I recently had the very good fortune to spend several hours with Paul Draper during a visit to Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello property. While Ridge is well known today, and their Monte Bello is arguably one of California’s greatest Cabernet-based wines, the property is far from more acclaimed wine regions, and was one of a very small number of wineries to make a name for themselves down in the Santa Cruz Mountains through the 1970s and ‘80s. Today of course it’s a different story, with quite a proliferation of wineries, though most tend to focus on Pinot Noir as opposed to the Bordeaux varieties.
As Draper himself says, this region is on the edge of suitable growing conditions for Bordeaux varieties. With vineyards up to about 2700 feet of elevation lying some 15 miles from ocean, the weather here is actually quite similar to what one might find in Bordeaux, but with warmer days and cooler nights. These growing conditions allow for fruit that produces wines with more fruit than Bordeaux and brighter acidity than most of the rest of California—one of the distinctions that set Ridge’s Bordeaux-style blends apart from many California wines and lets them compete with the world’s finest.
Tectonic Shifts and Holy Grail Terrain
Of course, climate is only one of the factors at play here, geology being the other main influence, and one where Ridge Vineyards truly has a unique edge. Limestone-based soils are the Holy Grail for vintners. People expend an inordinate amount of effort tracking down lands with underlying soil, and here at Monte Bello one just needs to scratch the surface—barely. Vines grown in limestone tend to have a tension on the palate that richer soils just lack; combine that with the weather here on Monte Bello and you have a recipe for brilliant success.
The ridge that these vineyards are planted on is a very rare form of limestone. Unlike most limestone, which is formed by the accretion of sea debris, the limestone of Monte Bello was formed on a plateau in tropical waters where CO2 percolated up through the seafloor and reacted with tropical waters, creating what is known as Calera limestone. Surprisingly, that formation occurred in the region of current day Indonesia, and this tectonic plate, which has become known as the Farallon Plate, slowly moved eastward until it was almost completely subsumed under the North Atlantic Plate off the coast of Mexico.
Bottle image via Ridge Vineyards
Eventually this plate, now known as the Pacific Plate, and the remnants of the Farallon Plate, just 18 miles long and one to three miles wide, shuttered northward, earthquake after earthquake, coming to rest at its current location south of San Francisco and west of Cupertino. This slender outcropping of rock is separated from the Coastal mountains by the San Andreas Fault, which also serves to delineate the change in soil types from limestone topped with a thin layer of iron-rich topsoils to the prevalent iron-rich soils that tend to surround the Monte Bello ridge.
Assembling the Ridge Lineup
Paul draper became the winemaker at Ridge Vineyards back in 1969. With no formal training, he quickly became recognized as a moving force in the California wine industry, not only for his wine-making prowess but also for his tireless work promoting the concepts of terroir, vineyard expression and the beauty of classic California field blends based on old vine Zinfandel. Through the ATP (Advance Tasting Program) wine lovers have been treated to a long succession of small lots, innovative experiments, and unusual varietal wines that have, for the most part, remained a secret to the buying public at large.
Be that as it may, and there is no doubt that blends such as the iconic Geyserville and Lytton Springs wines are not only gorgeous wines and great values, but also significantly responsible for the fame Ridge has achieved. The star in the Ridge lineup is Cabernet, Monte Bello to be precise, and today, Monte Bello is one of the very few $100-plus bottles that can be called a compelling value. But this is first growth quality juice my friends, and if there is a more compelling value at $100 out there, I have yet to find it.
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.
I’m a sucker for what was, and could be called somewhat resistant to change, so I do lament the passing of the SCM bottling. But my early take on Ridge’s Estate Cabernet is that it is a worthy successor. The Ridge-ness is there in spades, and truth be told the Merlot from these vineyards is not a soft and supple wine, but is rather focused and firm, so it’s not as though the change from SCM to Estate is like swapping St. Estephe for your Pomerol. The change is surprisingly quite a bit more subtle than that. It’s still too early to really fully understand Ridge’s new Estate Cabernet; it will take another 10 years or so to see what happens in the bottle, but that’s research I look forward to doing. In a few short words, the wines appear to be rich without being heavy, focused, fresh and vibrant examples of Cabernet, reflecting the Santa Cruz Mountains and Ridge’s winemaking. A combination that has an attractive ring to it, particularly at $45 a bottle or less.
