When you talk about Monterey County, the key is to think big. Located in the heart of California between the Bay Area and Paso Robles, this county encompasses over a million acres of land, a mixture of unique soils, and a climate tempered by the close proximity to the Monterey Bay, one of the deepest bodies of water on the face of the earth. This maritime influence helps create a balanced mixture of warm days and cool nights that makes for a long smooth growing season.
In the 1960s, these unique natural features were the focus of an important research study done by the University of California-Davis, which concluded that the county was an optimum place to growing world-class grapes. Some of the early leaders of this movement were crop farmers, who converted some of their produce fields into vineyards. Others were established wineries like Wente and E. & J. Gallo, who were able to develop new vineyards when the land wasn’t too pricey. And other vineyards were developed by entrepreneurs and visionaries like Douglas Meador, Jerry Lohr, William Jekel, Dick Graff, and fashion tie designer Robb Talbott, who all came to the county because of their passion for wine.
But until the 1980s, the region was relatively sleepy. So much of the fruit was used as secret ingredients in “fighting varietals” or blends that said “California” on the label. But today, a new breed of young, spirited winemakers are taking advantage of the high-quality fruit grown in the county, and making world-class wines that are approachable, delectable, and memorable.
Within the boundaries of the bigger appellation, Monterey County features seven smaller winegrowing districts or AVAs: Monterey, Santa Lucia Highlands, Arroyo Seco, San Lucas, Hames Valley, Chalone, and Carmel Valley. Like the sum of the parts, these sub-appellations help promote Monterey County in their own unique ways. For more information about the regions of Monterey County, visit www.montereywines.org.
Whites: Chardonnay is the most popular grape grown in the county, particularly on the valley floor between the small farming towns of Gonzalez and Greenfield, and the hillside areas of Santa Lucia Highland and Chalone. Some of the first Sauvignon Blanc vines were planted in Monterey County, and today the varietal and the special Musque clone are widely planted in Arroyo Seco and the warmer areas in the southern part of the county. Other intriguing grapes that thrive in the region are Riesling and Pinot Gris, which thrive with short work days controlled by the powerful winds that come in from the day in the mid-afternoon.
Reds: In the early days, growers in the county were mainly focused on planting Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. While some of the plantings were successful in Carmel Valley and the southern part of the county; other areas found out the hard way that the fruit wouldn’t ripen on a consistent basis. As a result, you had a number of red wines that were thin, under-ripe and vegetal. The solution came by planting varietals with better clones and plant material, particularly Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Grenache that performed much better in cool to moderate climate conditions.
White Wines: Chardonnays from the region are fruity and expressive. Many are great values, especially in terms of the amount of quality you get for the money. Common characteristics of these wines include ripe apple, pear, peach, and tropical fruits. In contrast, the higher-end Chardonnays are primarily made with fruit from the sub-zones of Arroyo Seco, Chalone and Santa Lucia Highlands. These more full-bodied style wines are often highlighted by deep fruit flavors with hints of citrus, mineral, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla, integrated oak, and long persistent finishes. The Sauvignon Blancs typically feature fresh fruit flavors of melon, peach, passionfruit, citrus, and zippy acidity. Riesling is more refined with floral aromas and ripe flavors of melon, lychee, and grapefruit. Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio is more focused on refreshment with bright fruity flavors and a clean, crisp finish.
Red Wines: The Pinot Noirs from Monterey County offer flavor profiles for everyone to enjoy. The great value offerings are young and energetic, with fragrant aromas, bright flavors of ripe plum, strawberry, and vibrant acidity, while the higher-end styles are wines for thinkers. Loaded with complex flavors of ripe blackberry, raspberry, dark cherry, earth and spice, they are Pinots that will develop in the glass, or are worthy of cellar aging. When planted in the right areas, the top wines made with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon feature broad flavors of red and black fruits, mineral, licorice, tobacco, vanilla, chocolate, espresso, wild herbs, and spice. And much like Pinot Noir, Syrah and Grenache grapes benefit from the cooler-climate conditions in the county. Common trademarks of these wines include fragrant and spicy, and bright flavors of ripe plum, blueberry, boysenberry, raspberry jam, seasoned meats, licorice, lavender, cracked pepper, and baking spices.
Besides growing world-class grapes, Monterey is famous for producing fresh produce and vegetables that can be used to craft a wide range of complex salads, delicious soups, or a nice plate of grilled veggies. These tasty sensations pair nicely with young, bright and refreshing offerings of Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio and the easy drinking styles of Chardonnay the county has to offer.
When talking seafood, it’s important to note that besides being a popular tourist destination, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is also an important player in the culinary world. In partnership with the aquariums in Long Beach, Seattle and Vancouver B.C., the MBA releases a yearly wallet card, Seafood Watch: Choices for Healthy Ocean, which is used to raise consumer awareness about ocean conservation issues and direct consumers towards sustainable seafood choices. The top chefs on the West Coast use this chart. For that reason, the more complex Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines from the county are ideal to pair with the fresh seasonal catch of the day, including sole, sand dab, halibut, and flounder.
For pairings with the bigger, bolder or spicier red wines and blends made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Grenache, the key is to balance the tannins with flavor. Tasty examples include gourmet mac n’ cheese, fresh pasta with red sauce, grilled salmon, herb-roasted chicken, duck confit, grilled meats and sausage, Cassoulet and other slow-cooked stews.