Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Merlot in Monterey & Cabernet in Carmel? The Wines of Monterey County

People come to Monterey and Carmel to absorb the beautiful rugged coastline, visit Cannery Row, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but the wine culture here is thriving. Though the county is best known for the Santa Lucia Highlands, where high-end Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are being made, there is an incredible diversity of wine being produced here from Zinfandel to AlbariƱo. So if you’re the adventurous type you’re in luck. I recently spent a week in Monterey Country immersing myself in the wide breadth of the wines.

This is merely an overview of what you can expect.

The first commercial grapes were Chenin Blanc planted in Chalone in 1919 and they are still there. Chalone Vineyards makes Chenin Blanc from these very vines. In the early 1920s Chardonnay was planted, but like everywhere else in the country, Prohibition pretty much halted the growth of the wine industry. It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that serious plantings began to emerge. The main tasting areas are:
The original Chenin Blanc vineyard from 1919, lower center

River Road in the Santa Lucia Highlands is that quintessential vineyard experience: you drive from vineyard to vineyard; there are scenic vistas and you’re in the heart of farm country. Of note the views at Hahn and Paraiso are the best and take into account the vines in front of you, the Salinas Valley, and the Gabilan mountain range in the distance. These tasting room hours tend to be more weekend oriented and are working wineries, so check in advance. River Road cuts through the Santa Lucia Highlands and the preponderance here is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, though not exclusively. You’ll also find places like Wrath and Marilyn Remark offering Syrah and Rhone wines.
Hand harvesting Pinot Noir

Carmel Village has within its small geometric core, half a dozen tasting rooms including Caraccioli Cellars which is located right downtown. Their focus is sparkling wine and they are one of the few to make sparklers in the entire county. Their wines range in price from $20 to $57, and tasting fees start at $5 and head to $15. And Caraccioli is one of the few places open later (Carmel is notorious for rolling up their sidewalks early) so you can sample a sparkler made from Pinot Noir or Chardonnay before or even after dinner and grab a small bite of popcorn, bruschetta or a cheese plate. The great thing about downtown Carmel is you can walk to all the tasting rooms, hit some shops, and find lunch and dinner all within close proximity.

The Carmel Valley located inland from the seaside village, is awash with wineries and tasting rooms numbering a dozen currently. “The Row” a slice of seven tasting rooms in a long row is the sister to the number of vineyard properties and stand alone tasting rooms which increasingly populate the warmer valley region. Many of the white wines from this area have a more noticeable acidity and minerality which I find best expressed in a new winery called Silvestri, who make wines ranging from $20 to $40, and with a mere 3,000 cases they embody “boutique” ideals here. Their Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay deviate from the standard offerings precisely because of a minimal use of oak and letting the grapes retain their acidity. But Carmel Valley wines, including hearty reds like Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and even Merlots which can be surprisingly balanced, though somewhat lacking on the finish. Nonetheless the valley, which first saw Cabernet planted in 1983, is capable of turning out very good though wildly different iterations of these reds.
Sabrine Rodems of Wrath Wines

Some of the most intriguing wines however are coming from Sabrine Rodems of Wrath, and Ian Brand who makes wine for Pierce Ranch, Coastview and his own label. They are indicative of a no-holds-barred attitude of experimenting with whole cluster fermentation, new grape varieties, and finding oddball vineyards with massive potential. Another great discovery is Marin’s Vineyard based in the southern part of Monterey County near Jolon. Small unassuming and well priced, this 800 case winery is doing a remarkable job with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Viognier. Also located in the southern end, but with a tasting room near Cannery Row, is Pierce Ranch who makes what are called Iberian varieties; AlbariƱo, Touriga even a wonderful classic California Zinfandel. And don’t be surprised on your travels if you see falcons or owls above the vineyards. These incredible birds are employed to keep other birds from eating grapes off the vines.
Louise is a Eursian Owl

And of course wine needs food: some of my personal favorites include Manduka and Grasing’s in Carmel, Passion Fish in Pacific Grove, and the Sardine Factory, The Duck Club Grill, and Restaurant 1833 all in downtown Monterey. Regardless of where exactly you spend your time, you’ll find a vast selection of diverse wines. So always drink local and always try something new; you’ll see Monterey Country in a whole new light. And when you do, post a comment on this blog and let us know what you like and don’t like! 

And be sure to check out my 2 Minute Travel video shot at Hahn Winery:

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