Dismissed for decades, Monterey is now making its mark, writes NORM ROBY.

Monterey, California’s coolest wine region, is suddenly a hotbed of activity. After four decades of unfulfilled promise, it has blossomed. Not long ago the number of fine wines made from its 16,200ha (hectares) could be counted on one hand. The list usually began with Chalone Pinot Noir and ended with Chalone Chardonnay. But in the mid 1990s the situation began to turn for the better. As older vineyards were replaced, growers began using the latest technology and brought new clones into the mix. These changes encouraged an attitude that elevated quality over quantity.

Once the word got out about the farming for quality story, outsiders from other parts of California took note and started a land rush of a kind not seen within California in some time. Proud new owners of Monterey vineyards soon included Robert Mondavi Winery, Kendall Jackson, Villa Mt Eden, Hess Collection, Raymond Vineyards and Gallo.In 1995 the late Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards shocked his Napa neighbours by developing vineyards in Monterey for the purpose of producing world-class Chardonnay. Named Mer Soleil, his vineyards in the northern Santa Lucia Highlands have yielded concentrated, often brilliant Chardonnay. About the same time, an ambitious local grower named Gary Pisoni, intent on making ‘Burgundian-style’ Pinot Noir, concluded an exhaustive search by buying 15ha on the southern slopes of Santa Lucia Highlands. In 1999, stunning, velvety Pinot Noir from the Pisoni Vineyard was produced by Patz & Hall, Testarossa, Siduri and Pisoni Estate. In 1996, Pisoni
partnered Gary Franscioni to create ‘Garys’ Vineyard’ within a cooler pocket of the Highlands. In 1999 Garys’ Vineyard was the source of charming Pinot made by Cinnabar, Testarossa and Siduri Wines. Barnett Vineyards, Miner Family Vineyards and Peter Michael are three other North Coast boutiques to have recently found Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir much to their liking.

The unexpected emergence of ‘designer’ or ‘blockbuster’ Syrah, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Monterey symbolises the dramatic change that has taken place. Initially, the area attracted big, corporate developers who laid out vineyards to supply vast quantities of grapes to the emerging wine markets of the 1970 and 1980s. Today’s prevailing attitude is to think small, to farm for flavours. Dan Lee of Morgan Winery has been making hand-crafted wines since 1982. He and many other growers now favour a mix of clones from Dijon and elsewhere, upright trellising systems, rootstocks to control vigour, leaf pulling and dense vine spacing. Jekel’s winemaker Rick Boyer, a veteran of 20 vintages, adds that improved water management practices for canopy control is another key factor. ‘Growers today are much more focused on quality and on matching variety to site.’

Boyer mentions with pride that Jekel’s 133ha vineyard is now being farmed organically.Not to be overlooked is California’s largest contiguous vineyard, the 3,076ha San Bernabe Vineyard, which was developed by a global insurance company. Now in the hands of the Delicato family, San Bernabe remains the largest, but the viticultural practices are site-specific when it comes to clonal selection, trellis system, shoot thinning and leaf pulling. Randall Grahm of Bonny Doon buys Sangiovese, Barbera and Malvasia from specific blocks
within San Bernabe. Napa’s Robert Pecota makes Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah from other parcels of San Bernabe. ‘Monterra’ is Delicato’s widely available mark, but the family offers ‘garagiste’ quantities of high-quality Chardonnay and Syrah under the ‘Delicato Monterey Vine Select’ label.

AVAs: a tour

Monterey (AVA), which encompasses the Salinas Valley region, is fairly cool and windy, and is also big (with over 16,000ha under vine) and diverse. Vineyards in the
valley’s northern sector, which includes Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands, experience a cool growing season that starts early but extends the harvest into November. Warmer areas south from King City to the border include the rarely seen AVAs of San Lucas and Hames Valley. Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot become more common in this southern half. While the majority of wines on the market use the Monterey AVA, the movers and shakers tend to be working within smaller AVAs. Santa Lucia Highlands (AVA), approved in 1991, is where the viticultural action is today. Formed by the gradual erosion of the Santa Lucia Mountains and stretching the length of the mountain’s eastern boundary, it is the coolest region within Monterey County. With 1,620ha of vineyards, located on east- and southeast-facing terraces that range in altitude from 30 to 400m, the AVA experiences less summertime wind and fog than its neighbours.

