By Bruce Cochran
Vina Robles Chardonnay
For our final installment of this month’s look at the many faces of California’s Central Coast, let’s go to Monterey County. This is a great part of the Central Coast to visit, for a lot of reasons. It’s relatively close to San Francisco. Its capital, the seaside city of Monterey, is on a famously beautiful bay (and has a great aquarium), and there’s the 17 Mile Drive around Pebble Beach, the Highway One “Big Sur” coastal drive, nearby Carmel-by-the-Sea and, of course, great food and wine.
See you in two weeks. I’m on vacation.
Try a new wine this week!
Vina Robles Chardonnay
Monterey County is one of the world’s most scenic wine regions, as well as one of the largest and most diverse, with plenty of warm sunshine, cool ocean breezes and a long growing season.
The proximity of the ocean plays a key role in the county’s varied microclimates. As air in the warmer southern part heats up, then rises, ocean-cooled breezes are drawn in from Monterey Bay in the county’s north, where the terrain forms something of a natural sump.
The cool climate there is especially good for crisp, balanced chardonnay. Forty percent of Monterey County’s vines are chardonnay, especially in those cooler northern areas, which also grows some of California’s best riesling grapes and very good pinot noir.
The warmer southern parts of the county are better suited to cabernet sauvignon and other heat-loving varieties.
Many wines there are labeled simply “Monterey County,” but there are eight officially recognized subzones. Some of the best known are in the north: Monterey (which runs the length of the county, and is warmer in the south), Carmel Valley (whose mountains can help daytime temperatures reach 100 degrees, dropping more than 50 degrees at night) and Santa Lucia Highlands.
Rainfall is pretty low in Monterey County, so many vineyards are irrigated. This is a real advantage when done well, as vines can get exactly as much water as they need, and at only the right times.
Though grapes were first planted in Monterey County by Spanish missionaries more than 200 years ago, it seems today a relatively new wine region, with lots of experimentation and learning about the many microclimates and soil types, and which grape varieties are best suited for them. With its mountain chains and ocean breezes creating ideal growing conditions for grapes, wineries from many other parts of California — especially warm ones — like to use Monterey County grapes.
One of these is Vina Robles, located across the county line in neighboring San Luis Obispo County. Since they’re on the warmer, inland part of Paso Robles, they bought their 2008 Chardonnay grapes from the cool, northern Monterey subregion. They picked the grapes during the cool morning hours to preserve the fresh, vibrant, palate-cleansing acidity for which Monterey chardonnay is known, used whole cluster fermentation to preserve the fresh fruit flavors, kept it on the lees-stirred once a week for the first four months — for richness of texture, and added a subtle hint of French oak for balance and complexity. All in all it’s a pretty complete chardonnay, retailing for around $18 to $20 per bottle.