Mt Eden Chardonnay Vineyard

Central Coast – International Comparison

CHARDONNAY & WHITE BURGUNDY

The place to start any discussion about Central Coast wine is Chardonnay. California changed the world’s perception of Chardonnay in the 1970’s by introducing the idea of fruit. Prior to that point white Burgundy had been the model. The Chardonnay grapes pressed into service making white Burgundy have a very difficult time getting ripe during the short growing season of northern France. As a result the wines are ‘worked up’ in the winery by a series of techniques (skin-soak, barrel-fermentation, malo-lactic fermentation, sur lie aging, barrel aging, etc). Young white Burgundies can be complex, interesting wines, but they do not demonstrate much grape aroma. They need years in the bottle before maturity brings out a melded impression of grape character and the toasty / vanilla / butter sensations introduced by the winemaker. Until that maturity softens the edges and fills in the acid gap, white Burgundies can be rather austere.

Central Coast Chardonnay has a very clear, and enjoyable grape aroma right from the beginning. It is a pineapple scent, at once round, fragrant, and smooth but insistent. The wines do age well, because they retain good natural acid in the long, cool growing season of California’s coastal maritime districts. But, unlike white Burgundy, Central Coast Chardonnays are boffo at age two when they are first released. That feature is a result of long hang time. Through the 1980’s Central Coast Chardonnay grapes sold for more money per ton than Chardonnay grapes from Napa Valley. That’s quite an endorsement given the Central Coast’s wine industry at the time was little more than a glint in the eyes of a couple winemakers.

The notion of fruit aroma in Chardonnay was such an impact exploding on the wine scene in the 1970’s that it changed the world’s drinking habit. First of all Chardonnay started being planted in all sorts of locations all over the globe. California plantings alone of Chardonnay went from well under 5,000 acres in 1972 to well over 100,000 acres forty years later. This glut of grapes lead to the thousands of inexpensive bottlings under cutsey brand names (e.g. Fat Bastard from France, Yellowtail from Australia), which we see today. It also lead to a high-end, New World style of Chardonnay, much different than white Burgundy, but competitive in the marketplace.

A very specific international comparison to Central Coast Chardonnay comes from Margaret River, on Australia’s west coast. Leeuwin Estate is arguably Australia’s most highly regarded Chardonnay. Both areas have low diurnal fluctuation, which is pretty much the opposite of Burgundy. Leeuwin makes their Chardonnay in a robust, rich style with MLF and a significant percentage of new French oak, but all those accoutrement are fleshed out from the very beginning by opulent pear and Fuji apple notes. The strong fruit statement of Leeuwin grapes stands up to a complementary addition of oak and winemaker treatments without being eclipsed. The wine is overpowering from a young age, which helps to justify its high bottle price. The wine also has a track record for aging well in bottle. All these remarks apply equally well to many of the best Chardonnay examples from California’s Central Coast.

A sidelight from the discussion above would be the phenomenon of Central Coast sparkling wine. There’s not a lot of it made. A noteworthy exception is the former Maison Deutz facility in Arroyo Grande, on the coast south of Pismo Beach in San Luis Obispo County. Their sparkling wines currently go to market under the Laetitia label. Their vineyards at the winery can legitimately claim to be among the coldest anywhere in California. Cold climate? Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Blanc grapes? Sounds pretty Champagne-like to me. The Champenois don’t talk much about Pinot Blanc grapes, but they sure do grow a lot of them.

Sarah's Vineyard Pinot Noir

PINOT NOIR & RED BURGUNDY

The popular movie Sideways was shot in Santa Barbara County. It featured much complimentary dialogue about Pinot Noir. Since red Burgundy is made from Pinot Noir, it is almost a knee-jerk reaction to say a Pinot Noir you enjoy is “Burgundian.” But what the hell does that mean? The most remarkable characteristic about red Burgundy is how different in can be from vineyard to vineyard, and certainly from commune to commune (US Federal government please read ‘district to district’). California Pinot Noir in general, and Central Coast Pinot Noir in specific, gets deeper, rounder, more intensely fruit-driven than all but the best French examples, with the commune of Pommard often being singled out in Burgundy as most prone to these characteristics. Again, it’s a function of hang-time. A Santa Barbara Pinot Noir is on the vine six to eight weeks longer than any grape in Burgundy. Santa Barbara Pinot Noir wants to be with slow cooked pork shoulder ~ sauce made from reduced jus and a little plum compote; no sweet tomato BBQ. Monterey Pinot Noir wants to be with onions and peas and top quality ground beef in an empanada.

