The influence of geography and geology on vineyards, grapes and ultimately a bottle of wine is inestimable. In fact, geology and geography form the Alpha and the Omega of the biological foundation and agricultural process that in collaboration with weather — born itself of geographical and stratospheric principles — pump life into dormant vines, unfurl the leaves and encourage the buds, plump the grapes and bring them to fullness so they may be harvested and turned into wine. It’s not a magical or miraculous occurrence; aside from weather, which is the most variable factor in the tapestry, the elements of geography and geology change little over hundreds of thousands of years. (Global warming and climate change are different issues.)
Monterey County nestles against the Pacific Ocean, slanting to the southeast away from Monterey Bay, where it begins. You might picture, if you will, a flat valley, the Salinas Valley, the runs from the northwest to the the southeast between mountain ranges, the Santa Lucia Range to the west and the Galiban and San Benito ranges to the east. The Salinas Valley, a broad flatland, acts as a wind tunnel, drawing wind currents down from Monterey Bay, home to one of the world’s unique oceanographic features, the so-called Blue Grand Canyon, a name trademarked by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. Whatever it’s called, this two-mile-deep (from the surface of Monterey Bay) and 60-mile-long trench in the ocean floor, located less than 100 yards off the coast, generates a colossal amount of cold air that influences the climate of Monterey’s vineyard regions as far south as San Lucas, where the Salinas Valley peters out. As you can see from this relief map, most of Monterey County — the county line is pink — is mountains; the Salinas Valley spikes down between the ranges. The light green area toward the bottom, surmounted by what look like bunny ears, is the San Antonio Valley. (Map from landwatch.org)
The entire valley and the foothills of its adjacent mountain ranges are filled with fog from early morning to late morning or early afternoon, when rising temperatures click on the wind tunnel effect and winds of up to 30 miles per hour begin to churn from the bay down through the valley. The resulting Thermal Rainbow — another trademark — regulates temperatures from the bay, where it’s coolest, down through the Salinas Valley all the way to the Hames and San Antonio AVAs, where the temperature is the warmest, sometimes to a differential of 40 degrees. In the cooler areas, pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and riesling vines flourish; farther south, the vineyards hold cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and some Rhone Valley grape varieties. The climate of the Central Coast and Salinas Valley is characterized as Mediterranean, meaning dry summers and cool, wet winters, though “wet” is a relative terms for a region where the rainfall averages 17 inches annually, and that’s between November and April. (The image above shows the Panorama Vineyard at the western edge of Arroyo Seco AVA, looking toward the Santa Lucia Range.)
Monterey County is an American Viticultural Area, so designated in 1984, but that doesn’t mean that you can plant grapes anywhere in the county and expect to say so on the label. The Monterey AVA is restricted to the narrow, central part of the county as well as an arm that reaches to the coast around Carmel. Lying along or within the Monterey AVA are eight smaller appellations, some of which are much better known than others: Chalone (1982), high above Soledad in the Gabilan hills below Pinnacles National Monument, home to one winery, Chalone Estate, and two other vineyards, 300 acres planted; Carmel Valley (1983), with five wineries and 300 acres of vines; the crowded Arroyo Seco (1983), with 37 wineries and vineyards and 7000 acres of vines; the seldom seen San Lucas (1987), home to eight vineyards that total 8,000 acres; the increasingly prestigious Santa Lucia Highlands (1991), with 29 vineyards and wineries and 5,900 planted acres; the also seldom seen Hames Valley AVA (1994), with eight vineyards totaling 2,200 acres; San Bernabe (2004), whose raison d’etre is 4,300 acres of vines owned by Delicato Family Vineyards; and the vast and largely empty San Antonio Valley (2006), which boasts three wineries and another vineyard totaling 600 acres.
My concern today (and in a subsequent post), after this introduction, is Santa Lucia Highlands, a long, narrow and increasingly populated AVA that over the past two decades has built a solid reputation for wines made from (especially) chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. SLH perches along the eastern terrace of the Santa Lucia Range, on the west side of the Salinas Valley, looking across to the distant Chalone AVA and Pinnacles National Monument (see accompanying image, from santaluciahighlands.com). From any vantage point or dizzy coign, the valley spreads northwest and southeast in a fertile quilt-like patchwork of various intense green hues, the country’s abundant basket of lettuce, cabbage and other leafy vegetables, that would not be possible without irrigation. SLH benefits from its semi-lofty placement on the escarpment — vineyards go from about 300 to 1,400-feet-elevation — where morning fog from Monterey Bay brings moisture and late morning sun and afternoon winds dry the grapes; the cool winds also slow photosynthesis, ensuring a long, even ripening of the grapes. Soil is primarily fine alluvial sandy or gravelly loam.
