Discovering Monterey County, Part I

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 04-20-2012

Monterey county might be California’s most overlooked wine county. Not only is it in the shadow of Napa/Sonoma for bay area wine spots, but its southern boundary sits right up against the Paso Robles AVA. So hot right now, Paso. This leaves Monterey in somewhat of a no-man’s land, albeit a beautiful one.

The county varies drastically in climate and terrain. The tourist viewpoint often doesn’t extend beyond the peninsula which grows fairways, not wine, and the stunning views of Big Sur on the coast. It’s the inland (that’s a relative term here) valleys where the vine thrives and the pace of life is closer to Kansas than San Francisco.

Santa Lucia Highlands

I admit I don’t have the highest opinion of Monterey wines, thinking it of somewhat of a producer of fine bulk wines, if that makes any sense. It’s better than Fresno, but rarely reaches the heights of Sonoma.

Or does it? I have decided this spring to give the county the fair chance it deserves, and there was no better way to start this tour than a helicopter ride over the Salinas Valley to get a better understanding of the geography and its influence on what goes into the bottle.

Jackson Family Wines graciously offered a ride from the small airport in Monterey proper to their Panorama Vineyard in the Arroyo Seco AVA. Arroyo Seco is in the larger Salinas Valley along with a few other AVAs, and I’ll be focusing on this piece of the county first.

The single most important factor in the climate here is the proximity of the Pacific Ocean. Not only is the water cold — as it is off the entire west coast — but Monterey Bay harbors a deep water canyon right off shore, meaning super cold, deep sea water is a stone’s throw from the beach, and that beach is a cold one. From the bay in the northern part of the county, there is a wide gap straight into the Salinas Valley allowing cold air to flow to the southeast, nearly all the way to Paso Robles. The further south in the valley one travels, the less pronounced the maritime influence becomes and the warmer the air becomes.

The valley is bounded by two mountain ranges, the Santa Lucia Range to the west and the Gabilan Range to the east. Over the years, runoff from these mountains has made the soil in the valley floor very fertile, which is great unless you’re trying to make great wine. All of those come from higher up off the valley floor, with the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA being the textbook example.

Panorama Ranch

The Santa Lucia Highlands (commonly referred to as SLH) sit in the foothills of the Santa Lucia Range, varying in elevation from 50 feet to 2000 feet, but the majority of vineyards are planted well above the valley floor, which itself carries the larger Monterey appellation. South of the Santa Lucia Highlands is Arroyo Seco, where a wider valley opens up to the west, and across the valley in the Gabilan Range sits the small Chalone AVA.

Panorama Ranch is a 415-acre property with dense plantings of almost exclusively pinot noir. I say almost because there are a few acres of riesling, which makes me happy. The vineyard was planted in 2005 and the wines produced from it go into the Carmel Road label. The director of vineyard operations, Grant Cremers, gave us a tour of the ranch atop the over-the-rows tractor. His major emphasis is on long term sustainability, and the vineyard is certified sustainable by S.I.P. We tasted a few barrel samples, which showed great promise for the young project, with peachy, flowery off-dry riesling and cinnamon-laced pinot noir. The finished wines, the 2009 Riesling and 2009 Pinot Noir, are both incredible values. The Riesling was a touch sweeter than the barrel sample, but had great balance between floral notes and petrol notes as well as sugar and acid.

After the ride back to the airport I drove around the Santa Lucia Highlands to try a few more wines. My favorite of the afternoon came from Pessagno Winery: its 2009 Manzoni Estate Vineyard Syrah. The wine has a great balance between ripe fruit flavors and a hint of tea leaf character that adds a nice complexity. Maybe it was their house-made sausage that sold me, but I took home a couple bottles, and I can count the number of times I’ve bought more than one bottle of the same wine on one hand.

Stay tuned for the next couple weeks — I’ll be making the journey back down south for a more in-depth Monterey County tasting with a closer look at the Carmel Valley AVA. They may still make fine bulk wines, but this trip gave me a glimmer of hope that there is a unique terroir yet to be discovered in Monterey, and I’m planning on doing just that.

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