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PREMIUM

Ridge Monte Bello retrospective: 21 vintages of the California classic

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of Ridge Vineyards. As part of the celebrations, chief winemaker John Olney and vineyard operations director David Gates hosted a vertical tasting of 21 vintages of Ridge’s greatest wine.

Ridge’s Cabernet-dominated Monte Bello is much admired, partly because it has always stood in marked contrast to California Cabernets from Napa and Sonoma.

The alcohol levels rarely exceed 14%, which seems to be the starting gate for most Napa Cabernets these days. And while the fruit is always ripe, the tannin and acidity levels are high, so Monte Bello only sometimes has the opulence and plushness of its neighbours north of San Francisco.


Scroll down to see Stephen Brook’s tasting notes and scores for all 21 wines from this incredible Monte Bello vertical


Monte Bello may often share the leanness, intensity, and structure of Bordeaux clarets, but it’s worth remembering that Monte Bello has always been aged overwhelmingly in American oak.

Too high to be affected by maritime fog, it was nonetheless just 15 miles from the ocean. Draper once observed: ‘Up here, it’s as cool as Bordeaux but without the rain.’ That makes over-ripeness almost unattainable. Nonetheless, full ripeness can be an issue in some vintages, and any lots considered insufficiently ripe do not make it into Monte Bello.High acidity is a signature of the wine, but there can be vintages when certain lots may need to be lightly de-acidified.The vineyard is about 55ha, which also includes some Chardonnay vines. Initial vintages of Monte Bello were pure Cabernet, but over the years, other Bordelais varieties were added, and there have been new plantings or replanting at various times. The farming has been essentially organic for over twenty years, but it was only in 2011 that Monte Bello was certified as such.

The legacy

The late Steven Spurrier, unsurprisingly, was quick to spot the quality of Monte Bello and included the 1971 vintage in his Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976. There it took fifth place out of 10. At the re-run of the blind-tasting in Napa in 2006, in which I participated, the wine came first.John Olney, the chief winemaker since 2021, notes that ‘the aim here has always been to make wines that are approachable in their youth but long-lived’.

The winemaking is essentially non-interventionist, fermenting with indigenous yeasts and avoiding filtration. But there is no formula: the winemaking adapts to the character of each vintage, and blending is a slow process based on blind tasting.

Monte Bello’s reputation for inaccessibility in its youth was shown at this London tasting not to be necessarily justified. The wines can be drunk young, but there is little doubt that they become more expressive and complex after some years in the bottle. And until the wines are at least twenty years old, there is no rush to drink them.



Ridge Monte Bello vertical: tasting notes and scores for all 21 wines

All of these wines will be available at Christie’s special Finest and Rarest Wines and Spirits auction held between 1-2 December, 2022.

Wines are listed in descending vintage order


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