After several years of dry, mild winters, 2016 provided above-average rainfall. Cold weather delayed bud-break at Monte Bello until mid-March. Excellent cover crop growth brought much needed nutrients to the vines. The last of the rains fell in May, avoiding bloom for most varieties. While the drought was somewhat alleviated, it will take several more wet winters for the vines to fully recover. Chardonnay and Jimsomare zinfandel were less fruitful due to drought related stress; both had cluster counts that were lower than normal. Fortunately, that was not the case with the Bordeaux varieties.
Beautiful summer weather arrived in June at bloom resulting in maximum fruit set. Summer proceeded with a burst of heat followed by cooling, fluctuating week-by-week. A short period of intense heat in early July brought warm nights to the upper elevation parcels of Monte Bello accelerating growth. Summer’s overall temperatures were below-average; veraison was slow to start, except for zinfandel which began in late July. The gap between the zinfandels fermented at Monte Bello and the Bordeaux varieties was ideal for harvest logistics, allowing us to finish zinfandel before starting cabernet.
Our first zinfandel arrived from Benito Dusi’s ranch in Paso Robles on August 25th, followed the next day by the first from Sonoma County. Heat during Labor Day weekend pushed the remaining zinfandel parcels to full ripeness and chardonnay started showing signs of being ready. The following week was the busiest of harvest with a third of the total tonnage received including almost all of the chardonnay.
The balance of temperatures at harvest were much milder, with no return of heat until the last days of picking at Monte Bello in mid-October. Late season heat is crucial for excellent flavor development and tannin ripeness. While the days were warm, unseasonably cold nights, with temperatures dropping into the 40os, moderated ripening and maintained high acid in the grapes. The abundant acid combined with significant tannin, required careful tasting during fermentation to avoid over-extraction.
Tiny berries fermented quickly releasing saturated color. Keeping that beautiful color required the right amount of tannin to stabilize it. Going too far would lead to an overly tannic wine, not enough would allow color molecules to degrade resulting in bitterness. It was a vintage of many variables requiring constant tasting and monitoring. Grape quality was exceptional, with the potential to make highly impressive wines. However, winemaking had to be done carefully to coax out the best quality and achieve balanced structure- a winemaker’s vintage.
Assemblage tastings were important for bringing together the best vineyard parcels for each single-vineyard wine. Our zinfandel blends were made as soon as natural malolactics finished. They are now in barrel beginning to clarify and age. The Monte Bello and the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon will be tasted in late January with a total of thirty seven lots to be reviewed. As usual, tasting will be done blind, varietals and parcels randomized in flights, finishing with a rigorous selection.
All four major Bordeaux varietals grown on Monte Bello’s forty-five parcels ripened perfectly and made excellent wines. Cabernet Sauvignon required lengthier fermentation time to fully extract (nine-to-twelve days.) Merlot and petit verdot reached full extraction in just six days, while cabernet franc required seven days.
Press wine, which can be very complex in flavor but sometimes too harsh, was a real compliment in this vintage. We made greater use of the best press fractions than in most vintages.
There are many similarities between this vintage and 1999. In that vintage, zinfandel had cabernet like structure and cabernet was more elegant and approachable like zinfandel. We relied upon press wine that year to give the Monte Bello additional tannins, and it has aged extremely well. The 2016’s components are already starting off with greater tannin structure than 1999 and will likely not require any further press wine additions once the assemblage is made. It promises to be an exciting assemblage tasting-one that will again produce a wine with impeccable aging potential and wonderful complexity expressing the unique character of our limestone soils and mountain vineyards.
December 6, 2016