Its well-drained soil is generally gravelly and silty loam with no clay. Early stars were Chardonnays from Talbott, Morgan and Mer Soleil. Of late, Pinot Noirs are
stealing the show. The finest show bright cherry and red plum fruit, but are velvety, supple and intense. The best-known wineries here are Talbott, Morgan, Mer Soleil, Hahn Estate, Paraiso Springs, Smith & Hook and Pisoni Estate. Estancia has added a vineyard here, as has the Robert Mondavi Winery.
Arroyo Seco (AVA), south of Santa Lucia, was the birthplace of Monterey’s awakening in the 1960s, when vineyards were planted by Mirassou and Wente. Roughly shaped like a triangle, the area begins south of Soledad and fans out west along the valley floor. Jekel and Ventana Vineyards
settled in the Arroyo Seco in the 1970s and created consumer interest in Chardonnay and Riesling. For a brief period, a string of exquisite off-dry and botrytis-driven Rieslings from Wente and Jekel placed the variety as top performer. But faced with sluggish demand, winemakers eventually pinned their hopes on Chardonnay, which fares well here. To their credit, both Jekel and J Lohr continue to offer lovely,
delicate Rieslings.

Arroyo Seco Chardonnay ranges in style from bright green apple and tropical fruit to ripe peach and honeyed richness. Kendall Jackson’s Great Estate portfolio includes a Chardonnay from Arroyo Seco which is as intense and complex as any New World
Chardonnay. Best-known are Jekel, Mirassou, Wente, J Lohr, Ventana and Cobblestone.Chalone (AVA) lies in the eastern range of the Gavilan Mountain area. Containing over 80ha, much of it Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, most of the area is owned by Chalone Vineyard. At 700m, it is one of California’s highest vineyard regions. The soils are granite with clay and limestone, and the growing season is characterised by dry, warm days and unusually cool nights. In addition to the fine Pinots of Chalone Vineyards, David Bruce Winery makes exceptional Pinot Noir. Highly concentrated showcase-style Chardonnays are made by both Testarossa and Michaud Vineyards. Former Chalone winemaker Michael Michaud also has a small vineyard within the AVA and his debut vintages have been a big hit.Carmel Valley (AVA) lies on the opposite side of the mountain from Salinas Valley. Although it takes only a short drive to get from one to the other, Carmel Valley is warm and protected. It shares more with Napa than its immediate neighbours.

In the 1970s Heller Estate (formerly Durney Vineyards) led the way by planting Merlot and Cabernet. Now organically farmed, Heller’s 20ha estate vineyard yields massive, broadly structured Cabernet Sauvignon; ripe, mouth-watering Merlot and a Chenin Blanc that may well be California’s most under-appreciated wine. Most of the 120ha under vine consist of Bordeaux varieties. For its supple ‘Marinus’ red Meritage, Bernardus has 15ha of Bordeaux varieties. Other leading producers here are Chateau Julien, Galante, Joullian Vineyard and Georis. Galante offers three vineyard-designated Cabernets, and Georis specialises in opulent Merlot. Both Joullian and Chateau Julien are solid across the board, with the former making knockout Sauvignon Blanc and the latter highly regarded for Reserve Cabernet and Merlot.
Success with Merlot and Cabernet is not central to the big story shaping up in Monterey, however. This time around most winemakers are willing to bet the farm on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. That’s a good bet. Whether it is a $10 bottle or a $40 bottle, consumers are far more likely to get the most Chardonnay for their money if it is from Monterey. With Pinot Noir it is possible that Monterey Pinot Noir is ready to challenge Russian River Valley, Willamette Valley and Carneros for number one spot. That rivalry, like the entire Monterey wine region, bears watching.

Norm Roby is Decanter’s monthly US columnist, within ‘Stateside’.

Written by NORM ROBY