Ridge: the power of Zin
Author: Adam Holden
Beginning in 1962 with the fabled Monte Bello vineyard, Ridge Vineyards has achieved global acclaim under the auspices of the equally legendary Paul Draper. Alas, for most us the wines of Monte Bello are out of reach; being both expensive and in short supply. Further north in Sonoma, Ridge has established a dedicated and loyal following for their elegant Zinfandel and Zin’ blends which showcase what this grape is capable of in the right hands. No one has done more for the reputation of this often-frivolous grape variety than Ridge.
We live in an age where the term “sustainable” is thrown around with such abandon that it starts to seem meaningless. Talking to assistant winemaker Mike Bairdsmith in the winery at Lytton Springs, it’s clear that they are neither hoisting themselves onto the bandwagon nor paying lip service; principles of sustainability are built into their very essence. The approach in the vineyard and winery are described as “pre-industrial”, inspired by the techniques of 19th century Californian and Bordeaux châteaux. They are the largest growers of organic grapes in Sonoma and the winery itself is built from clay sourced from the vineyard together with straw bales, which provide both the structure and ample insulation.
Ridge’s two iconic Zinfandel blends are Lytton Springs and Geyserville; both field blends with Zinfandel in the lead role supported by Petite Syrah, Carignane, Mataro and Alicante Bouschet. It’s not unusual to feel a sense of magic when you first step foot in a vineyard, whose wines you have enjoyed both thoughtfully and frivolously over many years. But there is something in the air at Lytton Springs, or perhaps it’s just being caught up in a bit of Californian whimsy, but standing there is meditative. The vineyard workers go about their business quietly and purposefully among the gloriously gnarled 100-year-old vines, this is a full-time team rather than seasonal workers and they know exactly what they are doing.
Paul Draper made Ridge’s first wine from Lytton Springs in 1972 and purchased the vineyard in 1991. As with many of California’s best wines the site benefits from the morning fogs which help to maintain a cooler temperature and give a longer ripening season. The warm, sunny afternoons ensure ripeness, but the foggy mornings and cool evenings are what bring elegance and complexity to a variety which can easily become jammy and sweet.
Like its southern sibling Monte Bello, Geyserville in the Alexander Valley is regarded as one of California’s most significant and historic vineyard sites. Here Ridge has their oldest vines, reaching up to 130 years in age, vines which only narrowly escaped the recent fires in California. Geyserville is only five miles away from Lytton Springs but it is notably warmer, and the fog doesn’t hang around as much here. Nevertheless, the wines show, if anything, greater restraint and minerality than those of Lytton Springs.
Both wines are archetypes of Zinfandel; Lytton is packed with bramble fruit and bright raspberry with an earthy, brooding character and leathery notes. The palate is lush and rich and comes in a wave of voluptuous texture. Geyserville keeps to itself a little more, not to say that Lytton is flashy, but the Geyserville’s mineral core gives it wonderful poise and, whilst no lack of palate coating fruit follows, there is a crunchy freshness here delivering a moreish finish.
With all their delicious fruit it’s tempting to drink these wines young (which I do without guilt) but back when such things could still be found I have enjoyed these wines at 10-15 years old and they age seamlessly. Tasting this pair together is as instructive, not to mention enjoyable, an example of the influence of terroir as one is likely to find anywhere.