What Burgundy does accomplish, in top vintages or great wines, is amazing complexity; lots of things going on. Those characteristics may range from dried leaves and mushrooms, to dill weed, or a faintly human micro-biological funkiness. Central Coast PNs may appear mildly simple by comparison. But in America, this game is still young. Advancements will be made. Great distinctive Burgundy costs $300 to $500 a bottle minimum. Wonderful Central Coast Pinot Noir costs $35 to $135. And beauty is an individual interpretation. Burgundy aficionados say comparing Central Coast Pinot Noir to Burgundy is today like choosing to covet a young Jessica Simpson vs. Catherine Deneuve ~ Jessica the more effusive; Catherine more reserved. Maybe a more apt comparison for lovers of Central Coast PN would be Diane Keaton vs. Catherine Deneuve. They’re both pretty, but they are surely different, and Diane is a little quirky, more of a handful.

PINOT GRIS & PINOT GRIGIO

Pinot Gris (pee NOH gree) is the French name for a grape variety called Pinot Grigio in Italy. Although they are the same grape, the wines from Italy are vastly different from those in France. Italian Pinot Grigio comes primarily from Veneto and the Sud Tyrol along the watershed of the Adige River (northeastern Italy), which runs out of the Alps and into the Adriatic Sea southwest of Venice. The best examples tend to be crisply acidic, with modest peachy aromatic properties which seem to follow though nicely into the finish. Italians take great delight matching Pinot Grigio with seafood.

French Pinot Gris is grown in Alsace on the German border. It is much riper, more distinctive, and assertive than its Italian counterpart. More expensive too. In some instances it is harvested late, and/or botrytized [LINK to GLOSSARY ENTRY], and made into a sweet dessert wine. Pinot Gris from top vineyard sites in Alsace is absolutely spectacular, improves magnificently over ten years in bottle, and routinely sells for three figures. These wines feature Alsace’s famous minerality balancing rich texture and luminous complexity, of which fruitiness is but one component. Great, dry Alsatian Pinot Gris is often paired there with Tarte Flambée (basically thin-crust pizza with cheese, onion, and ham) and even with Choucroute Garnie (sauerkraut, potatoes, and sausage or bacon).

In America, PG (wineries can choose whichever name they want to label it) is a fairly new item. New, but very successful. It is grown, in limited quantities, all over the country. In 2011 there were 13,300 acres in California, more than double what there had been eight years earlier. In 2005 PG overtook Sauvignon Blanc as the second most popular white wine on the US market (still way behind Chardonnay). One might easily speculate the prevalence of Italian restaurants in the US has played a considerable role. There are more acres (2,800) of PG planted in the Central Coast than anywhere else in California, except the Central Valley (about half the state’s acreage).

Central Valley PG would be similar to millions of bottles produced in Italy’s Veneto. That is, nondescript white wine destined to wash away the oiliness of fried fish in seaside osterie. Pleasant while watching small boats bob in the harbor. Not really memorable in Indianapolis where the fishing fleet has been painted on a wall. A more impressive style of PG from California’s coastal districts has just begun to take shape. It is fruitier than the Italian’s best from Alto Adige, grown at 2,400 feet in the Alps. Matching a top CA coastal example to seafood would want a sauce, a mango-jicama-chiles salsa really. No coastal PG has the minerality of an Alsatian example, but good ones can be more expressive of the white peach varietal signature than anything from Italy, and still show elegant acid structure. The potential seems enormous.

Bien Nacido Vineyard
Bien Nacido Vineyard

SYRAH & RHONE VARIETIES             

Controversy abounds as to the introduction of Rhônish varieties on the California scene, but the Central Coast has more than its share of candidates for lead pioneer. Moreover warm inland districts, such as Paso Robles and the protected eastern valleys of Santa Barbara County, are today top practitioners of the Rhônish arts. Gary Eberle certainly gets credit for bringing an Australian clone of Shiraz (Syrah) to California when he was at Estrella Vyds in Paso Robles in 1973. John Alban, may not have been the very first California winery to plant Viognier, but he was certainly the first to plant it in a big way (40 acres). And I’ve always thought of Bob Lindquist at Qupé in Santa Maria as the first guy out marketing Syrah in an aggressive manner. What has the Central Coast got to show on the world stage for their 40 years of experience?

