Five Decades of Ridge Monte Bello

One of the most iconic California wines is Ridge Monte Bello. It is a Cabernet Sauvignon that needs little explanation. It is a wine that is admired and enjoyed and I had the privilege to sit down for a tasting of eight vintages at Pebble Beach Food & Wine, as I wrote about in the Napa Valley Register and you can read here.

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Ridge Monte Bello is considered “the most internationally admired producer of American Cabernet Sauvignon” by the Oxford Companion to Wine.

Since 1962, Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello has been garnering recognition, from placing fifth at the 1976 Judgement of Paris to receiving four 100-point scores from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. So, when I had the opportunity to sit down and taste wines spanning five decades of this historic vineyard at Pebble Beach Food & Wine, I did not hesitate.

Ridge Vineyards’ Monte Bello is an iconic California wine. However, is it also one of the most unusual. For one thing, it is not from Napa Valley, or any other marquee regions, but rather the remote Santa Cruz Mountains. In fact, it is the wine that defines the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The property was first planted in the 1885 when a San Francisco doctor, Osea Perrone, an Italian immigrant, purchased the property. Esther Mobley, of the San Francisco Chronicle, marveled at the “fact that anyone in the 1800s had the guts to plant there on the steep hillsides.”

Originally from Genoa, Perrone knew great wines came from mountains and his property was located at 2,600 feet elevation. Perrone terraced the slopes and planted vineyards and also built a gravity-fed winery into the mountainside. At this time, everything was done by hand and horse power as there was no electricity.

The vineyards were abandoned in 1920 due to Prohibition. In 1949, William Short, a theologian who bought the abandoned winery and vineyard below the Perrone property, replanted the Cabernet Sauvignon and added Chardonnay. In 1959, four scientists from Stanford University’s Research Institute purchased the property, and in 1962 they formed a partnership that became Ridge Vineyards. The first vintage of Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello was in 1962 with grapes from 10-year-old vines.

Monte Bello is a special piece of land. It is a limestone mountain next to the ocean. Being at the top of a mountain, away from others, Ridge Vineyards has always done their own thing.

Master Sommelier Geoff Kruth describes Monte Bello as “something special” and explained that “when you get something right, you just keep doing it.”

Monte Bello winemaker Eric Baugher, who joined Ridge in 1994, explained that it is about farming and making the best wine possible. “The blend is only based on showing off the Monte Bello character.”

And that Monte Bello character is forest, chalk and limestone with minerality in the finish and great acidity. In addition, another unique and unusual character about Ridge Monte Bello is their use of American oak barrels. While this is not typical in other top California Cabernets which use French oak, Ridge did not want to be imitators of Bordeaux.

Five Decades of Ridge Monte Bello:

Ridge Monte Bello 2018 (barrel sample) –- As the Ridge wines go through natural yeast fermentations, the 2018 was still going through malolactic fermentation when we tasted it. A deep purple color, the sample was 64 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 20 percent Merlot but this was not the final blend. Although this wine is not complete, you can already see its beauty and potential. Even in its youth, the new American oak influence is not noticeable.

Ridge Monte Bello 2016 (72 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 12 percent Merlot, 10 percent Petit Verdot, 6 percent Cabernet Franc) – By 2016, California was in its 5th year of drought and yields were very low, resulting in very concentrated grapes with high tannins. The wine is an inky color with aromas of blackberry, tobacco, cedar, violets and caramel with firm acid and fine tannins.

Ridge Monte Bello 2015 (77 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 11 percent Merlot, 7 percent Petit Verdot, 5 percent Cabernet Franc) — An even smaller yield than 2016, the wine is a dark ruby color. It is a concentrated and intense wine with notes of blackberry and raspberry, fennel and cedar. On the palate, there are herbaceous and mineral notes with elegant tannis and refreshing acidity.

Ridge Monte Bello 2013 (80 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 8 percent Petit Verdot, 7 percent Cabernet Franc, 5 percent Merlot) – With intense tannins, this wine still seems very young. Floral, briar, violets, licorice and cola notes on the nose and savory minerality on the palate with a long finish.

Ridge Monte Bello 2005 (70 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 22 percent Merlot, 6 percent Petit Verdot, 2 percent Cabernet Franc) – Secondary notes of clove, tobacco, allspice and vanilla are on the nose and even with more than 10 years of age, the wine is big and structured on the palate.

Ridge Monte Bello 1995 (69 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 18 percent Merlot, 3 percent Cabernet Franc, 10 percent Petit Verdot) – At only 12.5 percent alcohol, this wine tastes fresh and bright. It does not taste old and still maintains some bright acidity. On the nose, there are notes of bramble, forest, brown sweet spices, sweet tobacco and pyrazines. It is a beautiful, elegant and balanced wine and was winemaker Eric Baugher’s first vintage at Monte Bello.

Ridge Monte Bello 1985 (93 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 7 percent Merlot) – At 34 years of age, this wine still has fruit aromas of cassis, raspberry and plum, as well as tobacco and sweet spice. It has soft tannins and an elegant finish.

Ridge Monte Bello 1975 (96 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 4 percent Merlot) – 1975 was the vintage before the big drought of 1976-1978. At only 11.9 percent alcohol, the wine is soft and smooth with notes of sweet brown spices, tobacco and pyrazine. There is not much, if any, fruit left. A fragile wine, it is musty and earthy but opens in the glass to still reveal freshness.

Tasting five decades of Ridge Monte Bello, it is understandable why these wines have stood the test of time. Each wine is a great wine and preferences from vintage to vintage are personal. But what makes Ridge Monte Bello the distinguished wine that it is, is the consistency across vintages.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.

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