-Connoisseurs' Guide to California Wine
"Our Pinot Noir matures in French oak casks for 14 months with a single racking. As Pinot Noir is a delicate varietal, too much air exposure will diminish fruit flavors and aromas. After aging in barrel, the lots are blended and bottled without filtration or fining, preserving the most delicate aromatics and flavors."
- Ivan Giotenov, Winemaker
Founded in 1996, Carmel Road's mission is to produce wine showcasing the unique nature of Monterey County terrior. The winery's debut release, the 1997 Chardonnay, demonstrates the potential of the Monterey County appellation to produce world-class wines.
Located just a few miles over the ridges from the Pacific Ocean, Carmel Road produces wines from vineyards set against the Santa Lucia range and in the Gabilan foothills. Winemaker Kris Kato grew up in Portland, Oregon, where he developed "the beer bug." But the fermentation science program at Oregon State University led him down the path of winemaking. He's worked at Central Coast wineries large and small, and notes both experiences prepared him for his role at Carmel Road, where he focuses on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
"Pinot expresses itself more than any other variety, in terms of being nuanced-driven," Kris says. He's excited to be working with Monterey fruit, including from the winery's Panorama Vineyard. "I love to make small lots of wine from different parcels. It’s incredible to be able to choose the most distinct wines from the vineyard, and showcase them in different bottlings."
Let’s start with the obvious – Central Coast Pinot Noir is an incredibly broad category. This of course is because the Central Coast appellation is enormous, and it contains several stellar Pinot Noir regions within it, all of them kept cool by elevation or proximity to the ocean (or both). So we’ll break things down a bit with a brief look at each of these: Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey and the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills. These are not the only Central Coast sources of good Pinot Noir, but they are the major ones. So let’s get started.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation, just west of Silicon Valley, producers craft excellent Pinot in spite of serious challenges. The land is mountainous, rugged and can be foggy, the topsoil is thin and poor and yields tend to be low. Yet Pinots from the likes of David Bruce, Martin Ray, Mount Eden and Thomas Fogarty exhibit undeniable quality, along with bright red fruit, minerality, earth and herbal hints.
Just south lies the large Monterey appellation. Monterey Pinot Noir is grown in coastal areas, taking optimal advantage of the cooling effect of the Pacific. The most highly regarded of these is the Santa Lucia Highlands. Situated on hilly benchlands south of the city of Monterey, this central coast region relies on a long growing season, night and morning fog and consistent afternoon winds to produce world class Pinot Noir. Attributes include intense, rich fruit, subtle earthy notes, spice and a silky texture. Look for producers like Siduri, Kosta Browne, Talbott and Lucienne.
The Santa Maria Valley in northern Santa Barbara County (a section of it falls into southern San Luis Obispo County) is also a haven for quality Pinot Noir. A mere 15 miles from the Pacific, the valley runs east-west, creating a natural tunnel through which ocean breezes and fog flow. This effect lengthens the growing season and promotes both ripeness and development of acidity, lending Santa Maria Valley Pinots their characteristic full flavor, balance and elegance. The famous Bien Nacido Vineyard is located here, and notable producers include Cambria, Foxen, Byron and Au Bon Climat.
Finally, we arrive at the Sta. Rita Hills, also in Santa Barbara County. Located in the western part of the Santa Ynez Valley, it too benefits from an east-west orientation that leads to the same conditions mentioned above. Once again the result is extended hang time for the grapes, which can be tasted in the vibrant, ripe red fruits evident in these Pinots, along with dense coloration and an impression of richness and intensity. Try wines from producers like Ken Brown, Ampelos, Fess Parker and Melville.
As you can see, California’s Central Coast offers a wealth of options for any lover of Pinot Noir. Cheers!