Visit to Ridge with the legendary Paul Draper

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The panorama from Ridge, with the famous mist in the background

A visit to California to stay with friends in Santa Clara, just south of San Francisco, started with the principle that this was a wine drinking, not wine tasting trip. No vineyard visits, just barbecues, some sightseeing, and a bit of healthy imbibing. So of course, when we realised that our friends lived about 20 minutes away from Ridge Vineyards, we called and made an appointment straight away. For my sins, I worked for Steven Spurrier in the early 80s while his wine ‘empire’ was still extant in Paris, so from this, and subsequent study, I was quite familiar with the quality of Paul Draper’s wines, and the effect that the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting had on Ridge and the other ‘kids from the sticks’ (as Bo Barrett of Chateau Montelena put it at the time), although I am not quite old enough to have been there for the tasting. I could hardly miss the opportunity just on a principle.

This is why they call it 'Ridge'!

This is why they call it ‘Ridge’!

The following day, on a beautiful sunny September afternoon, the 4th in fact, we travelled the Montebello Road to the winery. The various parts of the Monte Bello vineyard are at elevations varying from 1300 to 2700 feet, and you really see why they call them the Santa Cruz Mountains as you travel upwards; the road is a succession of hairpin bends, as you would expect in a mountain, not so much in a vineyard.

PD & GW4

PD, GW, and 100-year old Carignane

We arrived at Monte Bello to be greeted by Paul Draper himself; three hours of fascinating insight into the famous estate followed. At the hopper above the winery, 100 year-old Carignane grapes were just being delivered into the de-stemmer, so we got to taste our first grapes of the 2014 California vintage. Paul described 2014 as one of the earliest in Ridge’s history, which is why grapes had been arriving in the winery since a week before. He thought the harvest would be just about finished by the third week of September; usually they wouldn’t have started until then.

...and in the cellar

…and in the cellar

Ridge are still at the top of their game. PaulDraper, always open minded, talked with enthusiasm about textural changes effected in the wine by the occasional fining they do; single parcel fermentation for each vineyard and combining the best, far too complicated to detail here; the advantages of air-dried over kiln-dried oak, and its cooperage, and the importance of grapes at moderate sugar levels. The wines are organic in all but name, and are currently getting certification for the Monte Bello vineyard. Paul has always used the minimum possible intervention, including only natural yeasts, and minimal sulphur, focussed on quality, rather than a label. That said, Ridge’s labels have always featured more winemaking information than almost any, and now include ingredient labelling; it’s lucky they don’t fine often, as the general public don’t like to see egg white as an additive (but that doesn’t stop them including it on the label when they do). Paul talked with fondness about the early days in the 70s, before the boom, when they used to import top Bordeaux like Lynch Bages and Leoville Lascases in barrel and bottle at Ridge in order to keep the cash coming in. I was even allowed to spit on the drain in the floor of the winery, as we used to do on tasting trips in Burgundy and the Rhone in the 80s. I, if no one else, derived a huge amount of childish pleasure from the looks of horror from my friends as I did it. Paul, like the seasoned professional he is, stood well clear of me.

More humidity, this time in the cellar...

More humidity, this time in the cellar…

We tasted 2013 Monte Bello in barrel in the cellar cut into a limestone ravine in the 1880s; it still has six months left to mature in barrel, and seemed very well balanced, dry, dark fruited, smoky, oaky, yes, but not sappy as I sometimes find. Promising. We tasted a 2014 Zinfandel, picked on 29th August, and still in the fermentation tank; I don’t consider myself expert, but I am familiar with tasting fizzy, sweet, semi-alcoholic fruit juice. My friends, though, were bowled over. ‘It’s like Port’, said one of my hosts; I began a wine lecture on Port production and why she was right, but happily I was quickly stopped by the groans of the audience.

All tastings should look like this

All tastings should look like this

We moved back up to the newly built tasting room. Paul introduced the 2011 vintage, which was largely something of a disaster in many parts of California; one of my favourite euphemisms, ‘challenging’, often used to describe miserable vintages in France, was even used to describe the Californian summer that year. At Monte Bello, though, they escaped the cold fog which poisoned the summer for many vineyards, as their elevation put them above it. We tasted:

2011 Monte Bello Chardonnay – Oak toast and smoke showing, edging towards butterscotch. Lovely ripe tang, but alcohol a little visible for me.

2012 Geyserville Zinfandel – Fresh, with black cherries raisins, and great balance, fluffy tannins, a freshness.

2012 Lytton Spring Zinfandel – Smokier, more complex: aniseed, pepper, lovely.

2011 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon – Smoke, spice, aniseed, black fruit, cool climate, but ripe, with bright acidity, mineral, almost salty. Superb.

And another treat:

1985 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon – Wood smoke, leather, Christmas cake, burned sugar, tannins still there, but smooth, the wine fading a little; graceful in age.

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‘The Judgement’ at Ridge

We talked of the ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting in 1976. It should be remembered that Steven intended to show that California made good wine, not to enact a competition between France and the US, but the first places achieved by Chateau Montelena in the Chardonnay section and Stag’s Leap in the Cabernet was dramatic: Californian wine had arrived. It then progressed on a path of excess into ‘cult winery’ and 200% new oak territory, but Ridge continued and continues on its path of moderation, minimal intervention, and traditional winemaking with modern equipment, and long may it do so. Thank you sincerely, Paul Draper, for a fantastic afternoon of wine tasting on a tasting-free holiday!

