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NorCal Wine Blog

Blind Tasting 11 Vintages of Ridge Monte Bello

Hello. My name is Fred Swan. On June 17 I drank wine out of paper bags. A lot of wine. And I would do it again.

Ridge Vineyards holds small tastings for wine bloggers on a quarterly basis. I’ve been fortunate to attend three of the tastings. Each has been fun, interesting and unique. Christopher Watkins, manager of hospitality and retail sales at the Monte Bello tasting room, is the instigator, organizer and host. His latest tasting will be hard to top.

As usual, the tasting theme was not disclosed until everyone arrived. Despite the mystery, bloggers came from as far away as Healdsburg and Santa Barbara for the two-hour event. Our faith was rewarded with the kind of tasting one fantasizes about.

But first we had our twisty but scenic drives up the mountain to enjoy. We gathered outside the Ridge tasting room on Monte Bello Rd. at 1PM. It was a gorgeous day. The panoramic view was marred only by smog at the base of the hills east of San Jose. Glaringly bright midday sun made for poor photos though. Once all writers were present, Christopher led us a few yards up the driveway and through the Old Winery Barn to a brand new tasting venue.

ridge-sign
Ridge was established in 1066. Really, the sign says so!

old-winery-barn
The Old Winery Barn with vintage photos of the winery, going back to the mid-19th century.

We were to be the very first people to use the Black Mountain Room. A sizable rectangular space with a long table, it should accommodate up to 15 people comfortably for seated tastings. And, being at the top of the building, there are great views out the windows.

Our eyes, however, went immediately from the scenery to a side table upon which sat a bottle of 2008 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay and eleven brown paper bags labelled simply “A” through “K.” The opening of each bag was twisted coyly around the wine bottle it contained. Only the lip of each bottle could be seen. What was in store for us?


bagged-monte-bello
Bottles of mystery!

bloggers-at-ridge
Examine. Swirl. Sniff. Taste. Tweet. Repeat.

We settled in, powering up notebooks, signing onto wi-fi with iGadgets and taking photos of — or sampling from — a generous assortment of cheese. The Chardonnay was poured. That wine quickly got my full attention. I'm told it won’t be released until around September. I suggest you use part of the intervening time to clear space in your cellar, wine fridge or under-the-stairs-wine-stash for several bottles of it.

Golden-hued and weighty but not this, the 2008 Ridge Monte Bello Chardonnay grabs your attention with aromas of succulent yellow apple, peach, and pear. Then come toasted brioche, yeast, sweet cream and butterscotch. The aromas are buoyant but not boisterous, the fruit ripe not cloying.

The palate fluctuates. One sip is creamy with ripe fruit. The next has leesy texture and flavors that lean more toward green apple, warm bread and subtle minerality. The wine evolves with air and as its temperature rises. It is a great pleasure to spend time with now but should age well too. Very Highly Recommended.

08-monte-bello-chard

As we swirled and sipped Chardonnay, Christopher gave us the low-down. Each brown bag held a different vintage of Ridge Monte Bello red wine. Every wine had been treated individually so as to be at its best. Some were double-decanted and given plenty of air, others were handled like prized family heirlooms. Christopher would not disclose anything else about the wine until we had finished tasting.

We writers were to taste each wine, A through K, poured in flights of two, and then re-orer them oldest to youngest. We didn’t need to identify specific vintages. The person who got the most in exactly the right position would win a special prize.

This kind of tasting tests one’s ability to precisely judge a wine’s age by it’s appearance, nose and taste, one’s knowledge of how Ridge Monte Bello ages, and how the weather affected each vintage. And, because we only tasted two at a time and there would be no re-tastes or saving glasses on the side for reference, it was a test of our sensory memory and/or note-taking. As if that weren’t hard enough, we had much less than 10 minutes per wine and had to do our analysis while tweeting!

It was a tough test, because having one just wine out of order can throw off the sequence so that several wines are in the wrong position. I was confused by just two wines, but that meant I got only six in exactly the right position. Nonetheless, that tied me for second place among all the writers. The best score was just seven.

My tasting notes (below) are in the pouring order. I’ve not identified the vintages, so that you can try to play along if you like. See if you can improve on my score by reading my notes. If you’d rather not do that and want to see what vintage each wine is as you read the notes, click here and that’s what you’ll get.

Before I move on, I should mention that this tasting opportunity and the specific selection of wines were not random choices on Christopher’s part. Ridge has just finished a careful and extensive tasting of their library wines. Each of the wines, save one, are now available as part of an upcoming Monte Bello library offering. So, unlike many reviews of old wines which make you long for something you cannot attain, these wines you will be able to buy directly from Ridge. Prices are listed below, along with the vintages.

