Carmel Road in Monterey
wine pixies

Carmel Road in Monterey

     The sun burns out past western peaks:
     valleys darken one by one.
     Cold night is born of pines and moonlight
     wind and stream are full of crystal sound;
     weary woodsmen turn toward home
     birds crouch in foggy nests.
     Throughout the passing night, I wait.
     A lonely lute attends his vine-hung path.*

The Chinese poet Meng Hao-jan (689-740 A.D.) could only have imagined a “vine-hung path” overlooking the Salinas River, but his poem nevertheless encapsulates the three major elements that put Monterey on the wine map: sun, wind and fog.

Monterey receives little rainfall and yet has ample irrigation water, an ideal water-when-you-want-it scenario. The legendary California sun brings a growing season that may last 210 days. Seven months of sun and water alone could result in ultra-potent and not particularly interesting hot climate wines, but Monterey's wind and fog palliate these effects rather nicely, making the region ideal for the production of cool climate varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. (There are certain Monterey hot pockets that give us good Cabernets and Syrahs, however.) The substantial winds start to funnel through the Salinas valley every day around 11am. The wind tends to inhibit vine respiration, leading to longer hang time and slower flavor maturation (though tight spacing and perpendicular vine orientation are needed to protect the vines from wind damage). When the fogs descend off Monterey Bay every night, the temperature drops from an average of 75 degrees to 55 degrees, preserving acidity and also delaying maturation.

The Monterey AVA, the largest of nine appellations in the county, stretches to the southeast deep inland from Monterey Bay, following the Salinas River. Carmel Road has three vineyards in the eastern foothills of the Gabilan mountains in this appellation just east of the river. These are west-facing alluvial hillside properties: Valley View, Porter Ranch, and Hacienda Ranch. Further to the south and west of the river, Carmel Road's adjacent Clark Ranch and Panorama vineyards sit in the northern stretch of the Arroyo Seco appellation directly south of the Santa Lucia Highlands. These two properties are extensive, 1100 acres in Clark planted mostly to Chardonnay but with 34 acres of prime Pinot, and 408 acres in Panorama planted most to Pinot Noir. Panorama in particular is known for its high density Burgundian 4x3 vine spacing; on a meter by meter basis Panorama qualifies as the largest vineyard in the United States. We could say, “so what,” but there is a quality benefit of course: smaller clusters and smaller berries, lower sugar levels at physiological maturity, balanced acidity levels, vine roots that push deep into the soil to compete for scarce resources. The vines on Clark Ranch see wider 8x6 and 6x5 spacing. It all becomes raw material for Carmel Road's winemaker Ivan Giotenov.

Giotenov hails from a winemaking family in southern Bulgaria where he trained and worked several years in that country's wine industry. After stints in Australia, California and Australia again, he came to Carmel Road as an enologist before moving up to chief winemaker. In the process, Ivan developed a warm working relationship with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While he respects the Burgundian tradition behind these two varietals, he has an even greater respect for the individuality of the Monterey terroirs he deals with today. “These wines are purely Monterey,” he tells me. “The growing conditions have nothing in common with Burgundy; the soils have much more granite, the sun, wind and fog aspects of Monterey are unique, and Burgundy has no ocean influence.” And here all I wanted to find was a common ocean-crossing thread. No matter; we didn't need one. We tasted the four major Carmel Road offerings—all 100% varietals—at the Veritas restaurant in Manhattan.

The 2007 Carmel Road Monterey Chardonnay, at $15, sources grapes from both sides of the valley. The wine is a light straw, with a bright nose of white flowers and citrus. On the palate the Chardonnay is dry, seemingly oak free, combining a crisp acidity with a mouth-engaging creaminess. Fruit notes are nicely layered: grapefruit, apricot and peach combined with tropical notes of pineapple and mango. The wine, though medium bodied, has a satisfying roundness. The finish is long, well balanced, and nicely dry. Every element of this superb value of a Chardonnay is direct, fresh, and well knit into a structure that is more than the sum of its parts. The refreshing acidity deserves a second mention, since it is the real team player in this wine.

The 2006 Arroyo Seco Single Vineyard Clark Ranch Chardonnay, $35, aged nine months in 43% new French oak, has an eminently civilized feel to it. The nose to me spoke tangerine, apricot, key lime, vanilla and some sweet oak. In the mouth, the feel of the wine demanded attention before any flavor element; the wine is unctuous, and at some points in the process reminded me of the mouthfeel of an aperitif. The wine is long in all respects, with an unhurried initial attack, a languid mid-palate, and a leisurely finish, all assisted by firm, persevering acidity. Flavor elements include honeydew melon, orange blossom, orange marmalade, lychee, and poached pear.

The 2007 Monterey Pinot Noir, at $16, is a deep shimmering purple, with a truly satisfying purity of nicely layered aromatic and flavor notes. The wine sees 21% new French oak and shows it off rather nicely: sweet oak and brambly berry meet the nose. The wine is dry and has a nice acidic tang in the mouth, with raspberry and blackberry jam, a touch of cocoa and some rich vanilla. These flavors are clear, direct, and pure. Stylistically, you cannot go up or down the Pacific coast to compare this Monterey Pinot to any other (it is decidedly un-Burgundian), although I could make a case for some similarities with New Zealand's Central Otago Pinot (for which you would pay at least twice as much). If you are looking for a good house wine that will go with virtually all food, this is the one.

The 2006 Arroyo Seco Single Vineyard Clark Ranch Pinot Noir, $35, hails from Clark's 34 acres of Pinot vines in that 1100 acre Chardonnay sea. Zoom in, however, on a special four-acre block on rocky terrain for these grapes. Once Ivan gets his hands on the harvest, he pulls out all the stops: cold pre-soaks, native yeast, hand punch-downs, aging 10 months in 50% new French oak, no fining or filtering. The nose is deep red plum, cherry, and ripe raspberry, with similar qualities on the palate combined with a touch of mountain herb and concentrated candied fruit at the finale. Full-bodied with 14.5% alcohol, the wine deserves a special compliment for its tannins; they are soft and yet remain hard at work through the fine, well-balanced finish. I've already used the term terroir in this piece, and I will again, simply because here in Monterey it well applies. The big question among California wines is “where is the terroir?” This Carmel Road Arroyo Seco Pinot is an excellent answer to this question, and doubles as the answer to the troubling question, “Where can I find good Pinot I can afford?”

Verdict: Keeps up the Promise of Monterey

*Waiting for Mr. Ting at His Mountain Pavilion, Yeh-shih, Translated by Matthew Flannery

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Monterey gives us a unique configuration of regions, soils, aspects and sub-climates.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Carmel Road Winery

Carmel Road Winemaker Ivan Giotenov.

Carmel Road Winery

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