I’ll look today at SLH products from two young (or youngish) winemakers, Sabrine Rodems at Wrath Wines (she also has some Monterey AVA wines) and Chris Weidemann, who owns Pelerin Wines. A post coming next week (at a rough estimate) will discuss Figge Cellars, Tudor, Boekenoogan and Hahn Estate’s Lucienne single-vineyard pinot noirs. All of these wines were tasted on a sponsored trip to Monterey during the second week of September.
Sabrine Rodems is fast-talking, brash, opinionated, animated, funny and sincere and totally dedicated to making authentic wines with balance, integrity, grace and no small measure of power. As winemaker for Wrath Wines — formerly San Saba Vineyards –she produces very limited quantities of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and syrah under three labels: Ex Anima Wines, Winemaker Series and Single Vineyard Series.
The Wrath Ex Anima Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Monterey, practically climbs out of the glass with its brash bright notes of green apple, grapefruit and gooseberry and hints of fresh-mown grass; made all in stainless steel, this is very clean, crisp and tart, with appealing personality and mineral grip. 12.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19. The Wrath 3 Clone Chardonnay 2010, Monterey, goes the whole route: barrel-fermentation, 10 months in “40 or 50 percent” (Rodems said) new French oak and full malolactic; almost miraculously, the result is not overwhelming richness but exquisite balance, lovely heft, density and texture, reams of spice-infused apple, grapefruit and pineapple scents and flavors heightened by a trace of jasmine and deepened by shimmering limestone and flint minerality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.
The Ex Anima Pinot Noir 2010, Monterey, aged 10 months in a combination of stainless steel tanks and two-to-four-year-old French oak; no window-dressing here, this is all pinot noir purity and intensity, cleanness and freshness, with clove-and-cola- inflected raspberry and red currant scents and flavors, a sleek satiny texture and invigorating acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25. Rodems makes a pinot noir from the Boekenoogan Vineyard (about which more later); the version for 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, reveals a bit more obvious hand with oak, but the wine is essentially well-balanced, smooth, suave and polished. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $49.
Finally, the Wrath Fairview Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, offers all the blackberry and blueberry fruit, baking spice and black pepper and potpourri you could ask for in a supple package bolstered by plenty of dusty, briery tannins and earthy graphite-like minerality. 14.6 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Sometimes you encounter wines that seem such an embodiment of grace and elegance, purity and integrity that you would like to drink them forever. It’s fitting that the labels of Chris Weidemann’s Pelerin Wines feature the profile of an elderly pilgrim depicted as if part of an ancient mural; that sense of classical decorum and timelessness is intrinsic in Weidemann’s wines, all of which carry the Santa Lucia Highlands designation. He specializes in chardonnay, pinot noir and red and white Rhone Valley grape varieties and produces about 2,200 cases annually.
The Pelerin Paraiso Vineyard Les Tournesols 2010 is a blend of 58 percent viognier and 42 percent roussanne grapes; the wine spent six months in neutral oak barrels, that is, barrels used several times before. What a completely lovely, perfectly balanced wine, with notes of jasmine, fig, melon and roasted lemon and a hint of lime peel and limestone; audacious acidity and a firm but limpid limestone element support a structure and texture of beguiling shading and dimension. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $27. The Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 offers a bright gold color and grapefruit-pineapple scents and flavors that hint at the tropical without falling into the trap of overstatement or ungovernable ripeness; it’s a beautifully balanced and harmonious chardonnay, smooth, subtle and supple but with an edge of spice and flint, ginger and quince that raises the level of discourse a notch or two. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $42.
People often say, “Words fail,” an assertion I find ridiculous, because words and language are adequate for all purposes; it’s not the words that fail, it’s us and our imaginations. So, words don’t fail at the prospect of describing the Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, but they certainly stand rather awe-struck. Not that there’s anything super-dimensional about the wine; just the opposite, and if you’re weary of pinot noir wines from California that push the limits with extraction and richness and ripeness and alcohol, then this pinot noir is what you have been longing for. The fruit profile is red and blue, as in red currants and plums and blueberries with a hint of the tartness of cranberries and notes of cola and cloves; supple, satiny, yes, but spare, elegant and understated, except for the essential crisply-etched acidity that plows a row on the palate and a seemingly fathoms-deep element of graphite-like minerality and earthy briers and brambles, all this panoply subdued in honor of divine harmony. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Exceptional. About $42.
Finally, the Pelerin Paraiso Vineyard Les Violettes Syrah 2008 is a model of balance, purity, intensity and utter drinkablility, yet behind that sapid facade, with its tasty black and blue fruit flavors, lingers a savory bastion of tar and tapenade, leather, black pepper and graphite. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $36.