Tasting Notes

Wine A: The color is a soft ruby on the verge of being garnet, but not quite there. There is cooked sweet cherry, blackberry, pencil lead and cedar on the nose. Smooth, well-integrated palate with chocolate milk texture and a long finish. Flavors include tart cooked cherry, black currant and cocoa. I liked this wine a lot. Very Highly Recommended.

Wine B: Ruby in color with a pale rim and pigmented legs. The color in this wine is both more concentrated and brighter than in Wine A. The nose is meaty with crushed and slightly jammy dark fruit and notes of earthy spice. The palate also holds dark fruit, game and earthy spice. The recurrent game and spice are reminiscent to me of many Bordeaux wines. Highly Recommended.

Wine C: Ruby with a pale rim, pigmented legs and garnet highlights. Rich, stewed cherry and black currant, dry leaves and sweet spice on the nose. A juicy palate with chalky tannins and flavors that match the nose. Balanced and delicious. Very Highly Recommended.

Wine D: This wine has medium plus color intensity at the core but was garnet on the verge of brown. There is a fair amount of fine sediment in the glass. The nose shows considerable development, though aromas of sweet dried cherry and currant remain along with dry leaves and dry cedar wood. The palate offers a lot of forest floor plus cooked and dried fruit and cedar. It can continue to hold for several years but won’t improve much, if at all, with further age. Highly Recommended/Very Highly Recommended.

Wine E: Ruby with a pale rim and pigmented legs. I got forest floor, soy, black currant and spice on the nose. The palate features chunky tannins with dark fruit that remind me of berry pie filling. The component I called soy was troubling to some people. Richard Jennings said the wine was funky, Dave Tong thought it smelled of cheese. It was not my favorite wine by a long shot, but I didn’t think it flawed. It just needs very extended aeration. A second bottle seemed better and continued to improve with air. Recommended.

Wine F: Pale garnet color with an even paler rim and flaky sediment. The nose is approaching full development with aromas of cedar, cherry, currant, trail dust and dry leaves. Despite the wine’s aged appearance and aromatic development, predominant flavors are cherry and chocolate. The tannins are drying, but pleasant. Highly Recommended/Very Highly Recommended.

Wine G: Medium-intensity garnet core with a pale rim and sediment. The nose is developed with aromas of cedar, leaves and earthy, smoky fruit. The palate is rich with dark chocolate and fruit. Very solid. Highly Recommended/Very Highly Recommended.

Wine H: Medium-intensity garnet with a pale rim and sediment. Rich fruit, cedar and pencil lead on the nose. This wine approaches full body with chewy, chalky tannins and a very long finish. Flavors include chocolate, herb and more cedar. Very Highly Recommended.

Wine I: Medium-garnet with a pale rim and sediment. Cedar, black currant and other dark fruit on the nose. Extremely-well balanced with body, acidity, alcohol, fruit intensity and alcohol all in lock step. Flavors echo the nose and the finish is long. Very Highly Recommended.

Wine J: A horse of a different color! Intense purple core with a fuschia rim. A youthful nose with fresh fruit, cocoa, oak and coffee. Full-bodied with ripe, grippy tannins. Several people pegged this fresh wine as their favorite. Dave Tong said, “If this isn’t the 2010, I should hand in my credentials.” Very Highly Recommended.

Wine K: Ruby core with a hint of purple, pale rim and pigmented legs. Aromas and flavors of oak, bright fruit, chocolate and coconut. Needs time. Highly Recommended/Very Highly Recommended.

Spoilers: Don’t read on until you’ve made your guesses.

Putting the Wines in Order

Three wines were very easy to position, almost by color alone. As Cabernet Sauvignon wines age, their color changes from purple to ruby, to garnet (brick) and then to brown. Wine D was quite brown and its aromas and flavors thoroughly developed. It was clearly the oldest wine. Wine J had color so youthful it might have glowed in the dark. It was very obviously the youngest wine. The color of Wine K was predominantly ruby but it did have strong purple overtones indicating youth. It was obviously the second youngest wine.

From there, things got more difficult. There were four remaining wines whose color was mostly garnet. Each had the kind of flaky sediment often found in older wines. The color of Wine F was the least concentrated though and its flavors of very dry leaves and trail dust led me to believe it was second oldest.

The other garnet wines were G, H and I. I found it difficult to put them in order. This is where I made my first mistake. I correctly identified Wine I as older than Wine H, mostly due to the fuller body of "H" resulting from it’s less resolved tannins (chewy, chalky). However, I messed up on Wine G, thinking it older than it was, becuse the aromas of cedar, leaves and earth suggested considerable development. If I had reviewed my notes more carefully, my comment about it’s rich chocolate palate would pulled me in the direction of youth.