Well, nobody is yet able to match a handful of northern Rhone (Guigal, Chapoutier, Jaboulet) nor Australian (Grange, Hill of Grace) producers for bottle price. But important French producers (the Perrin family from Ch. Beaucastel) have opened a winery near Paso Robles (Tablas Creek), and Central Coast wines routinely hold there own in blind international comparisons. Members of the British trade, for instance, seem drawn to Central Coast Syrah because it has the fruit intensity lacking in northern Rhône exemplars, but doesn’t carry the alcoholic weight of many Australian versions.

Grenache and Grenache blends, often called GSM ~ Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre ~ are representative of the southern Rhône Valley, and have been widely produced in Australia since about 1995. They’re relatively newer in the US, but apparently the current focus of many craftsman-sized producers. Wheat will soon start separating from the chaff. Look for multi-faceted wines, where a raspberry core is embellished by dried sour cherries and a backstop of beefsteak cooked rare. These should be very useful wines; lighter-bodied, not overly expensive. Think turkey dark meat on the grill, or Chicken Cacciatore. This could be a promising wine category in the US. Good for fully-dressed hamburgers hot off the grill in artisan buns. That’s a phrase I want on my tombstone ~ artisan buns. For many years Australians used Grenache to make Port-like wine for sale in London. Today they tend to let Grenache get far too ripe. Traditional French producers often employ barrels, bought used by the winemaker’s great uncle, which are all cocked up with unknown micro-organisms. I feel the door to great success in Paso Robles is wide open.

White Rhônish varieties are also making headway on the Central Coast. I did a blog post on Roussanne in 2012 citing the acreage figure as 165, and noting the very high price those grapes command. Neither Roussanne nor Marsanne from the Central Coast bear much resemblance to their counterparts in the Rhône Valley. That could easily be the learning curve. Most Central Coast examples emphasize pliable fruit characteristics easily dominant from the beginning. The wines do have substantial body, but precious few show any bouquet development, or the aging potential I’d expect from a quality white Rhône.

Viognier has been around our Central Coast the longest, and it is something of a different story. John Alban makes one Viognier from his Estate in Edna Valley, and another from grapes grown on the warmer inland side of the coastal mountains near Paso Robles (labeled Central Coast). It’s a great side-by-side comparison. In general, the cooler climate Estate is the superior wine, but it definitely shows best in warm years (which make the Paso Robles version very fruity, but a touch flabby). Cold years bring the two wines closer together. Moreover, the Estate wine has excellent aging capacity. I’ve had several ten-year-old bottles sourced from less than admirable conditions in a small New Jersey retail store. They were great: aromatic, long finish, not a lick of oxidation.

GERMAN RIESLING    

Riesling production in California has dropped off considerably over the last couple of decades, in large measure because most of our producers do it really badly. German Rieslings are just so spectacular, made as they are on the knife’s edge of possibility. It doesn’t do the German vineyards justice to call them “marginal” wine producing areas climatologically. They have it way more difficult (48º to 51º north latitude) than anything in the Central Coast (31º to 35º north latitude) when it comes to getting grapes ripe.

Nevertheless, historically there has always been a tiny cabal of talented Riesling makers in Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties. One of the best makers (Claiborne and Churchill Winery) is located near San Luis Obispo, but sources grapes from Monterey and Santa Barbara. Good Central Coast Riesling is fat with nectarine-like fruit from the day of release. Top German Riesling will age productively in the bottle for 25 years, but it doesn’t always show lip-smacking consumer friendliness right from the start. Try Central Coast Riesling with seafood in spicy sauce (think fish tacos, or shrimp salad with a ginger-lime dressing). A key factor is the way the fruitiness of the Riesling leaves an impression of sweetness (whether there is residual sugar or not), thus dampening the capsaicin burning sensation from the food.

Grüner Veltliner from Austria is another interesting candidate in this seafood and vegetables arena. Good examples have a little white pepper characteristic to them. Great Austrian examples run $30 a bottle or more retail. They are also very hard to find. Too bad, because they are the “go to” wines for Vietnamese cuisine. There are only a few acres of Grüner currently in the ground in California, and they are all in the Central Coast. I, for one, am really hoping they prove to be a screaming success.

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