Wine Legends 2013
Ridge, Monte Bello 1970, Santa Cruz Mountains, California, USA
A legend because…
The original Monte Bello vineyard was first planted high in the Santa Cruz Mountains in the 1880s, and the site was acquired in the 1950s by a group of scientists from Stanford University. They bought the property as a weekend retreat but realised the handful of remaining vines made exceptional wine. Production was extremely limited at first but as it gradually grew, the decision was made to hire a full-time winemaker. Paul Draper, who had been working in Chile at the time, was taken on in 1969. His first vintage, in 1970, proved to be one of the most outstanding wines from Monte Bello. Although it was the 1971 that dazzled tasters at Steven Spurrier’s celebrated Judgment of Paris tasting in 1976, Draper himself always preferred the 1970. When he was named Decanter Man of the Year in 2000, it was the 1970 vintage that he chose to be served at the dinner held in his honour.
In 1970 Ridge was still in its infancy, and total production was no more than 3,000 cases. The Stanford partners had intended to sell grapes rather than make their own wines, but the early vintages had such intensity of flavour that they changed their mind, deciding to bring the historic vineyard back into production. The first commercial vintage from Monte Bello was in 1962 and the 1964 is still very much alive.
Despite spring frosts in some areas, 1970 was a very successful growing season, with some hot spells that led to raisining in some valley floor locations, but not at Monte Bello, where the wines emerged as balanced and long-lived.
With vines at between 400m and 800m, the Monte Bello vineyard is, according to Draper, one of the highest and coolest Cabernet Sauvignon sites in California. The soil is decomposing Franciscan greenstone mixed with clay over a subsoil of 100-million-yearold limestone, which is very rare in California. The average age of the vines is more than 30 years and yields do not exceed 30hl/ha. Elevation keeps the site free of sea fogs, but the ocean is just 24km to the west so the vines still benefit from maritime influence. The climate is as cool as Bordeaux, but much drier in summer, and its imprint on the Cabernet from here is relatively high acidity and a taut structure that requires bottle age to show at its best. Early vintages of Monte Bello were pure Cabernet, although in subsequent years other Bordeaux varieties were added to the vineyard.
The grapes would have been destemmed, and fermented with natural yeasts. Draper finds a short maceration necessary to avoid overextraction of tough tannins, which typically means racking off the skins at between 1% and 4% residual sugar. The fermentation then continues to dryness. The blend is made up soon after the malolactic fermentation is completed and between 10% and 20% press wine is added. Monte Bello differs from other prestigious Californian Cabernets in being aged primarily in new, air-dried American oak, as Draper has always wanted to avoid making a wine that could be regarded as an imitation claret. However about 5% of the barrels are of French oak as an annual experiment since 1971. After about 18 months the wine is bottled with minimal filtration. Despite the specifics above, the winemaking is never formulaic, and Draper adapts the vinification to the conditions of each vintage, aiming for wines that are accessible young but have the capacity to age for at least two or three decades. Today, when there is a greater variation in vine age than there was in 1970, the youngest vines are relegated to the second wine. But longevity alone is not sufficient for a lot to qualify for Monte Bello, and the blend is decided on the base of blind tasting.
American critic James Laube has been emphatic about the 1970: ‘The Monte Bello of the decade: a supple, complex, harmonious wine with layers of currant, anise, cedary oak and earthy mineral flavours.’ Tyler Colman (‘Dr Vino’) noted in 2010: ‘The legendary 1970 … is in a lovely place, mature yet still very much alive.’ In the same year Mike Steinberger was equally enthusiastic: ‘A sensational bouquet redolent of leather, blackcurrant and tobacco. A rich, warm wine with fantastic depth of flavour, buttery tannins, a superb menthol kick… and a long graceful finish. An exceptional wine, still bursting with life.’
Bottles produced 5,544
Composition 100% Cabernet Sauvignon
Release price $10
Price today $500
by Stephen Brook