Bottled just three weeks prior to tasting, this would probably show better after being allowed to settle down a bit. The nose is fairly oaky in a nutty vein, with a little banana and lemon balm fruit streaked with chalky mineral notes. Light and fresh in the mouth, this is round but with fine acidity. The fruit is estery in a little Fruit Stripe gum kind of way, and the finish shows some wood tannin. Not yet tightly knit, this is fruity up front and then woody on the back end. 87 points
This is so nuanced and complex, with layers of apple butter, flowers, lemon pith and butcher’s wax on a softly seductive nose. The palate shows excellent elegance and superb balance, with lovely minerality running from the front right through the long finish. The fruit is subtle here, but shows nice complexity with decidedly fresh green apple and faint apricot and lemon tones that lead to a finish that tightens up just a touch. 92 points
51% cabernet sauvignon, 47% merlot, 1% petit verdot, 1% cabernet franc
13.0% alcohol by volume
This has a lovely nose that shows some early maturity with sweet, tobacco accents over a base of gentle black spice and smoke-tinged blackcurrant fruit. Bright acidity on entry leads to a rather gentle mid-palate that shows off very clear blackberry and red currant fruit formed with suggestions of wild herbs. This is a touch simple, yet remains clear and bright in the mouth. 88 points
58% cabernet sauvignon, 42% merlot
13.7% alcohol by volume
This is tight, lean and focused on the nose, with a rich core of vanilla-laced blackberry that is almost beefy in its intensity. There’s a hint of nutty oxidation here as well as layers of candle wax, tobacco, pencil shavings and dried chili aromas. Elegant and so well balanced on the palate, this delivers juicy black fruits framed with hints of baking spices and brambly fruit, all supported by ripe if very gently dusty tannins that add just a hint of chewiness to the long finish. This fruit is gorgeous, perfectly ripe, fruity and yet with great complexity. 92 points
56% cabernet sauvignon, 42% merlot, 2% petit verdot
13.7% alcohol by volume
Tight and still quite oaky on the nose, with inky fruit, black spice notes and nuanced tea and tobacco aromas. Soft, broad and quite generous in the mouth, this lacks the tension of the 2005 and a little of the complexity as well, though it does offer up ripe dark berry fruit that shows a little chocolate, mocha edge through the moderately long finish. 88 points
58% cabernet sauvignon, 42% merlot
13.7% alcohol by volume
Big black currant greets the nose accented with hints of a little truffle, black plum, cardamom and briar. This smells smooth and polished. Ripe tannins and fine acidity define the palate which shows off transparent, perfectly ripe black fruits. This is lively and detailed in the mouth, though the wood tannins seems to pinch the mid-palate just a touch at this stage. The finish is long and juicy, with a nice sweetness to help carry it through. 91 points
75% cabernet sauvignon, 20% merlot, 3% petit verdot, 2% cabernet franc
13.5% alcohol by volume
Tight and reticent on the nose which shows hints of dusty minerals and very fine leather and pencil notes with some late to arrive crushed red currant notes. In the mouth this is surprisingly opulent and ripe with lots of rich black currant fruit. There’s seemingly less tannin here than in previous vintages, even though the tannins appears to be a bit dryer in nature. Elegant and pure, this shows off a big pop on the finish which then fades away with a gentle toasted oak sweetness. 89pts
77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot
13.8% alcohol by volume
Mostly oaky spice on the nose, which is tight but does slowly reveal hints of crushed blackcurrant and blackberry fruit. This is a bit dense and closed in on itself, but there is a gorgeous core of red and black fruit here and really lovely ripe tannins as well as integrated acidity that keeps this fresh and lively in the mouth. The finish shows typical wood spice notes, but there is a trailing hint of minerality here as well as a fine depth of fruit and rich, soft texture. This needs a few years, but is going to be really attractive. 92 points
Not yet released
Still open on the nose, with fresh red fruit topped with lots of nutty oak, a hint of butter, toasty spice notes and a meaty edge. Transparent and bright in the mouth, this is very tight today and I didn’t have enough time to tell where it’s really going. There’s no doubt that this has fine structure, and fresh, ripe fruit, but I can’t get much more out of it. 89-92 points
The first Ridge Estate Merlot since 1997. Big, black and fruity on the nose with a nice toasty top note and spicy accents. Smooth and plump in the mouth, but not at all soft. This shows an early hint of caramel followed on the palate by lovely plummy fruit that’s supported by notably bright acidity and rich, slightly chewy tannins. A Merlot to age, at least for a little while. 89 points