Archive for January, 2012
Ridge Vineyards is a winery that has fascinated me for much of the time that I’ve been interested in wine. Their wines, methods, and story are all a compelling source of interest for oenophiles.
Ridge’s history dates back to the late 1950s, when the property the winery and some of its vineyards reside on in Santa Cruz was purchased by a group of Stanford researchers. At the time, this didn’t include the Monte Bello vineyard, which was not purchased until a few years later. In the meantime, Dave Bennion and the rest of his partners had begun holding back some of their grapes to make wine themselves (the rest were sold to other wineries) and were becoming increasingly interested in using all of the harvest for their own wines.
In 1969 they hired Paul Draper, and the rest, as they say, is history. Draper became their chief winemaker and has remained at the helm ever since. The 1971 Monte Bello Cabernet Sauvignon that he led the making of was part of the historic Judgement of Paris in 1976, where it came in 5th. Over time, Ridge became one of the leading proponents of vineyard-designated wines, particularly with the range of single-vineyard Zinfandels the winery began releasing in the 1970s. The winery, led by Draper, also become a strong advocate for making wines with minimal intervention, allowing the grapes and their natural terroir come through.
While their wines are all excellent, it is this commitment to “natural” methods of winemaking that I find the most fascinating about Ridge. In a market favoring big, bold, often highly alcoholic red wines from northern California, Draper has continuously produced wines according to his own specifications. His restrained use of American oak, low yields, natural fermentations, and devotion to letting the unique characteristics of a specific site come through in the finished wine are all reasons that Ridge wines are both so compelling and so unique.
Draper’s note on the back of the label for this 2008 Estate Cabernet sums it up nicely: “The distinctive character of the world’s great wines has always been determined by their site – not by man.”
I really enjoy reading about Ridge Vineyards and the work that Paul Draper has done there. You may as well, so here are links to a few good resources. Most are interviews with or profiles of Draper, but at this point he is nearly synonymous with Ridge itself:
- “History and Philosophy of Winemaking at Ridge Vineyards, 1970s-1990s.” This extensive interview with Paul Draper is one of a series of oral histories that were collected by UC Davis.
- “Letting a Grape Be a Grape.” Very good profile of Draper and Ridge by the always interesting-to-read Eric Asimov of the New York Times.
- “A Non-Action Approach to Winemaking.” Another brief profile by Asimov.
- “Paul Draper.” Profile of Draper by Wine Spectator writer James Laube.
This 2008 vintage of the Estate Cabernet Sauvignon was produced from 66 tons of grapes harvested from 34 acres of vineyards, resulting in 24 parcels of this wine. The grapes are all from the Monte Bello vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where the grapes for the famed Monte Bello wine are also grown. This bottling includes 75% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 3%, Petit Verdot, and 2% Cabernet Franc.
The wine itself is a deep, black red. The nose has notes of black licorice, raspberry, cherry, oak resin, and an undercurrent of vanilla. The palate’s texture is soft and supple with medium tannins supporting dense flavors of tart black cherry, rich plum, tobacco and a healthy dose of spicy, resinous oak. The lingering finish is rich with tart, dark fruit. All in all, this is a big wine that deftly blends rich fruit flavors with tart ones and has a strong current of oaky flavors running through it.
On the label, Eric Baugher (vice president-winemaking) writes this note about the vintage:
“A severe winter ended In early February, leaving the vines short of water by late August. Moderate summer weather ripened the small crop during the first three weeks of October. Color and tannins extracted rapidly from the small berries. Parcels that make up the Estate Cabernet consistently produce wines that are more accessible and elegantly structured than those dedicated to the Monte Bello. Typically, we reduce pump-overs and press early, balancing tannins to fruit.”
The opportunity to taste a straight, grain scotch whisky – with no malt whisky included – is very rare. You almost never see such a whisky bottled on its own, and if you do it’s going to be an unusual, and limited, bottling from an independent bottler. Since I joined the Society several years ago, I’ve seen a couple of bottlings come and go. But outside of that, during the number of years that I’ve had an avid interest in scotch, I’ve run across only a very small handful.
The reality is that, of the many millions of gallons of scotch grain whisky that are produced each year, nearly all of them go into blended whiskies. And so, in the end, while grain whisky is drunk in phenomenal proportions by whisky drinkers every year, most of us know next-to-nothing about the grain whisky distilleries themselves. While malt whisky distilleries each have their own unique brands and stories, grain whisky distilleries quietly and anonymously (to most whisky drinkers) do what they do best, producing oceans of relatively neutral grain whisky to fill the needs of whisky blenders.
But, in reality, many of these grain whisky distilleries have interesting and compelling histories of their own. And, as it turns out, their whisky can be pretty interesting in its own right.
North British Distillery is a good example. It was founded in 1885 by Andrew Usher who had begun experimenting with the blending of whisky in the 1840′s, and in the 1850′s had released arguably the first blended whisky, Usher’s Old Vatted Glenlivet. By the 1880′s, Andrew Usher & Co. were competing with the Distiller’s Company, and so in order to secure a consistent supply of their own grain whisky, North British Distillery was founded in Edinburg. After two years of construction and outfitting with the latest equipment, the distillery began operations in 1887, and quickly ramped up production, distilling 3.6 million gallons of whisky a year beginning in 1888.
Prohibition hit the distillery hard, with production falling to as little as 1.2 million gallons in 1932, and it wasn’t until 1955 that production reached the 1914 level of 2.5 million gallons. Since then, the distillery has been stable and production has steadily increased to the stunning figure of 16 million gallons per year today. And with the closing of Caledonia Distillery in 1988, North British remains the only grain whisky distillery still operating in Scotland’s capital city today.
Today, North British is one of just 7 operating grain whisky distilleries:
- Loch Lomond
- Port Dundas
Its grain whisky features prominently in several brands, including the Famous Grouse, Johnnie Walker, J&B, and Cutty Sark. And, as with this one, the occasional bottling of straight North British whisky from an independent bottler. In this case, the bottler is Master of Malt, a retailer and independent bottler located in the UK.
This is a single-cask, cask-strength whisky that was distilled on January 22nd, 1991 and aged in a first-fill bourbon cask until being bottled on the 14th of October, 2011. It was bottled at 54.1%.
The whisky’s color is a pale, green-tinted gold. The nose has notes of coconut, lemon, and vanilla. Adding some water brings out notes of mint and lime. The palate has an oily, cocoa butter texture, with rich flavors of coconut custard, creme brûlée, and white chocolate, underscored by a slight, citrus astringency. Alongside those flavors, the overwhelming impression is of a very smooth and gently powerful whisky. The relatively long finish brings the same spectrum of soft, sweet flavors.
All in all, the flavors are very reminiscent of bourbon and American oak, especially with those vanilla, coconut, and cocoa butter elements.
I’ve never had a straight grain whisky before, and certainly never a single cask, cask strength one. But I have to say, this is pretty interesting, and pretty good. Very dessert-like; creme brûlée with a dollop of coconut whipped cream on top. Enjoyable, with all that sweetness minus the cloyingness that a bourbon can have. I would be very happy to have a bottle of this in my whisky cabinet.
Note: This sample was graciously supplied to me by Drinks By The Dram.