 

 

The Third National Italian Rosé Competition

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An unusually well taken (for me) photo of an Otranto sunset

Concorso Enologico Nazionale dei Vini Rosati D’Italia Terza Edizione (2014)

As bit of a mouthful? In English, and only slightly abbreviated, this becomes The Third National Italian Rosé Competition, which seems more manageable. The prize-giving conference for this Puglian-inspired yearly event took place in the magnificent setting of Otranto Castle, in the far south of Puglia, the heel of Italy, on Saturday 31st May 2014, and was thirstily witnessed by a packed room of assorted Italian journalists and writers, and a smattering of other European ones, with me and Antonio Tomassini forming the English contingent.

The competition was organized by Regione Puglia and other more national institutions to promote rosés from Italy in general, and, despite a rather relaxed start, it was a well-managed, interesting, and even entertaining event. Highlights of the keynote European speakers included Federico Castellucci, Director General of the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV). The summary of his presentation comprised a page of ominously dry-looking statistics, but he managed through his enthusiasm for Italian wine to bring it to life and make it interesting, motivational even: we learned that France consumes 34% of the world’s rosé, which represents 25% of all wine drunk there, whereas in Italy the same two data are 5%. Italy’s great strength is in export, he showed, with an increase in the last 10 years from 26% to 40% of rosé exported. Castellucci encouraged Italians to practice what they preach and appreciate that rosé is an excellent wine, and drinking it is ‘cool’. Try it yourselves, he implied, rather than just exporting it.

Talking of France… Just how seriously the French take their different wine styles is shown by the existence of the ‘Centre de Recherche et d’Experimentation sur le Vin Rosé’. Many in the trade have seen the very attractive colour chart of rosés they have designed. Gilles Masson, representing them, highlighted from this that dry, lighter-coloured styles are in vogue at the moment (which is good news for this Provence based institution, as it endorses their regional style), but that this may change at any time in this fast-moving market.

Fabrizio Nardoni, Assessore alle Risorse Agroalimentari della Regione Puglia (Agricultural Counsellor for the Puglia Region), resplendent in an electric blue suit, enthused energetically about the quality of the product, and the potential for increased export of Puglian rosé; he really is a Puglian Ambassador. This point was reinforced in a more general Italian sense by Senatore Dario Stefano, in his conclusion. To put this into practice, though, a larger showing of foreign journalists and marketers would have been of benefit; also, a similar event in the UK would bring this underestimated region more to the UK’s attention.

The strong Italian and Puglian interest in this event was further demonstrated by the presence in the audience of the hugely popular (in Italy) singer Albano Carrisi, who is a Puglian wine producer himself, and Palma D’Onofrio, TV Chef and Apulian Icon, who was invited to the stage to present the prizes.
Puglia showed well in the results; a cynic might suggest that this had something to do with the fact that Regione Puglia was the main organizer. However, in fairness, the region does produce 40% of all of Italy’s rosés, which makes it less surprising that 5 of the 18 prizes went to Puglian wines. The full results can be seen on the Vini di Puglia website.

The Museum at Leone de Castris

The Museum at Leone de Castris

Lunch at Masseria Gianca Cisternino

Lunch at Masseria Gianca Cisternino

The following day was spent on a whirlwind tour of the Salento peninsula our way back to Bari, guided by Antonella Millarte, food and cookery expert, and an inexhaustible font of knowledge on Puglia. We made brief stops at three of the award winning producers. At Leone de Castris, as well as the charming ‘Five Roses’, named after the daughters of the original owner, we had a delightfully light and floral Aleatico rosé called Aleikos presented by Dr.ssa Alessandra Leone De Castris, at the ubiquitous Due Palme we retasted the fragrant Melarosa and serious Salice Salentino ‘Selvarossa’, and at Cantine Cardone we met the very energetic Marianna Cardone and Giuseppe Palumbo from Antinori’s estate Tormaresca, further to the north of Puglia, who consults at this estate. Their award winner ‘Provit’ is a Pinot Noir sparkling rosé, crisp and red-fruited. They also make Bordeaux blend wines, with 100% new oak, well managed and stylish but not particularly Puglian, in my opinion, and more characterful wines from indigenous varieties. The lunch nearby at Masseria Gianca Cisternino was fantastic!

The way to a journalist’s heart is through his stomach, to paraphrase an old wife’s tale. The buffet after the awards ceremony would normally have been the highlight of Saturday’s conference, and indeed it was excellent. The presentations that preceded it were so interesting and presented with such passion, though, that it was a close contest! Thank you sincerely to Sergio Maglio for organizing this educational competition, we are thoroughly convinced of the quality and passion of Italian rosé in general, and Puglian in particular. Thank you also to Accademia Apulia UK for providing the cultural bridge between Puglia and the UK.

Fabrizio Nardone talked of the potential of Puglian wine in export. The UK has a rather limited understanding of these wines, largely dominated by inexpensive Primitivo di Puglia; it’s time to bring the show to the UK to show them the real stuff!