When talking California wine, the words “Napa and Sonoma” roll off the tongue and make all of us sound like experts, especially if followed up with references to AVAs (those government-designated American Viticultural Areas) like the Stags Leap District, Rutherford, Dry Creek Valley or Alexander Valley.
But there’s plenty more to California wine than just the bottlings coming from those two powerhouse — and justifiably world famous — valleys. The fine vintages coming out of Monterey County’s eight AVAs, located due south of Sonoma and Napa, are definitely contenders for their own bit of fame. From the rugged western coastline of Monterey and Carmel (the Monterey AVA) to the well-known Arroyo Seco AVA midway down the county, and all the way to the southernmost and far inland AVA of Hames Valley, there are over 85 vineyards and wineries producing a wide range of varietals in this vast county.
With numerous microclimates, hills, valleys and cool sea breezes flowing through, the northern section of Monterey County is ideally situated to make fine Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, as well-known brands like Kendall-Jackson Vineyards and Gallo have realized for decades, sourcing many of their Chardonnay grapes from this neck of the woods. Larger producers like Chalone, Estancia and J. Lohr consistently make excellent Chardonnays as well.
But the real gems of Monterey County are coming from the smaller boutique winemakers. Try Paraiso Vineyards’ award-winning 2008 Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay ($18), a vanilla-tinged nectar with an oaky finish, or DeTierra Vineyards’ 2007 Estate Grown Chardonnay ($30), creamy and buttery with notes of soft peach and vanilla, or Carmel Road Winery’s 2007 Arroyo Seco Chard ($35), a richly delicious fruit-forward quaff that fills the mouth with pear and toasty vanilla. For a real steal, search out the Cameron Hughes 2009 Lot 238 Arroyo Seco Chardonnay. For only $13 (and we found it at Costco for $9), this is a lush, oak-tinged wine that spills over with tropical fruit flavors and a soft, buttery finish.
Wonderful dense, smooth Pinots are also coming from numerous small producers in the county. Start with Pelerin Wines’ excellent 2008 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($33), especially if you love the tastes of raspberry and cherry in your Pinot. Check out McIntyre Vineyards’ 2008 Estate Pinot also from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA; one taste of that powerful plum, caramel and blackberry medal winner and you may never go back to Sonoma for Pinot again. Other top-notch Pinots from the area include Manzoni, Talbott, Pessagno, and Morgan.
There are many other excellent varietals coming out of Monterey County, too, that include bigger reds — Syrahs, Merlots, and Cabernets — mostly from the drier and warmer AVAs like San Bernabe, San Lucas and Hames Valley, as well as crisp Sauvignon Blancs and Rieslings from the more northern areas.
One value-priced favorite is the Big House Wine Company collection of wines being made by Georgetta Dane, the Romanian-turned-American who combines her European palate and know-how to turn out some seriously impressive Monterey wines, concocted just steps away from the infamous Soledad Prison. Thus the name “Big House,” and all the clever monikers of the wines, from their well-known “Big House” Red and White blends to the “The Usual Suspect” Cabernet Sauvignon, “The Slammer” Syrah and “The Birdman” Pinot Grigio. All of her wines are eminently drinkable, priced at $10 a bottle, pair really well with food and are even offered up in the more economical three-liter (equal to four bottles) “premium wine cask.” That box, outfitted with a wine bladder and spigot, keeps the wine perfectly fresh (no oxygen can get in to turn it into vinegar) and is a great deal at $22.
An excellent way to experience all that Monterey County has to offer is to head there for a visit, especially during one of the area’s special wine events. We suggest a trip to the 19th Annual Winemakers’ Celebration, held on August 13, 2011, or the “Sunset” magazine SAVOR the Central Coast 2011 celebration, scheduled to go from September 29 to October 2. That one is actually a bit further south, but will feature many of Monterey County’s finest wineries as part of the big party.
Regardless of whether you visit or not, there’s no doubt you’ll be happily surprised when you expand your idea of fine California wines beyond Napa and Sonoma and delve into any of Monterey County’s beautiful wine offerings. Take a sip, and you’ll know what we mean.