Wine Review: 1991 Ridge Santa Cruz Mountains Merlot

I understand the irony of writing my first wine review about a 1991 Merlot. First off, if you read the review and you want to try this wine, you won’t be able to. It’s a cellar selection that was likely bottled in 1992. Second off, how typical can a 1991 Merlot be relative to what most of us will be able to find in a liquor store or restaurant? From a first hand account, I can tell you that it wasn’t typical of today’s Merlot, but everything you want to get out of an aged Merlot reaching the end of its peak.

What we are taught about Merlot is that it’s a grape that is medium in all ways: fruit, tannin, acidity, body, alcohol – pick the category, and it’s medium. It also has an amazing presence of red fruits like cherry, raspberry and plum. Wines with age get lighter in color (red wines) over time, and the fruit presence tends to become more diluted.

Ridge began making Merlot from its Monte Bello estate in 1974. Ridge is a wonderful historical estate that makes about 20 wines every year. They are rooted in success, which is wildly impressive for a California winery that does not call Napa home (nor does it have a Napa tasting room). If you happen to be in either Cupertino or Lytton Springs, you’d be insane not to make an effort to stop in.

Back to the wine: the grapes come from a region of the Santa Cruz Mountains that sit almost 2600 feet above sea level. This means that the sun exposure is high, but the nights and mornings are very cool. The drastic changes in temperature during the days leads to more concentrated juices, while not always richer fruit. The fruit was surprisingly ripe, and the 20% Cabernet Sauvignon was present in the wine, making the flavors as much plum and blackberry as dry cherry overripe raspberry. The color was approaching Pinot levels and it had an opaqueness I wouldn’t otherwise expect from a Merlot. The wine is well-balanced, has medium alcohol (12.9% – noting that alcohol content is the one thing in wine that does not change over time), medium-plus body and a truly-rich complexity.

I apologize for reviewing a wine that I think you should buy if you ever come across it (it should run about $50 retail) because there is a good chance you’ll never get to try it for yourself. But there are wines that make a commodity a piece of fine art. For $50 – this is it. Cheers.

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