In 1962, from an isolated vineyard perched high above the Pacific Ocean in the Santa Cruz Mountains, four Stanford Research Institute engineers made history, producing North America’s first post-Prohibition vineyard designate Cabernet Sauvignon.
Since that inaugural vintage, Ridge Vineyards’ Monte Bello has maintained a record of consistent brilliance unrivalled in California. Indeed, this cuvée has won widespread recognition as a de facto first growth, its dependable longevity and classical balance endearing it to domestic and international collectors alike.
But while Monte Bello’s excellence is often celebrated, its singularity is more often alluded to—sometimes with a passing reference to the site’s unusual limestone bedrock—than grappled with; and since Monte Bello is one of the Californian wines I know best, it’s a subject I’d like to address today.
Monte Bello ridge certainly is unusual, even in the context of the chaotic geology associated with the California coastline. Lifted up by powerful tectonic forces some fifteen million years ago, the Santa Cruz Mountains reveal a faulted and folded geological jumble of bewildering complexity, neatly bisected by the San Andreas fault.
To its east we find what geologists call the Franciscan Assemblage: a confusing mélange that includes sand, silt, volcanic lavas and metamorphic schists—all scraped from the bottom of an ancient seabed when the Pacific tectonic plate slipped below its North American neighbor.
It’s hard to believe, but the limestone of Monte Bello ridge actually represents the remains of a Pacific atoll, where dying sea creatures accumulated en masse on the ocean floor. Today, green stone and clay soils are layered over their remains to form Monte Bello’s unique terroir.
Limestone is unusual in California, and Ridge’s team believe it is an important part of what makes this site special. Certainly, throughout the world limestone is often a component of great vineyard soils, its high water-holding capacity favoring dry farming, its structure conducive to deep rooting, and its high pH (and low concentrations of Potassium) favoring higher-acid musts.
Monte Bello’s climate is no less singular than its limestone subsoils. Situated some 15 miles—and several ridgelines—east of the coast, at between 1300′ to 2700′ above sea level, the cooling evening fog that distinguishes so many of California’s coastal vineyards is infrequent at Monte Bello.
‘June through August is typically fog-free up here’, observes Ridge’s director of winemaking Eric Baugher. ‘If any fog does manage to come over the gap, it spills through the canyon where the San Andreas Fault lies, and enters Silicon Valley at the Saratoga gap. That channels the fog away from the vineyard—but it will be influenced by the cooling breeze that accompanies the fog’.
During the summer months, Ridge’s lower-altitude parcels experience the greatest diurnal temperature shift. According to Baugher, the parcels below 2000’ see an average daytime temperature high 90F and a nighttime low around 55F. At higher elevation, the average high is closer to 80-85F and the low in the region of 65F: at these heights, an inversion layer sometimes forms, trapping warm air.
In September and October, the differences diminish, with the whole vineyard typically experiencing nighttime lows in the mid-50s and daytime highs in the upper 70s—considerably lower than daytime highs in Napa Valley.
Sometimes says Baugher, ‘a late-season heat wave can send temperatures back into the 90s, enhancing ripeness and resulting in wines with a dark fruit spectrum’. And sometimes ‘unseasonably cold weather will result in greater red fruit character and firmer acid’.
These nuances of climate are important, because they decisively impact how grapes ripen. Vines only photosynthesize during daylight; but if evening temperatures don’t drop too low, they can continue to mature berry flavors and phenolic compounds at night while metabolizing acids, producing ripe grapes at lower sugars. Cold nights, on the other hand, will impede nocturnal ripening; but they also preserve higher levels of acidity.
How gapes ripen, in other words, influences how they taste; and Monte Bello’s particular mesoclimate thus leaves a firm stamp on its wines.
‘The vintage will show a certain character depending on what weather pattern holds the strongest,’ Baugher concludes, ‘particularly during the days leading to harvest. The Monte Bello vintages that are more Bordelais in style are the cooler years. The classic California vintages are the warm years.’
Any definition of terroir which did not include the hand of man would be a narrow and naïve one, and Ridge’s winemaking is also an important part of this story. It has always been intentionally ‘pre-industrial’, inspired by traditional Bordeaux practice and the writings of California pioneers such as Emmet Rixford, founder of La Questa Vineyard and author of the foundational The Wine Press and the Cellar (1886).
For many years, Ridge practiced submerged cap fermentations, something that had been common in 19th-century Bordeaux. As Paul Draper recalls, ‘when I joined Ridge in ’69, we had one four-ton fermentor; we soon introduced another and a number of one-ton tanks. They were open-topped, and had wooden grids with which the grapes could be held submerged. Before 1967, David Bennion [Ridge’s first winemaker] was still working at Stanford Research Institute, as were the other partners.’
‘During harvest they would come up on weekends, pick any grapes that were ripe, crush them, put them in a fermenter, submerge the cap, and go back to their jobs for the week, returning to Ridge the next weekend. For those early vintages, submerged cap was essential. It assured that the grape skins would not be exposed to air and develop acetic acid. It allowed the partners to make sound and incredibly intense wines right from the start—despite being unable to watch over them through the week.’
Draper followed Bennion’s lead for a decade, before switching to daily pump-overs during the 1980s, a practice Ridge continues today, which gives more control over extraction. Given Monte Bello’s natural abundant tannins, pressing typically occurs at a very classic ten days—emphatically eschewing the extremes of post-fermentation maceration fashionable in some parts of California. Malolactic fermentation, like alcoholic fermentation, is carried out by ambient microflora. The wines then mature in predominantly American oak, much of it new, for around 20 months.
