1. What is the barrel protocol/regimen for Monte Bello and Estate Cabernet?
Monte Bello and Estate lots start their barrel aging in 100% new oak, 97% of which is american and 3% french. The barrels are steamed and thoroughly rinsed to remove the first oak extract (a strong hickory tea that is removed and kept from extracting into the wines.) Once rinsed, barrels are painted with a water-based latex paint that seals the exterior to help protect the barrel from staining and microbial growth. They are then stacked in the cellar in the traditional fashion using wooden chalks to form a pyramid. Once Monte Bello and Estate lots are harvested, fermented, and pressed off, their free run lots start natural malolactic fermentation (ML) in temperature controlled tanks. When ML is 25-33% complete, the tank is mixed to re-suspend lees, and then the wine is sent to barrel for sur lees aging and to finish ML. Doing malolactic fermentation in barrel has an impact on oak integration and development of some fantastic flavors and added texture to the wines. We have been doing this method of ML and sur lees aging since 1997. That year we conducted controlled experiments that allowed us to blind taste the same lot handled through tank malolactic versus barrel. In all the experiments, the barrel malolactics gave the wines so much better mouthfeel, oak integration, and greater interest in complexity.
2. What specific flavor characteristics do the american oak barrels give in relation to the french?
American oak is a sweet oak, if properly seasoned and air dried, it will lend exotic spice and caramelized sugars to the wine. It makes the Monte Bello tannins feel rounder and more coated by sweeter fruit. The aromas are lifted and the fruit feels better defined and sweeter. French oak is tannic, doesn’t have any carbohydrates and therefore no caramelized sugars to extract. It’s a pungent oak showing vanilla, graphite, and cedar notes along with grainy tannins. The Monte Bello out of a french barrel will taste dry, grainy, masked by heavy french vanilla. It’s difficult to taste that from that barrel and find Monte Bello character. It’s buried underneath some strong oak notes from the french barrel.
3. How do the limestone soils affect the taste profile?
Limestone is calcium carbonate, making the soil basic/alkaline, and deficient in potassium. The vine roots have a wealth of water resources that they can pull from the limestone. This water is saturated in calcium carbonate which the vine takes in. Within a vine, the calcium has a strong biochemical function within the skins for anthocyanin development. That is why Monte Bello grapes are so inky. We also have phenomenal acidity due to the lack of potassium. The vines need potassium as a cation to exchange acidity for. In high potassium soils, the grapes can lose a lot of natural acidity. At Monte Bello, the grapes ripen and hold acid. The Monte Bello or Estate chardonnay can be bottled at pH 3.20-3.40, the bordeaux grapes can be bottled 3.30-3.50. The taste of Limestone can come through on the palate, towards the finish and aftertaste. I find the taste reminds me of flint that has been crushed or wet concrete. It’s a distinct mineral character, one that is hard to describe but one that you can find in the flavors of all the wines made from Monte Bello.
4. What are you looking for from the various blending grapes?
Cabernet Sauvignon is the back bone of structure and dark fruit. Merlot can be fairly well structured like cabernet, but its tannins tend to be more plush and velvety. I would say they are fine grain and cabernet is more chalky and coarse. Merlot has an effect of filling in the mid-palate with more flesh. Cabernet Franc is a medium weight wine, medium color, more elegant than the other grapes. It is the aromatic grape, very exotic and jammy similar to zinfandel. It has a sweet herbal component like juniper berries and eucalyptus. In a small percent, it can add interesting aromatics to a Monte Bello. Petit Verdot, is quite muscular and fleshy. It is the darkest grape and the most tannic. Similar to petite sirah for zinfandel, petit verdot adds depth and texture for cabernet. It is a floral and gamey grape, reminding me a little like syrah in showing fennel and sausage. It’s a pretty wild tasting wine. It is difficult to grow and to ferment, but when all goes well it is a powerful blending grape.
5. Do you look for some consistency year to year?
Nature, at least in my twenty-five vintages, has not been consistent. What we are making is a representation of nature; that year’s growing season will make an impact to the character of the wine. To even it out a bit, we do the assemblage and carefully select the choice ingredients of the vintage to make a wine that best displays the Monte Bello character which will also make a wine in the style of a great Monte Bello. Every year the percentages of the varieties will change based on the growing season and what varieties and parcels performed the best. We are growing at four different points on the mountain, each with their own micro-climate. Given weather variability we might face, there will typically be one or two micro-climates that are better protected insuring good ripening of the grapes, and thus making excellent wine to be chosen at assemblage. Some years all four points on the mountain do well, however most years it varies between middle and upper vineyards. It all depends on how much rain we receive in the winter, how much heat in summer, and if we get any inversion layers during summer to give the vines some warm nights. All these factors can change the ripening dynamics which ultimately affects fruit quality.
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