80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, 9% Petit Verdot
97 Points – Jeb Dunnuck, JebDunnuck.com
Santa Cruz Mountains
89 tons from 92 acres. An extremely short crop in 1996 was largely attributable to a disruptive storm in mid-May and the two weeks of blustery weather that followed. The Monte Bello vineyard was severely affected. At the upper (2500’-2600’) and middle (2100’-2300’) elevations, yields were down by forty percent; at the lower (1400’-2000’) by a full sixty percent. We determine when to harvest by tasting the grapes. Record-high daytime temperatures could have caused flavors to become overripe, but cool nights maintained firm acidity and well-defined fruit. The first assemblage of Monte Bello—in February following vintag—typically includes eighty-five to ninety-five percent of the parcels that will make up the final wine. This year we made two versions, keeping them separate until August to be sure each was fully stable. Once combined, the whole proved greater than its parts. Sensuous and complex, with layered fruit and beautifully integrated tannins, this is among the loveliest of the ‘90s. Accessible as a young wine, it will develop further with twelve to fifteen years of bottle age.
The harvest of 1996 supports the idea that low yields result in high-quality wines. The year began with two huge storms, one in mid-January and the other in March, each unleashing over ten inches of rain in a few short days. Rainfall for the year exceeded sixty-four inches, and storm-driven winds in excess of ninety-five miles per hour gusted across Monte Bello Ridge. Such conditions pose no problem when vines are dormant; after bud break and during bloom, they can be devastating. March and April provided warm, beautiful weather for vine development, but an unusual May thunderstorm—bringing with it high winds and cold ocean air—struck just as the vines bloomed. On Monte Bello’s upper and middle vineyards, cabernet sauvignon and merlot yields were reduced by thirty percent; the lower vineyards lost more than forty percent. The storms of winter and early spring were followed by an exceptionally warm summer. On June 3 the thermometer reached 100 ̊—rare for our cool region—and the weather remained warm through harvest, with thirty days over 90 ̊. The heat, plus the short crop, accelerated ripening, resulting in a Monte Bello harvest that began two weeks earlier than usual.
Each of the thirty-three parcels was fermented separately, using small stainless steel tanks. Natural yeast fermentations began within forty-eight hours. With the Bordeaux varietals, we drain the fermenting juice into a tub and pump it gently over the floating cap of grapes, extracting color from the skins and tannin from the seeds. In past years we have attempted to cycle all the liquid in a fermentor over the skins twice a day, but our calculations have always been intuitive. This year, to time the pump-overs more accurately, we carefully calculated the amount of juice in each tank and the speed of each pump. It took far longer to turn a tank than we had previously thought. With two full turns a day, deep color and significant tannins were extracted in an average of nine days, rather than the typical twelve to eighteen. We press to taste, not to a recipe; these shorter, more extractive macerations were a clear advance in the 1996 vintage. The natural malolactics finished in late November, and we began tasting each separate wine to select the finest and most characteristic for the Monte Bello. Uncertain of stability, we made two first blends instead of the usual one. After a summer in barrel, the two, combined, proved not only stable, but superior in structure and character to either component. Atypically, the full assemblage was not made until August, more than ten months after vintage. Aged almost entirely in new, air-dried american oak, the 1996 stands out—even in the remarkable decade of the nineties—as beautifully structured, complex, and balanced. This is sensuous wine, with great depth and length—one of the finest Monte Bellos of the last twenty years.
JebDunnuck.com (February 2019): 97 Points. “As always at visits to Ridge, they like to show older vintages, and I’m always amazed at how well these wines age. The 1996 Cabernet Sauvignon Mont Bello checks in as 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 11% Merlot, and the rest Petit Verdot, and comes from a low-yielding vintage due to poor weather at set, which was followed by a warm growing season and early harvest. Aged all in new oak, it’s classic Monte Bello all the way with its Bordeaux-like bouquet of tobacco leaf, Christmas spice, cured meats, and sweet currants and plum fruits. Full-bodied, classic, and elegant on the palate, it’s drinking brilliantly today yet will certainly keep for another 10-15 years.” – Jeb Dunnuck
The Wine Advocate (May 2018): 96+ Points. “The most aromatically exotic vintage of the decade, the 1996 Monte Bello is superb, bursting from the glass with an extravagant bouquet of cassis, cigar box, rich soil, roasted meats and decadent oriental spices. On the palate, it’s medium to full-bodied, richly tannic and very intense, with a deep and tight-knit core and a bright line of acidity, concluding with a long, youthful finish. The 1996 vintage saw rain during flowering—which reduced yields at this address to less than one ton per acre—followed by a warm summer. The result is a super concentrated Monte Bello that hasn’t even reached its plateau of maturity yet. Choosing between this and the formidable 1995 will always be a challenge, but I suspect the 1996 has the greater upside.” – William Kelley
Bloomberg (December 2022) “My pick for the best and longest-lived California cabernet is Ridge’s Monte Bello from the Santa Cruz Mountains, so there was no way I would miss the winery’s 60th anniversary lunch at Gramercy Tavern in New York. We sampled older vintages of their other wines, but the six Monte Bello cabernets, starting with 1964, were the stars. This dense yet mellow 1996, with its perfect balance, scents of cedar, cigars, truffles and spice, and gorgeous deep-berry core of flavor, was my favorite to drink right now. It has the power and structure of a top Bordeaux but remains a true American classic.” -Elin McCoy, The Top 100 Wines of 2022, From $35 to $35,000
Average Rating: 93.6
No. of Tasting Notes: 233
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