Monte Bello’s New Old Wine
The tectonic and climatic idiosyncrasies of Ridge Vineyards
Now $100-plus, and the wine definitely has become more plus as of late, is a lot of money for a bottle of wine. Those looking for a more affordable option have historically had the ridge Santa Cruz Mountain blend at their disposal, first created to make use of the wine that would not make its way into the finale blend that was to be Monte Bello (which until 1975 was bottled as Cabernet and often is incorrectly referred to as Cabernet to this day). As Paul recalled of the past, “we tried to make every parcel into Monte Bello, so we pumped over every parcel; even from moderately-structured wines, we tried to extract as much tannin as from full bodied wines... Instead of being more approachable we had to fine some wines three times and keep them in the cellar for three years (instead of 18 months for the Monte Bello) to make them approachable.” It was an odd case of a second wine being more difficult than the first, so the program has evolved over the years.
Changing of the Blend
Today, all of the parcels that have typically made it into the final Monte Bello blend over the years are treated as Monte Bello, both in the vineyard and through the winemaking process. They are assumed to be richer, more powerful and better-suited for long term ageing. In contrast, the lots that haven’t made it into the Monte Bello blend, and there are roughly 23 to 25 parcels of each, are slated for the wine formerly known as the Santa Cruz blend, which recently (2008 was the first vintage) turned into Ridge’s Estate Cabernet.
In some ways, the same wine as the as the Santa Cruz blend, which had always been produced using estate fruit, the new Estate label is as much a response to market conditions—people are always searching for a great Cabernet—as it is an opportunity to reintroduce the current iteration of this wine into the marketplace. The biggest and most notable difference is that under the SCM label, the wine had generally been nearly half Merlot, while today as a varietally-labelled Cabernet, the Estate must be at least 74% Cabernet. This has of course fundamentally changed the wine, though there is something very Ridge-vineyard that provides for a line of continuity between the two. It’s partly the use of American oak, a Ridge anomaly in a world enamored with French Oak, but there is also that limestone, and the gentle winemaking of Paul Draper in evidence in every bottle.
While I am a bit of a Monte Bello nut, I’ve always appreciated the opportunity to buy and enjoy the Santa Cruz blend, a wine that has proven rather adept at ageing well. I was curious about the Estate Cabernet and fortunately Ridge had arranged a seven vintage vertical tasting of the wines as they changed from the SCM to Estate labels. There were a couple of additional open bottles on the table, which I duly took advantage of, including a new Estate Merlot, which, in case you were wondering, is where the Merlot previously used for the Santa Cruz Mountain blend now ends up.