Moving back to the ruby-colored wines, the concentration and brightness of the color in Wine B  distinguished it from the rest, as did its flavors. I marked that down for third youngest. The juiciness of Wine C and it’s relatively heavy tannins convinced me that wine was younger than Wine A.

On a side note, Wine B, which I mentioned reminded me of some Bordeaux took 1st place among the “young” California reds in the 2006 reprise of the 1976 Judgement of Paris Tasting. To further digress, the reprise also included a tasting of the same wines included in the original tasting. The 1971 Ridge Monte Bello beat all contenders, American and French, by a huge margin.

So, back to Wine E. I thought that the chunky tannins and baked, rather than stewed, berry and black currant flavors meant it could be younger than either A or C. Again, if I had looked more closely at my notes, the “forest floor” might have pulled me in the opposite — and correct — direction.

Which Wines Were Which?

Here are the actual vintages in pouring order along with their library offering price: A 1995 $300, B 2000 $225, C 1999 $225, D 1977 $400, E 1994 $250, F 1978 $475, G 1990 $250, H 1985 $300, I 1981 $185, J 2010 not yet bottled, K 2006 $150.

The blogger with the highest score got a great prize! It was a clear 750ml bottle with a white Avery label on it. Inside, was inky purple nectar — 2010 Ridge Monte Bello straight from the barrel. Richard Jennings and I were very happy with our 2nd place prizes as well, 375ml bottles of 2008 Ridge Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

monte-bello-unbagged
Monte Bello is so good, you can't drink just one...

Analysis and Take-Aways

This tasting clearly demonstrated that Ridge Monte Bello is long-lived wine which improves with age. That will not come as a surprise to anyone who closely follows the finer wines of California. However, the extremely high-level of quality across more than three decades is impressive.

I  also found it interesting that these particular Ridge Monte Bello wines appear to have developed in a manner that is consistent with their age without major impact from the character of particular vintages. I was able to very effectively put the wines in order by analyzing what was in the glass without taking into account the peculiarities of weather in specific years. I did not factor that it in at all, yet only placed two wines of eleven out of sequence.

That said, though the wines showed their age in a consistent manner without respect to vintage, the character of each wine is distinct. No wine tastes substantially like another, even if one discounts the variation likely due to the wines being at different levels of maturity. In this respect, vintage and blend clearly do show their impact. Each wine has a distinct and interesting personality, a reason for being in one’s cellar and a story to tell.

I was somewhat surprised by the level of browning in the 1977 and 1978 wines. Based on other wines of similar age and quality that I have tasted recently — from other wineries and appellations — I would have expected the color to hold another five years or so. For example, 1978 and 1979 vintages of Robert Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon I tasted two months ago were both in transition from ruby to garnet with no browning whatsoever. However, the aromas, flavors and palate sensations of the Ridge wines do not suggest that they are on their last legs or even close to being so. These are not tired wines. They offer considerable fruit. One doesn’t smell or taste color. I see this browning as a interesting sidelight, not an issue.

The vertical tasting of eleven Ridge Monte Bello reds was challenging and interesting. And it was a great pleasure because the wines were so good. Tastings this extensive are rare. But it's good to know that bottles are available should someone want to put together their own mini-vertical or simply enjoy a great bottle to commemorate a birthday or anniversary. I may have to start checking into my friends' birth years...

For another take on this tasting, check out Christopher Watkins’ Ridge Blog. @yumivore has posted some excellent photos from the event. If you're a Twitter user, you can also see the tweets that were sent live during the tasting.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for breaking wine news, information on events and more. Become a fan and join the NorCal Wine community on FacebookAlso check out our comprehensive Northern California winery listings. They are very useful for planning a tasting trip or just getting in touch with a winery.

This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. Photos by Fred Swan. All rights reserved.

 

 


Wine A - 1995 Ridge Monte Bello: The color is a soft ruby on the verge of being garnet, but not quite there. There is cooked sweet cherry, blackberry, pencil lead and cedar on the nose. Smooth, well-integrated palate with chocolate milk texture and a long finish. Flavors include tart cooked cherry, black currant and cocoa. I liked this wine a lot. Very Highly Recommended.

Wine B - 2000 Ridge Monte Bello: Ruby in color with a pale rim and pigmented legs. The color in this wine is both more concentrated and brighter than in Wine A. The nose is meaty with crushed and slightly jammy dark fruit and notes of earthy spice. The palate also holds dark fruit, game and earthy spice. The recurrent game and spice are reminiscent to me of many Bordeaux wines. Highly Recommended.

