A little, maybe, and they had decanted for a couple of hours but...
The tasting was a finger in the eye, but also an excellent learning experience. Here are my take-aways:
I stand behind blind tasting as a means to evaluate the quality and characteristics of a set of wines. (All of the wines above were very good, by the way, and I’d rate them Highly Recommended or better. Heck, I rated the 07 that way three times.)
Absolute consistency in ratings from one glass to the next is nearly impossible. Whether due to the innate complexity of wine and its tendency to evolve in glass, bottle variation, glassware, the way you hold your head* or one’s tasting skills, tasting notes are at best a snapshot of a particular glass of wine, not a precise guide to future experiences with that wine.
I continue to have the greatest respect for people with the encyclopedic knowledge, equivalent of photographic taste memory and copious tasting experience required for consistently accurate identification of wines tasted blind. [I’m not one of those people.]
I was surprised by how much difference bottle size can make over a short period of time, even in structured red wines. I have frequently scoffed at wine bars and restaurants which “make a thing” out of pouring current releases out of magnum. Now I think doing so may have value for wines not intended to age. For wines that benefit from age, I will not just scoff but scold.
I was impressed by the overall quality of the Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon. They are deliciously flavorful and pleasingly textural wines with food-friendly acidity and moderate alcohol. At just $40 for 2009 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, it’s among the best values out there for California Cabernet Sauvignon.
Ridge has successfully crafted these wines to be very good immediately while retaining moderate and somewhat predictable age-ability. Generally speaking, they appear to have a very solid 10-year drinking window. Within that time, you can see the wines go from the very beginnings of development to full maturity. If you like high-quality, aged Cabernet Sauvignon but don’t want to wait 20-40 years for Monte Bello or other icons of California or Bordeaux, seek out the Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
*Richard Jennings reminded us that Tim Gaiser MS, while leading a seminar on his research into wine tasting and submodalities at the 2012 North American Wine Bloggers' Conference demonstrated convincingly that your perception of a wine's aroma changes with the position of your head and whether or not your eyes are open.
Further Reading: For more on tasting the 2007 Monte Bello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon in three different bottle sizes, see my article for San Francisco Wine School.
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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2012 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.