California received drenching rains last winter. Monte Bello received 200% of average, alleviating the last of the stress on the vines from the five year drought. Although, we had high expectations that our zinfandel vineyards would fully recover and set a bumper crop, ultimately their yields fell below-average this year. We believe the severe heat that hit the vineyards in mid-June, when the newly formed berries were developing, disrupted berry growth. That resulted in smaller-than-normal grapes and less juicy clusters, ideal from a winemaking standpoint for intensity, but less so for volume. Overall, the zinfandel vineyards were down anywhere between 25 to 33% of normal yield. However, the vines more than made up for it with the resulting intensity of the wines. Chardonnay at Monte Bello was in the same camp as zinfandel, down 30% in tonnage. The classic “chicks and hens” (whereby clusters are filled out with both large and tiny berries,) is rare and often corresponds with incredible quality in the wines. So far, tasting the 2017 chardonnay lots in the cellar, that does appear to be true.
The Monte Bello bordeaux varietals took a long time to ripen. I don’t think I’ve ever agonized more over a vintage, walking the blocks multiple times sampling, tasting, and worrying. I knew that the vines were carrying a large crop. The significant amount of winter rain and the lack of needed warmth had me concerned. The Labor Day heat wave, which hastened the zinfandel harvest, improved the ripening conditions. Nevertheless, the heat was short-lived, and the vineyard did not receive warmth again until late September-early October. Sugars began to move slowly, but flavors and tannins were still quite green.
A small experimental picking was done with the Entrada, a Rousten cabernet block. As a vineyard sample, that I personally took, it had given me a brix reading close to 24.0, which is within our range. David Gates (our vineyardist for 28 years) and I agreed that we would pick. The actual brix in the fermentor was much lower, at 22.4 with significant herbal character. That confirmed my fear that there was serious unevenness in ripening and a lack of uniformity from vine-to-vine. I believe this was a result of cool weather during bloom that stretched out the period of flowering and pollination. The abundance of water in the root zone from last winter’s El Nino also exacerbated the herbaciousness in the “green” versus “stressed” vines. We had to do our best to mark off those areas to optimize ripeness and flavors. This meant more sampling and multiple passes through each block before harvest as well as more small lots to manage in the winery. In total, we had fifty-seven separate fermentations from September 6th through October 24th to handle all 224.3 tons of the vineyard’s bordeaux grapes. Natural yeast fermentations were slower-than-usual. We measured naturally occurring nutrients (amino acids and ammonium) and they were not any lower than any other vintage so do not explain this year’s sluggishness. I thought there could have been some issue of malolactic bacteria out-competing for nutrients the wine yeast that carries out virtually all the fermentation. However, there were no genetic markers in the juice to indicate the presence of malolactic bacteria. For the first time in ten years, the tannins were very slow to extract, allowing me to keep the fermenting juice on the skins much longer than usual. This let the yeast ferment sugars down further, closer to dryness, and they continued to ferment in the malolactic starter tanks and then in barrel.
By assemblage, both primary and secondary fermentations should be complete. It will be quite an opulent Monte Bello with some of the stars of the vintage coming from the higher elevation Torre and Perrone ranches and their classic blocks of cabernet and merlot. Petit verdot, which really looked unlikely to ripen this vintage, managed to get just enough warmth at the end of the season to produce a very powerful wine. Cabernet Franc will be the one variety not likely to contribute to the Monte Bello. The Rousten Cheval block struggled to ripen a large crop. It finally did, given an extra week of hang time while we waited for a light haze of smoke from the Northern fires to clear. The brix jumped but the wine didn’t have much concentration of color and tannins. In fact, it lost acidity and was still somewhat herbaceous. It clearly will not make the cut for Monte Bello. The best of the cabernet franc will be held for the Historic Vineyard Series and the rest included in the Estate cabernet.
Merlot yields were also very good at the Kline ranch. The two large parcels there will be combined to make an outstanding Estate merlot. The Monte Bello will likely contain a high percentage of cabernet sauvignon, less merlot than usual and slightly more petit verdot than has been typical. What I have assembled, for my own curiosity, has extraordinary quality and character similar to the 2013 Monte Bello. We will see how the actual assemblage goes later this month. I think we will come up with a blend that should parallel the quality of the 2013 quite well. The quantity should also be good based on the 2017 Monte Bello harvest breaking our tonnage record. This is due to having more acreage producing and greater vine density in the newer plantings rather than higher yields per vine. In the future, the tonnage coming in from the Monte Bello vineyard should continue to increase as more acreage is planted, including at least a small amount more chardonnay.
January 11, 2018
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