Monday, February 8, 2010

Standing on the Ridge

98 Lytton Springs Vineyard, bottled 12/99
El Niño delayed the 1998 growing season by an entire month; late August brought an unseasonably early rain and some water damage in the clusters. We opened the vines to light and air, and thinned repeatedly over the next forty days as soon as any damaged fruit appeared. Aided by fine weather, we had clean, very ripe grapes at harvest. Intense fruit, a rich structure, and firm tannins characterize this lovely vintage, which will be at its best over the next five to six years. Alas, the severe thinning has resulted in significantly smaller quantities than usual.
— PD [Paul Draper] (11/99)

Now there's 750ml less....

I've always liked Ridge's packaging, from the short silver capsule that lets the winery and vintage info stamped on the cork show through the bottle neck, to the crisp, minimalistic styling of their label's typography and layout. I also like Paul Draper's liner notes, driven by marketing as are all such label talkers but, much more than most, also informative and inclusive of some meaningful information.

There was a time when I also might have said that I've always liked Ridge wines. But as my preferences have changed over the last ten or twelve years, my relationship with Ridge has become one based more on respect than on unabashed admiration. The wines are absolutely well made and expressive — I think it's fair to say they're standard bearers — but they just don't deliver the pleasure they once did, at least not to me.

A side effect of this shift in my tastes is that I still have a decent little cache of Ridge wines, mostly from the mid- to late-90s, resting in my wine fridge. So, when friends from the neighborhood trudged over for a post-blizzard dinner this weekend, bearing gifts of bacon-wrapped filets mignon, I figured it was due time to make a cellar sacrifice.

California Dry Creek Valley "Lytton Springs," Ridge Vineyards 1998
~$25 on release. 14.3% alcohol. Cork.
One of the things I have always respected about Ridge is the ability of their wines to age. Five years beyond the drinking window originally recommended by Ridge proprietor Paul Draper, the 1998 Lytton Springs is still chugging right along, with another five or ten years to go, easy. What's happened over the last ten years in bottle? Well, the wine still does show some of its characteristically raisin-rich Zin notes but on a frame that's grown narrower with age. In a way, that's let a certain elegance show through that, if my memory of long ago consumed bottles is at all accurate, was somewhat less evident earlier on. Now, spicy yet subtle red berry fruit intertwines with cedar and tobacco leaf aromas; a firm yet supple tannic quality and still bright, medium-acidity help the wine achieve its sense of balance. It paired just fine with the richness and smokiness of the beef and bacon, not at all too high in alcohol to work with food.

So what's not to like? For me, and I've said it here before in similar but slightly less kind terms, it's the indelible oak signature born by nearly all of Ridge's red wines. American oak, in particular. In spite of the elegance that's emerged from the good raw materials of the Lytton Springs Vineyard, and in spite of the life that continues in the bottle, there's a wood-driven, cedar-y character that dominates the wine. It doesn't totally obscure the fruit; it just makes it much harder for the fruit's voice and, one could argue, the vineyard's voice, to be heard. It's part and parcel of the Ridge winemaking signature. I just have a harder time swallowing it than I once did.

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Elsewhere in the blogosphere....

Wolfgang Weber recently wrote a piece, which I think deserves your attention, on the apparent prevalence of cork taint in Italian wines. If there's one thing that the Italians, and most European wineries for that matter, could learn from their US counterparts, it's the value of shelling out the dough for high quality corks.

Though I'm sure there's a TCA-tainted bottle out there somewhere, I've never once had a corked wine from Ridge. The high quality of their corks has to play a role in that track record. A trace quantity of tartrate crystals was in evidence on the stopper pulled from the '98 Lytton Springs, but there was nothing to suggest that the cork had been in the bottle for more than ten weeks, much less for ten-plus years.

Also, the frequency with which my wine blogging peers and I seem to find ourselves on similar topics at similar times is a never ending source of amazement. Point in case, I stumbled upon Lyle Fass's recent post about Opus One and, you guessed it, changing tastes regarding oak influence, while taking a break from writing this piece. It's worth a read too, especially for Lyle's take on cowboy boots and suits.


Anonymous said...

Hi David,

Thanks for the shout-out, and of course your comment on the corky Italian wines post. You know what, there were several corked wines at the Grand Masters of Italian wine tasting at Vino2010! I was shocked.

Meanwhile, great post. I've got a '98 Lytton myself, and will drink it in the coming week and share my impressions with you. And like you, I was once an unabashed Ridge fan. I still am -- and have recently appreciated their cabernets more so in line ups of similar wines from elsewhere in California. Ditto with the Dynamite Hill Petite Sirah; the '99 was showing beautifully a few months back.

The American oak thing doesn't trouble me so much; I take it as the Ridge stamp, and of course it's usually in balance and a part of the wine. Where it can be off-putting is in the percentage of new oak, which has changed in both directions over time.


KH said...

Thanks for the great post. I agree with your, and Wolfgang Weber's, point about the importance of investing in good corks. If the wine doesn't warrant this additional expense, then perhaps a screwcap? But for those in the tier that you discuss, I believe good bark goes a long way.

I am curious whether you know if, or how much, the shipping or storage conditions lead to taint? Though this is purely anecdotal evidence, I've been in France for the last eight months and have only come across one tainted cork, though we open a bottle almost daily bought from various sources: producer direct, wine shops, supermarkets, even convenience stores. However on the other side of the pond, drinking wines mostly originating from France, I was generally finding taint in the 5% range.

Thomas @ The Blog Wine Cellar said...

I agree with you about the aesthetic beauty of Ridge's packaging! I've always liked the way the bottles look too. I also agree somewhat to the statement that the wines aren't what they used to least for me they're not, or my palate has drastically changed over the years.

However, I tasted a 2000 Ridge Paso Robles about a year ago that blew my freakin' mind! Weird too because 2000 is considered a poor California vintage and also because the Paso Zin from Ridge isn't usually their best wine.

Just goes to show that you never can judge a vintner as a whole and say I don't like their wines anymore. Don't give up on them , they might do something you really love down the line!


David McDuff said...

Hey Wolfgang,

I too -- and I tried to make it clear in my post -- view the American oak influence as part of the Ridge signature. It's not that I find it out of balance so much as that I don't have the tolerance for it I once did. I don't have nearly as much experience with Ridge's Cabernets as with their Zins but I'm not surprised to hear you enjoy them. Based on my limited experiences, they do show a clear sense of place, something all too many Cali Cabs lack.

Definitely stop back and share your take on the '98 Lytton Springs.

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