Ok so I'm cheating a bit here, this is not the label of the wine I drank. The label of my bottle was in tatters as it so happens. I bought several cases of this wine on release and thoughtlessly left them in their cardboard cases until, years later, those self same cases collapsed into a pile of damp paper pulp and scarily scarred bottles.
Fortunately the wine in the bottle was unharmed by all this.
As you might know, and can quickly tell by looking at a typical Monte Bello label this Californian Icon is a classic Bordeaux blend with varying proportions of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petite Verdot as dictated by each vintages unique conditions. This blend not only affords Ridge some flexibility each year but also, counterintuitively, accounts for the amazingly consistent and complex performances these wines deliver.
In the case of this 1994 the blend is 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot and 3% Cabernet Franc that came in at a modest but effective 12.7% alcohol, low by today's standards. While the Monte Bello is frequently included with and compared to Cabernet Sauvignon wines from California it can neither be labeled as Cabernet, nor would it want to be. It has firmly established itself as one of the finest wines produced in this country and it's uniqueness stems as much from it's terrior and blend as from it's production. Forgoing the temptation to bottle Monte Bello as a Cabernet, which would require the wine to be a minimum of 85% Cabernet, and continuing to rely on American Oak barrels almost exclusively have been two risky yet rewarding decisions made at Ridge over the years.
Judging by what happens to the wine in the bottle one can't really argue with the logic.
1994 was a brilliant vintage for many in California blessed with a long growing season and plenty of hang time for the grapes. The harvest was blessed by a cool spell then a return of warmth during the month of October. This allowed the grapes to ripen slowly and completely while keeping sugar acid levels in balance and under control. Apon release this was both impressive and deceptive. the balance was so precise that it may have fooled some folks into think the wine was a bit of a light weight. The low alcohol level, only 1995, which was tasted side by side with this, and the 1998 were lower during the decade of the 90's, may also have contributed to this.
It's this very balance and natural acidity that today allows this wine to caress the palate and explode in the mouth with such remarkably vibrant flavors. The 1994 Monte Bello has hit it's peak and it is now offering all it can.The nose needs some time to fully unfurls itself after its stint in the bottle but once it gets going it offers up classic notes of earth and herbs strongly backed by balanced notes of American oak and wild blackberries. There are lovely hints of cocoa powder, spearmint, and beef with enticing top note of forest floor that keeps one coming back for just one more sniff.
In the mouth this is simply spectacular! The mouth watering acids and crisp tannins are in absolute harmony and frame the cassis and blackberry fruit perfectly offering exceptional clarity and a lively, transparent feel. If one could fault this for anything perhaps someone might consider it to be a touch simple but it's just to damn fun to drink to worry about that. Someone recently asked for a single word that describes what I want in a bottle of wine. My response? Happiness. This wine is packed with happiness!
So what about that 1995 Monte Bello you ask?
Well this vintage is an entirely different beast. Certainly more vegetal on the nose with a much heavier overlay of toasty, smoky oak, earth and tea notes. There's a touch of leather here as well and a more obvious eucalyptus tone. In the mouth the structural elements are both more formidable and less well integrated than with the 1994 and that keeps the wine a bit blocky and short. The fruit is more towards the red end of the spectrum but continues to be dominated by the tannins which turn a bit drying towards the back end. This needs time but it lacks some of the purity and elegance that propels the 94 to such heights.
It was a treat to try them both and a not so subtle reminder that I don't own enough Monte Bello. I've been on an older California wine kick as of late. Many of the wines from the 70's, 80's and even early 90's represent the greatest values in the marketplace today for sheer fun! I intend to keep buying up what I can and sharing when I can.
If wines like these interest you please take a look at our plans for an mature Californian wine dinner coming up Sunday May 31st here in New York City. I hope you can join us but if not stay tuned for a complete report.
Gregory Dal Piaz