The vines experienced their third consecutive year of drought, receiving only one-third of normal rainfall. Early bud-break was prompted by unusually warm January weather, and pruning was hurried along to prepare the vines for the start of the growing season. Fortunately, winter weather arrived in early February with a series of cold fronts that stalled vine growth, but brought only two inches of rain. It was enough, however, to allow the cover crop to sprout. Seven inches of rain in March and April, and warm weather in late April pushed growth forward, with adequate water in the root zone—held there by the limestone sub-soils. Miraculously, this carried the vines through summer with no serious water stress. Bloom occurred during fair weather from mid-May through early June, resulting in an even fruit set. Yields were assessed, so that fruit-thinning could be done appropriately to balance the vines and assure intense flavors. Summer brought periods of heat followed by rapid cooling. Fog and cool breezes from the west, off the Pacific Ocean, moderated temperatures and helped avoid water stress in the vines. To further fine-tune the crop, a second walk-through for thinning was done after veraison. We began sampling the chardonnay parcels on August 12, and found the brix not quite within picking range, but flavors were surprisingly close. A week later, during cool weather, the grapes were still not ready. During the next week’s round of sampling, both brix and flavor had surged, triggering an immediate harvest. We picked for the next four days—ideal, because the presses were resting idle. No red grapes had yet been received, fermented, or pressed. So, for once, the presses didn’t need to be scrubbed out each time a chardonnay lot arrived.
Having seen earlier-than-normal veraison in Monte Bello’s Bordeaux varietals, we began flavor sampling in late August. Green vines (those with more moisture in the soil) were sampled separately from those with less moisture available, resulting in fifty-two sub-parcels to track. Often, ripeness varies 2 – 3˚ brix between the bottom and top of Monte Bello, allowing harvest to proceed at a slow, steady pace. This year, however, there was very little difference in ripeness, preparing us for a short, fast harvest. Tasting revealed sugar to be ahead of flavor (much as in 2001), requiring frequent repeat sampling to find that moment when flavors crossed over to ripe. In the few young blocks with the drip irrigation lines needed to establish the vines, we used a limited amount of water to slow sugar accumulation. In some parcels, it was necessary to let the fruit hang longer than our ideal—ripe, but not over-ripe—in order to moderate green flavors. This then required minor water additions to those fermentors. These were tough decisions, though necessary to our goal of making ripe, but balanced, wines. The first block of cabernet was brought in on September 2—the earliest in our history by two-and-a-half weeks. It was quickly followed by more parcels, harvested without a break over the next eleven days. The vineyard crew was finally able to take a day of rest on Sunday. Resuming work on Monday, they continued picking the balance of the vineyard, and finished September 24. Altogether, we had fifty-eight separate lots in small tanks. As usual, destemmed whole berries fermented on natural yeasts. Each fermentation began within two to three days of harvest, as juice was sprayed over the cap to stimulate the yeasts and begin extraction. When vigorous fermentation was underway, caps formed, and we began aeration pump-overs to maintain healthy yeasts. * Over-the-cap irrigations were then reduced or eliminated by taste—keeping fermentations progressing while avoiding over-extraction of tannin. This year, the lots remained on their skins for six to fifteen days, averaging ten days before pressing. We made greater use of high-quality press fractions than in most recent vintages. The resulting separate lots were held in small secondary tanks for natural malolactic to begin. Normally, when the wine is a quarter to a third into malolactic, we transfer it to barrel to finish. This year, however, a few tanks finished so quickly we had no time to get the wine to barrel. We still moved all the wines to new american oak, along with their gross lees, finished or not. There was still enough minor activity (yeasts finishing residual sugars) to provide some barrel fermentation, which tempers the oak and can add wonderfully complex flavor and texture to the wine. Forty-eight separate lots are now in barrel. We monitor them closely—by frequent tasting, and by laboratory analysis—to assure completion of primary and secondary fermentations.
Until the actual blind tastings are done, and our first assemblage made, it is difficult to compare the 2014 with any other vintage. We could guess, on the basis of similar growing seasons, ripeness, and tannin extraction, that 2014 will match the outstanding, full-bodied 2001 vintage. As always, cabernet sauvignon will dominate the Monte Bello, providing saturated black fruits and a solid tannin backbone. Merlot, which suffered in 2013, came back strong, and might contribute upwards of 30% to the blend, adding further to the rich, dark fruit and full body. Cabernet franc and petit verdot struggled through the dry growing season. Two small lots of petit verdot, and one of franc, will be brought to the assemblage tasting, and carefully considered. The possibility of their inclusion is 50/50. Since the vintage was early, and wines are finishing their fermentation in barrel, we might hold the first assemblage tasting a month early in the first week of January, and actually rack and assemble the wine in February. The final varietal blend depends on blind tastings, and on how many barrels of the selected lots are available. Later, we will blind-taste the blend against the last five vintages to compare quality, complexity, and intensity of Monte Bello character. Having sampled from the vine, the fermentors, and now from barrel, we know that the 2014 Monte Bello is of superb quality in the classic Ridge style, and will be enjoyable over several decades.
~ Eric Baugher
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