By Bruce Cochran
What’s in a name? A lot if you’re looking at wine names. Where the grapes are grown is one of the most important determinants of a wine’s quality and style. Cabernet from France isn’t like cabernet from California, and cabernet from different parts of California will differ from each other. This week we’ll look at another very important wine region with a name you might not immediately recognize.
Try a new wine this week!
Quite likely the most important and most diverse part of California’s Central Coast wine country, San Luis Obispo County may also be its least known name. It lies between Monterey County to its north, and Santa Barbara County to its south. This most central part of the Central Coast has two main wine appellations that wine lovers should know: Paso Robles and Edna Valley. Because of their very different climates, their wines can be very different. A third and smaller area, Arroyo Grande, is in the south.
Paso Robles is in the northern part of SLO county. Most of the vineyards are east of town along California 46E on the inland side of north-south running coastal hills that mostly block cool Pacific breezes. Daytime temperatures can easily reach 100 degrees, at times cooling down at night by 40 to 50 degrees, mainly due to cool ocean breezes flowing through a slot in the hills called the Templeton Gap. This wide temperature swing is something grape vines like a lot. With daytime temperatures this warm, you see a lot of heat-loving grapes such as zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and syrah. Climate and soil in the western hills can be very different.
What you don’t see much in Paso Robles is pinot noir and chardonnay. You see those grapes a few miles south near the city of San Luis Obispo in the Edna Valley wine region. This area is closer to the ocean and is cooled by it. Its moderate climate gives it one of the longest fall ripening periods in California. This allows the grapes to remain on the vines longer into the fall, letting them develop more and more flavor before harvest. This extended ripening period has helped to make Edna Valley famous for richly flavored pinot noir and chardonnay.
And in the southern part of San Luis Obispo County is Arroyo Grande, a small region very close to the ocean. Here they sometimes protect the vineyards from the very cool temperatures combined with ocean fogs by planting on south-facing slopes, a practice more associated with northern European climates than with sunny California. Because of its cool climate, it has a history of sparkling wine production.
California Karma Cabernet Sauvignon is made from grapes grown in San Luis Obispo County’s Paso Robles region, where hot, sunny days rapidly cool to chilly evenings. It retails for around $13-$15.
Bruce Cochran has traveled to every major wine region on four continents. A 30-year veteran of the wine trade, he taught continuing education wine classes for 26 years at colleges throughout Arkansas.