Wine C - 1999 Ridge Monte Bello: Ruby with a pale rim, pigmented legs and garnet highlights. Rich, stewed cherry and black currant, dry leaves and sweet spice on the nose. A juicy palate with chalky tannins and flavors that match the nose. Balanced and delicious. Very Highly Recommended.

Wine D - 1977 Ridge Monte Bello: This wine has medium plus color intensity at the core but was garnet on the verge of brown. There is a fair amount of fine sediment in the glass. The nose shows considerable development, though aromas of sweet dried cherry and currant remain along with dry leaves and dry cedar wood. The palate offers a lot of forest floor plus cooked and dried fruit and cedar. It can continue to hold for several years but won’t improve much, if at all, with further age. Highly Recommended/Very Highly Recommended.

Wine E - 1994 Ridge Monte Bello: Ruby with a pale rim and pigmented legs. I got forest floor, soy, black currant and spice on the nose. The palate features chunky tannins with dark fruit that remind me of berry pie filling. The component I called soy was troubling to some people. Richard Jennings said the wine was funky, Dave Tong thought it smelled of cheese. It was not my favorite wine by a long shot, but I didn’t think it flawed. It just needs very extended aeration. A second bottle seemed better and continued to improve with air. Recommended.

Wine F - 1978 Ridge Monte Bello: Pale garnet color with an even paler rim and flaky sediment. The nose is approaching full development with aromas of cedar, cherry, currant, trail dust and dry leaves. Despite the wine’s aged appearance and aromatic development, predominant flavors are cherry and chocolate. The tannins are drying, but pleasant. Highly Recommended/Very Highly Recommended.

Wine G - 1990 Ridge Monte Bello: Medium-intensity garnet core with a pale rim and sediment. The nose is developed with aromas of cedar, leaves and earthy, smoky fruit. The palate is rich with dark chocolate and fruit. Very solid. Highly Recommended/Very Highly Recommended.

Wine H - 1985 Ridge Monte Bello: Medium-intensity garnet with a pale rim and sediment. Rich fruit, cedar and pencil lead on the nose. This wine approaches full body with chewy, chalky tannins and a very long finish. Flavors include chocolate, herb and more cedar. Very Highly Recommended.

Wine I - 1981 Ridge Monte Bello: Medium-garnet with a pale rim and sediment. Cedar, black currant and other dark fruit on the nose. Extremely-well balanced with body, acidity, alcohol, fruit intensity and alcohol all in lock step. Flavors echo the nose and the finish is long. Very Highly Recommended.

Wine J - 2010 Ridge Monte Bello barrel sample: A horse of a different color! Intense purple core with a fuschia rim. A youthful nose with fresh fruit, cocoa, oak and coffee. Full-bodied with ripe, grippy tannins. Several people pegged this fresh wine as their favorite. Dave Tong said, “If this isn’t the 2010, I should hand in my credentials.” Very Highly Recommended.

Wine K - 2006 Ridge Monte Bello: Ruby core with a hint of purple, pale rim and pigmented legs. Aromas and flavors of oak, bright fruit, chocolate and coconut. Needs time. Highly Recommended/Very Highly Recommended.

Click here to return to the main article for analysis of the tasting and conclusions.

Comments   

Louis
#1 Louis 2011-06-24 22:26
Yeah!
Santa Barbara represented.

That Chardonnay WAS very good, will be looking out for it in Sept.

And I am glad ONE wine from 1977(my birth year) besides Port is worth drinking!

Nice meeting you Fred
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Fred
#2 Fred 2011-06-24 22:54
It was very nice to meet you too, and I definitely respected your commitment for driving all the way up!

At least your birth year is relatively recent. Quality 1964's are getting rare.
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Orly @yumivore
#3 Orly @yumivore 2011-06-24 23:32
Fred, you captured the event and the wine beautifully! Your impressive notes (captured in one of the photos by the way; so happy you like the pictures) translated into a wonderful read, as did your own photos which helped share the story of this unique tasting event. What an incredible and memorable opportunity, and such a pleasure meeting you and the rest of the group! ~cheers
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Fred
#4 Fred 2011-06-25 02:05
Thank you so much, Orly.

It was fun meeting you and the care you were taking with photos that day really shows on your flickr page. And on your own site by the way. Really striking. And I'm going to have try to make that Shakshouka...
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sony ericsson x10
#5 sony ericsson x10 2014-10-16 01:32
Hello, i read your blog occasionally and i own a similar one and i was just curious if you get a lot of spam remarks?
If so how do you stop it, any plugin or anything you can recommend?
I get so much lately it's driving me crazy so
any assistance is very much appreciated.
Quote

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