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Monterey County: Great Pinot Values

Monterey County winegrowers are prospering in this recession as consumers seek out more value priced wines. With 42,000 acres planted, Monterey County has only slightly less vineyard acreage than Napa Valley (43,000 acres). 75% of Monterey County grapes are sent out of the county to be incorporated into wines from Napa and Sonoma that often say, “California” on the label. This trend is slowly changing as Monterey gains more cachet among consumers. Many wineries both in and outside of Monterey County are now bottling Monterey County appellation wines, including Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir thrives in the northern parts of Monterey County including the Carmel Valley, Chalone, Arroyo Seco and Santa Lucia Highlands appellations (see map below). The plum of Monterey County is the Santa Lucia Highlands. This prestigious grape growing region sits directly opposite the low-lying vegetable plains of the Salinas Valley. The maritime climate is well suited for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which represent 78% of the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation’s 5,500 acres of vineyards. The Pinot Noirs from this appellation are primarily vineyard-designated, with more appellation wines certain to appear as plantings increase and newer plantings come into production.

I recently sampled a number of value-priced Monterey County Pinot Noirs that are currently on the market. Monterey County has only 30 wineries, so many producers are located outside the Monterey appellation. The quality was consistently solid and this is a region to look to for reliable, value-priced, varietally true Pinot Noir. The Monterey Pinot Noirs tend to be darkly colored and well-endowed with dark fruits.

Will success spoil Pinot Noir? Basically, there are three tiers of Pinot Noir from California and Oregon: (1) < $25, (2) $25-$60, and (3) > $60. The differences between the three tiers are subtle and often only detectable by experienced tasters. The average consumer may not see the justification for the higher priced wines. Is the $60 Pinot Noir three times better than the $20 Pinot Noir? In recent years, there has been a remarkable advance in quality of low-priced Pinot Noir from California and Oregon and this will certainly pressure the economic viability of higher priced examples of the varietal. Will there be enough Pinot geeks to support the multitude of high-priced Pinot Noirs? I had a subscriber recently cancel his subscription to the PinotFile saying, “I am tired of paying for overpriced California Pinot Noirs.” Only time will tell.

2007 Castle Rock Monterey County Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., $10. · Very dark ruby color. On the nose the dark fruit is overshadowed by some fecal notes (organic) with hints of spice and stem. Tasty sweet dark fruits on the macho attack with respectable persistence on the finish. Smoothly textured with supple tannins. People will like this wine. Tastes much better than it smells.

2007 Poppy Monterey County Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $10. · Slightly confected strawberry aromas wrapped in sweet oak with a touch of funk. Decent, but dilute, black cherry flavors with an oaky edge. Supple dry tannins make for easy drinking.

2007 Chalone Vineyard Monterey County Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $15. · Attractive cherry and raspberry scents veering toward raisin. More redder fruited than many wines in this lineup featuring summer strawberries and raspberries with a touch of tutti-fruity and sassafras. Flavors are on the ripe side.

2007 Carmel Road Winery Monterey Pinot Noir

14.0% alc., $16. From Arroyo Seco vineyards in Monterey County where most mornings the vineyards are shrouded in fog. Afternoon breezes from the Pacific Ocean deliver cool, maritime air. This winery has specialized in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Monterey since 1999 and was a featured winery at this year’s International Pinot Noir Celebration. The winemaker is Ivan Giotenov. · On the nose there is intense black cherry and raspberry scents with a touch of fig and floral breeze. Delicious black cherry core that is juicy and satisfying. Silky textured with a clean and refreshing finish. One of the better value-priced Monterey Pinot Noirs.

2007 Paraiso Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., $16. Pronounced “pa-rye-zo,” a name given to the early Spanish explorers “Because it was like heaven.” The Smith family has practiced sustainable farming for 35 years on this estate. · Dark fruits are prominent on the nose which has an appealing underlying minerality. Light on the palate with mild ripe dry tannins and balanced acidity. Decent.

2007 Praxis Monterey County Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., $16. · Surprisingly good and very true to the varietal. Fresh berries and warm brioche on the nose followed on the palate with delicious compote of black cherries, blueberries and blackberries. There is a complimentary underpinning of smoky oak. Impressive mid-palate fullness but a bit thin on the short finish.

2007 Candela Mission Ranch Monterey Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $20. Second label of Miura Vineyards. · Restrained dark fruits and crushed black grapes on the nose. Medium concentration of black cherries with some earth and tea influence. Decent.

2007 La Crema Monterey Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., $24. · The aromas explode from the glass over time with heavenly scents of dark Pinot fruits, cardamon spice and a whiff of smoky oak. Perfectly composed with an array of flavors including plum, blackberry, raspberry, tea and smoke. A fruit-driven wine with a generosity that fills the mouth. Perfect harmony. Clearly, the best wine in this lineup.

2007 Lucia Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., $34. From the Pisoni family vineyards. · Powerful and very sexy deep berry and black cherry aromas with whiffs of roses and vanillin. Satisfying core of raspberry and blueberry fruit flavors with some persistence on the back end. Nicely balanced with reserved tannins and a soft texture. Highly recommended for an introduction to the gout de terroir of this appellation.

2007 Siduri Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $36. · Moderately light garnet color. Aromas of berries and cherries with competing notes of oak char and oak spice. On the palate there is respectable richness of black raspberry fruit with hints of tar and black tea. The tannins are soft and the finish is crisp and refreshing. The vein of noticeable oak that runs through this wine spoils the experience for me.

2006 Lockwood Vineyard Block 7 Monterey Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., $14. Estate grown and bottled. · Appealing aromas of black cherries, wildflowers, cedar and oak. Discreetly concentrated cherry and blueberry flavors with the tannic backbone to age. Very soft in the mouth. No complaints, just doesn’t thrill.

2006 Estancia Reserve Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., $24. · Sourced from the Stonewall Vineyard Estate. Moderately deep reddish-purple color. Bright black cherry and strawberry perfume. Earthy dark red fruits with a hint of raisin, tar and oak on the palate. Medium-weighted with respectable silkiness and easy drinkability.

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