Ridge: 50 Years of Success in Wine Country

There may be older vineyards in California, but none have produced the steady stream of high-quality wine like Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello estate in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

The winery is best known for its magnificent cabernet sauvignon-based blend of Bordeaux varietals that garners solid praise from critics and consumers who like the restrained power of the dark red juice produced from the ridgetop vines.

Monte Bello Vineyard

The 2007 vintage of Monte Bello is primarily cabernet sauvignon (79% ) with merlot (10%), petit verdot (9%) and cabernet franc (2%). This is a classic blend, ready to drink upon release but it is built to age gracefully over years, even decades. The wine ($135/bottle) is restrained, both in taste and bouquet. This wine is not an oaky blast of fruit, but a smooth, silky “food” wine that just keeps developing more interesting flavors with every sip. There’s a hint of mint and cassis on the tongue with restrained red fruit , finely grained tannins and a pleasant interplay of mineral elements — thanks to the unique blend of soils in the vineyard.

The wine is made from selected lots — 63 batcheds are fermented individually  — and only the highest quality juice makes the final blend. The “leftover” juice is used for the  Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Red. This “baby Monte Bello” wine is treated differently in the cellar. The blend –  52 percent cabernet sauvignon and 48 percent merlot — is aged in both new and used barrels to produce a softer style wine that retails for $30.

Monte Bello Chardonnay

Part of the Monte Bello vineyard, about 18 acres, is also planted to chardonnay which is very good in its own right. It was a treat to find it at a tasting earlier this week.

I got to sample seven Ridge wines, including the unreleased 2008 Monte Bello chardonnay, at Wine on Piedmont , a nifty little wine shop on Piedmont Avenue in Oakland. The tasting, seven wines in all, cost $5 — a huge bargain. The store also has an outstanding craft and imported beer selection, including one of my favorite IPA-style beers, Racer 5, from Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg.

This finely textured, golden-hued chardonnay — which has not yet been officially released — is aged in air-cured American oak barrels. Only 250 cases of the 2008 vintage ($60/bottle) were produced. Just 2 percent (five cases) have been allocated for retail shops in the East Bay, so the supply is definitely slim. The rest of the grapes from this vineyard are made into the Santa Cruz Mountains estate chardonnay, which I haven’t tasted… yet!

Ridge Winemaking Team (left to right) Eric Baugher, Paul Draper, David Gates & John Olney

It felt smooth on my tongue with a citrus-tinged nose and tropical fruits with sweet oak accents . Like the Monte Bello reds, this wine is aged in American oak, which helped refine the mix of flavors. The wine came alive with a bite of baguette topped with a slice of mortadella.

Zinfandel Joins the Party

Ridge also produces a string of award-winning zinfandels at a second winery location in Sonoma County’s Dry Creek Valley. This is not your big, brambly, brawny California zinfandel that shakes your tastebuds and demands attention. The Ridge style is more sublime, understated and cool on approach and ultimately fits in better at table with a meal.

Of the four 2007 infandels opened at the tasting — Pagani Ranch, Lytton Springs, East Bench and York Creek — I liked the most fruit-forward of the bunch the best.

My favorite was the Pagani Ranch, made from a Sonoma County vineyard that has been producing stellar fruit for more than a century. Yes, t’s really made from 100-year-old vines, grown in a cool climate area near Kenwood, along Highway 12. Small amounts of other grapes, primarily petite sirah, are included in this tasty field blend that also has drips and drabs of alicante bouschet and mourvedre.

The wine is understated on approach, but the rich fruit shines through. It’s unmistakenly zinfandel, but it doesn’t bowl over your tastebuds. It caresses them.

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