Focus on the Central Coast

My September tour of the Central Coast offered me the opportunity to taste a number of elegant 2006 releases and, perhaps of even greater interest, some outstanding 2007 barrel samples. Few producers are making great claims for their 2006s, which are, as a group, more forward than their 2005 siblings, without that vintage’s complexity or depth. (This is not to say that the wines are lightweights, especially those from Paso Robles.) Two thousand seven looks to be a different story entirely, as the growing season was universally described as being as perfect as any of the last two decades. Some vineyards were picked into late October.

Two thousand six was strongly marked by a cool season that continued with only occasional hot spells through late summer and into the harvest. There was actually snow in lower sections of Santa Barbara County on March 11 and 12, and the cold weather was followed by a damp spell that carried well into April. The weather stabilized in May, although overall conditions were cooler than normal, broken only by a heat spike in mid-July (more severe to the north) and, in some areas, a mid-August heat spell. An absence of seriously hot weather in late summer and early fall allowed for drawn-out picking, and, according to a number of producers, more potential complexity thanks to slow grape maturation. At Talley Vineyards, the harvest began three weeks later than that of 2005—“the latest in the 20 years that we’ve been doing this,” Brian Talley told me. Most growers told me that their yields were down sharply from 2005 levels, adding that yields in the earlier vintage were often massive.

The majority of 2006 red wines from throughout the Central Coast should be drunk before you dig into the more serious 2005s, which possess very good structure for cellaring. Most of the top 2005s have been snapped up by now, but many can still be found on restaurant wine lists. I strongly advise anybody ordering a 2005 red wine from the Central Coast in the near future to ask that the wine be decanted for at least an hour beforehand, and the same goes for those enjoying bottles at home. In virtually every instance this fall when I tried an ’05 red wine there was a noticeable jump in sweetness and a more pliant texture after the wine had been allowed to breathe. Many wines were actually better the next day.

Competition is becoming fiercer in the Santa Rita Hills—now officially called “Sta. Rita Hills” due to a challenge by Chile’s Viña Santa Rita—and the number of wines worth a search seems to grow exponentially each year. Thanks to an expanding number of open-minded, forward-thinking growers and producers I would count this region as one of the three or four best in the New World for pinot noir. The chardonnays can be pretty amazing too. This is also proving to be a reliable source for elegant Rhône-styled wines, both reds and whites, that offer greater restraint and balance than examples from hotter areas.

I was once again struck on my recent tour by the overall high standard of wines produced from Paso Robles’ vineyards located on the cooler west side of Highway 101. These limestone-rich soils are responsible for some stunningly good reds, including some of the most complex syrah-based wines made outside the Rhône Valley. But too many wines are still being made from vineyards that are obviously too warm to produce fresh, balanced fruit. Often the shortcomings of these wines are buried beneath oak flavors (some from barrels, some from chips).

Mourvèdre has quickly become a new darling for Paso Robles producers thanks to the structure that this variety can contribute to wines that might otherwise be loose-knit or overblown. Many of the best wines I tasted here this year incorporate at least a bit of mourvèdre—and sometimes quite a bit—and a number of producers told me that they plan to ratchet up the amount of mourvèdre in their vineyards and wines.

A word about pricing is in order. I believe that the Central Coast is offering some of the best high-end wine value in California. Outside of a few cult producers, most of the best red wines carry price tags far lower than similar-quality wines from Napa, and even Sonoma. The recently resurgent dollar should eventually bring more reasonable prices for wines from the Rhône Valley and Burgundy, but for the near term I believe that the best wines from here represent much better value. If $40 Crozes-Hermitage, Gigondas and Bourgogne rouge, or $100+ Hermitage and premier cru Burgundy give you pause, please check out how far that money can go in the Central Coast.