What is Monte Bello’s character and how has it evolved over the years? The wine’s structural profile is consistently singular, characterized by firm, chalky tannins and bright acidity. Indeed, finished pHs at Monte Bello are typically run between 3.3. and 3.5 and the team have been known to deacidify in particularly edgy vintages.
Those high acids mean that Monte Bello needs some time to unwind; they can make it hard to evaluate in its youth. But they lend it unerring precision and spectacular length on the palate at maturity, and it is wonderful to follow youthfully shy, taut wines as they gradually expatiate, revealing a textural plenitude that was entirely hidden a decade before.
Cooperage is an important part of the equation too, as Ridge has been a partisan of American oak since Paul Draper’s debut here in 1969. Sometimes that has marked the wines quite strongly, imparting aromas of vanilla, coconut and even dill which some commentators dubbed the ‘Draper perfume’.
It’s a characteristic that I’ve noticed the most in the vintages of the ‘80s and ‘90s, and especially in the riper years: 1991 and 1997 stand out. But my sense is that since those days Ridge’s barrels have improved, and today the oak is more completely integrated, framing the wine without defining its aromatic profile. Similarly, the influence of brettanomyces, evident in some vintages around the turn of the millennium, is now very much a thing of the past.
The wine’s fruit character can vary quite considerably, from plummy and briary to red and high-toned, but to me it always has a slightly wild edge, and I often find a spicy, medicinal signature: if Monte Bello’s crispness and ‘minerality’ remind me of Ausone or Magdelaine, then this recurring aromatic top-note is somewhat reminiscent of La Mission Haut Brion.
Ten Recent Tasting Notes
2013 Ridge Monte Bello A Monte Bello for the ages, the 2013’s brooding bouquet unfolds to reveal notes of black raspberry, juicy blackcurrant, burning embers and deep-pitched, rich soil tones. On the palate the wine is simply stunning, with a beautifully three-dimensional, refined tannic chassis. Analytically, this is the most tannic Monte Bello of the millennium, but that structure is clothed with a wealth of fruit—so much so that Ridge forwent their habitual egg white fining this year. Watch this profound wine begin to blossom after a decade in the cellar. 13.6% 100/100
2012 Ridge Monte Bello Sappy blackberry, wild plum and creamy cassis meld with a nicely-integrated framing of American oak—vanilla, menthol—in the 2012 Monte Bello’s youthful bouquet. Juicy, refined and complete on the palate, with fine tannins and bright acidity, this wine just needs a decade in the cellar to start to shine. 13.8% 94/100
2005 Ridge Monte Bello A few years ago this wine was unyielding, but it is beginning to become more expressive, revealing a lovely nose of cassis, wild plum, cedar, spice and rich notes of soil and truffle. On the palate the wine is concentrated and full-bodied, with a virile chassis of ripe, enrobed tannins, bright acidity and terrific length. The way this wine has unfolded, revealing qualities which were imperceptible three years ago, is an object lesson in this bottling’s evolution. 13.4% 95/100
2000 Ridge Monte Bello The 2000 Monte Bello is a rather rustic rendition of this cuvée, with aromas of grilled meat, cigar ash and leather complementing the notes of wild plum and spicy, loamy soil that so often distinguish this cuvée. On the palate the wine is quite fleshy, supple and open knit, and drinking well now, especially with a decant, which helps to integrate the wine’s wilder side. 13.4% 93/100
1997 Ridge Monte Bello While some of the Cabernet Sauvignons from this warm, high-yield vintage are beginning to get a little long in the tooth, the 1997 Monte Bello continues to show beautifully, with an expressive bouquet of cassis, dried cherry, menthol, a touch of soil and a generous framing of American oak. On the palate the wine is supple and nicely balanced, with largely melted tannins and a generous, open-knit personality, tied together by a bright thread of acidity. 12.9% 93/100
1995 Ridge Monte Bello In the last two years, the 1995 Monte Bello has began to shed some of its formidable tannins, and is now drinking very well. The nose offers up notes of red and black fruits, rich earthy tones and nuances of cedar and leather. Deep and concentrated with a nice and classical balance between acidity, tannin and fruit, this is turning out very well, and Eric Baugher’s concerns that he had pushed extraction too far seem to be unfounded. 12.5% 95/100
1992 Ridge Monte Bello The 1992 Monte Bello is vivid and youthful, bursting from the glass with a bouquet of briary blackberry and wild plum fruit, with nuances of cedar and leather. On the palate the wine is equally vibrant: firm at the core, with a long, persistent finish. A rather more rustic vintage than the suave 1991, but a very compelling Monte Bello. 13.5% 94/100
1991 Ridge Monte Bello The 1991 Monte Bello is still a young wine, only entering its youthful plateau of maturity. Its deep, saturated hue is followed by a bouquet of jammy blackcurrant, white flowers and creamy American oak. Those primary aromas are followed by an open-knit but densely concentrated, textural wine. Supple and comparatively low in acidity and tannin, this is a Monte Bello characterized, at this early stage, more by exuberant generosity than complexity. Bottled with a special label to reflect its superlative quality. 13.1% 96/100
1985 Ridge Monte Bello The 1985 is another success-story in the history of this dependably long-lived bottling, revealing a classic Monte Bello bouquet of wild plum, loamy soil and complex nuances of menthol and cedar. On the palate the wine is fully mature, with melted tannins and a nice girdle of acidity that carries through the long finish. A lovely middle-weight that is drinking well but should hold for another decade. 13.1% 94/100
1968 Ridge Monte Bello A complex and vibrant bouquet of cedar, dried cherry, cassis, forest floor and a touch of leather is the prelude to a wine of striking amplitude, power and intensity; firm, savory tannins and bright acidity still make an impression on the palate. This early Monte Bello gives the measure of the site’s potential. 12.7% 95/100