Like much of California’s modern wine industry, Monterey county received a boost from the explosion of growth that began in the 1960s. Wines sales were taking off and producers looked for the best locations to grow their grapes. Being a nascent industry at the time, land remained relatively inexpensive. Monterey, whose climate compares favorably to that of parts of Napa, Sonoma and the finest regions of Europe, became a hot bed of activity.
While quantity was paramount back in those days, the region today is dedicated to producing only wines of the highest quality. One interesting artifact of those previous times does remain, a compelling diversity of vineyards. While other regions have become almost completely associated with one or two grapes, Monterey’s complex terrior, with nooks and crannies all along the valleys, has provided the perfect place for some rather unusual varieties to thrive.
Back in the day, varieties such as Carignan, Charbono and Valdiguie were used primarily as blending grapes in California’s bulk wine production. Much of the state ripped up the vines when they fell out of favor, but in Monterey many of those treasures remain. The incredible diversity of Monterey’s vineyards, with some 42 grape varieties actively planted, is key to the region’s ongoing success and appeal.
Yes, you can get world class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Monterey, but the spirit of experimentation burns brightly among these vines. Producers continue to not only produce great wines, but to produce interesting wines that really represent the history of California’s wine industry. Monterey is proud to produce some of these more obscure varieties as they add color to the continual story that is our shared viticultural history. Besides, sometimes some of these old-time grapes fall back into favor with a new generation of wine lovers. Just take a look at the amazing popularity of Monterey’s Moscatos!
While the recognition of Monterey’s fine wines may have been slow to come, insiders have long understood that the Monterey’s AVAs, Salinas and the smaller Carmel Valley are ideal for grape growing.
The engine that drives Monterey’s unique weather is referred to as the “Blue Grand Canyon.” In reality, it’s an underwater trench that draws cold, deep ocean water right into the mouth of Monterey Bay. That may not be ideal for bathers or sight-seers, but it does bring a heck of a lot of cool ocean air (and fog!) into the region. The Salinas Valley, with its broad mouth opening on to Monterey Bay, funnels these cooling influences of the Pacific Ocean deep into the recess of the AVA, allowing for the heat that accumulates each day to drain out each night.
This rather unique lay of the land, most valleys in California run north to south and actually shield their vines from the effects of the Pacific Ocean, has created a micro climate unique to Monterey, one that has a profound effect on the region’s growing season and resultant wines.
Cool and even, Monterey’s growing season is usually one of the longest in the state, affording grapes the extended hang time that growers prize. A long, slow maturation results allowing for the fruit to develop complex flavors while retaining acidity and slowing the accumulation of sugars. Wines produced with this fruit tend to have a freshness and brightness of fruit that warmer climate wines simply struggle to attain.
The long growing season along with the unique geological attributes found in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA have proven a winning formula for Pinot Noir in particular. These conditions, along with the current market craze for Pinot Noir, have propelled Pinot into the lead with the most acreage planted for a red variety in Monterey County, supplanting Merlot of all grapes!
In the cooler northern portion of the county, Chardonnay remains the most popular variety planted, though other white varieties like Riesling and Pinot Blanc do thrive here as well. There are pockets among these vines of Chardonnay and other white varieties that have been identified as being particularly well suited to Syrah and Pinot Noir, so the landscape continue to evolve as it has done since the early days of Monterey’s wine industry.
All in all, some 142 wineries call Monterey their home. Nestled as they are throughout Monterey’s nine AVAs, they provide a wonderful array of wines and styles that are sure to interest any wine lover. With beautiful Monterey as a home base, you can spend days visiting those you love and exploring for new favorites. When you need a break, I hear the Monterey Bay Aquarium isn’t a bad place to pass a few dry hours, not to mention Cannery Row, Carmel by the Sea and the myriad of spots to enjoy Monterey’s amazing fresh seafood and wines!