Monterey River Road Wine Trail
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Monterey River Road Wine Trail

I was recently sent four different wines from Monterey County. The Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association is out there tirelessly promoting their county. The county has nine distinct appellations (American Viticultural Areas). Without quibbling as to how some other California counties are divided (or scrambled in the case of one rather prominent area), these AVAs make real sense. Monterey gets its diversity from the unique interplay of the Salinas River Valley, Monterey Bay, and the Pacific Ocean.

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 Manzoni 2006 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, $24, brings stimulating visuals for a start: violet seeming to alternate with ruby, all with superb clarity. I like a wine I can look at. The nose that ensues does not disappoint, providing a rich blend of black cherry, black raspberry, mountain herb, some black pepper, chocolate, vanilla and cedar. The wine is nicely dry with mid-level acidity and light easy tannins. The palate is quite fruity, with red cherry, pomegranate, red plum, a bit of pepper and nutmeg. The finish is mouthwatering, fruity, with a certain clarity of flavor I have previously discovered in Monterey Pinots.

The Paraiso 2007 Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir, $28, is light purple in color. The nose brings notes of raspberry, black cherry, rose, cedar and some warm pastry shop spices: cinnamon, clove, and vanilla. This is full-bodied wine, dry, showing great fruit extraction, decidedly mouth-filling, with rounded tannins, mid-level acidity and a deeply ripe style. Cherry and plum lead the primarily red fruit on the palate. The long finish has a slightly bitter edge at the end. Food friendly to be sure; I don't have to speculate on this, since it nicely accompanied a roast chicken for my dinner.

The 2006 Marilyn Remark Wild Horse Road Vineyard Grenache, $45, is bottled under the larger Monterey appellation. The winery specializes in Rhône varietals, offering a line including Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne, Syrah and this Grenache, their top of the line offering. The wine is aged 14 months in French oak. Only 200 cases are produced. A relatively light red in color, the wine weaves seductive aromas of raspberry, strawberry and ripe plum, a light fragrant dried mushroom, dried mountain sage, and crumbly twigs. Dry and very soft textured in the mouth with good acidity, the wine brings palate notes above all of ripe red fruit, a touch of dried fruit, nutmeg and vanilla. Tannins are not an important factor in this wine. The finish is medium-length but satisfying in the way the fruit continues to stimulate until the very end. A wine with this sort of mouthfeel will complement nearly any flavorful savory food.

The 2006 Scheid Vineyards Petite Syrah, $35, hails from the hot climate Hames Valley in the southern stretch of Monterey county. The estate bottled wine is 97% Petite Syrah with a 3% dollop of Syrah. Petite Syrah has often been used in California to add backbone to other red varietals, and it's nice to see it here on its own. This wine is deep ruby in color with a thin scarlet rim. Aromas come well blended: black cherry, raspberry, cinnamon, nutmeg, chocolate, violet and cedar. The wine is dry, nicely structured, with a soft mouthfeel and fine grained tannins. Acidity is medium plus, but never out of place. Red fruit characterizes the palate, with the tang of cranberry and pomegranate, a touch of candied fruit, very well integrated with sweet licorice, tobacco and cedar. The finish is medium length, but satisfying, dry, and fruit delivering. My bare notes do not do justice to this wine, however; if I did give numerical scores, my number for this wine would be high, even considering the price. It is not only extremely well made, but well designed.

Verdict: Continued Quality

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Monterey's climate has a complex configuration encompassing nine very different appellations.

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

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award

Monterey County

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