Given the sheer size of California’s Central Coast appellation—a whopping 6.8 million acres, of which about 100,000 are planted to vineyards—it shouldn’t surprise that there’s a wide variety of wine grapes to be found. But thanks to the Golden State’s tumultuous tectonics and the Central Coast’s location between the rather chilly Pacific Ocean and extremely hot San Joaquin Valley, the region is rife with microclimates of every imaginable combination, from cool to hot, sunny to shady, north- to south-facing, volcanic soils to sedimentary. So not only can multiple varieties survive, they can thrive.
Today, an increasingly mature, experienced and yet continually creative stock of winemakers is producing an array of wines that deserve global attention. There’s some price creep underway, but for the most part, these wines are still bargains compared to many other places in California and beyond. And, there is also something for everyone, especially when it comes to red wines.
Not only can multiple varieties survive, they can thrive.
Up in the Santa Cruz Mountains, for instance, the wines take on a savory quality, full of dried herbs and peppery spice. Just to the south, the Pinot-lands of the Santa Lucia Highlands (near Salinas) offer dark, black cherry-flavored wines, whereas the Edna and Santa Maria valleys further down coast tend to make more sprightly, garrigue-inflected versions.
Paso Robles, itself a large region but now broken down into 11 subappellations, is known for incredibly rich Rhône- and Bordeaux-style blends. And the Santa Ynez Valley, one of the only west-to-east lying valleys on the West Coast, paints a picture of varying climes perfectly, with the cool, Pinot-producing Sta. Rita Hills on the far west, the Syrah-focused Ballard Canyon in the middle, and the more Bordeaux-friendly Los Olivos District and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara region on the hotter east.
Throw in a smattering of other red grapes across the entire region, from Grenache and Sangiovese to Cali classics like Petite Sirah and Zinfandel, and the Central Coast palette is as colorful as can be.
McIntyre Vineyards NV L’Homme Qui Ris Methode Champenoise Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); $36, 93 points. Featuring and named after a painting by renowned Santa Barbara artist James Jarvaise, this intriguing bottling shows Anjou pear, Key lime, green pluot, cider apple and strong sourdough notes on the nose. Those unique aromas carry to the palate, where a mix of yellow flowers, yellow melon, lemon blossom and lemon verbena soar across a flavor base of lightly buttered toast.
Bernardus 2014 Rosella’s Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands); $40, 93 points. Bright Meyer lemon, sea salt, dried jasmine, tangerine blossoms and a touch of lemon curd come together in an amazing harmony of sharpness and richness on the nose of this single-vineyard offering. That tang-meets-ripe formula extends to the palate, where tart apple-custard flavors are hit with lime pith and kumquat acidity before finishing on a rounded note of almond.
Lexington 2013 Gist Ranch Estate Cabernet Franc (Santa Cruz Mountains); $45, 93 points. Suave and interesting on the nose, this bottling packs in a lot of magic. Pepper, blueberry, violet cake, dust, Sichuan peppercorn and chipped slate show on the nose. Finely grained tannins provide a chalky texture, while a rising acidity presents flavors of elderberry, underripe blueberry, tobacco and powerful florality in this great varietal expression. Editors’ Choice.
Gary Farrell 2014 Bien Nacido Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley); $65, 93 points. Vivacious on the nose, with hibiscus flowers, pomegranate, strawberry, rose petal and cola aromas, this bottling from a historic vineyard is both juicy and delicate at the same time. Vibrant flavors of cranberry, pomegranate, hibiscus and even red melon show on the palate, enhanced by dried fennel, sage and purple flowers.
Grassini 2015 Sauvignon Blanc (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $28, 92 points. Fresh and inviting on the nose, this bottling shows sweet white flowers, Asian pear, yellow-grapefruit rind and lemon blossoms on the nose. Acidity explodes onto the palate, where a grassy, grapefruit-pith-driven tension rides into a rounded midpalate full of pear, nectarine and honeydew flavors. Editors’ Choice.
Wrights Station 2014 Reserve Chardonnay (Santa Cruz Mountains); $35, 92 points. Asian pear, candied lemon rinds and the slightest hint of marshmallow show on the nose of this bottling from a northeast-facing vineyard 1,800 feet up in the appellation. Fresh flavors of nectarine and white peach are pleasurably subtle, backed by both warmed lemon-butter elements and salty, savory acidity.
Rideau 2014 Siempre Happy Canyon Vineyard Malbec (Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara); $70, 92 points. A youthful expression of the grape, this bottling is clean and fresh on the nose with pressed olallieberries, candied blueberries, violet extract and a nicely smoky char component as well. There is exuberant energy on the sip, where that candied blueberry flavor is cut by savory miso-like flavors. Relatively light and lithe, this would pair with a wide variety of foods.
Dubost 2015 Alexandrine White (Paso Robles); $30, 91 points. Beeswax, light yellow melon, yellow peach and a touch of peach custard show on the nose of this blend of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc and Viognier. Lime zest and yellow pear dominate the palate, which is light, fresh, intriguingly textured and full of acidic sizzle.
Tablas Creek 2015 Côtes de Tablas Blanc Estate Grown and Bottled Viognier-Grenache Blanc-Marsanne-Roussanne (Adelaida District); $30, 91 points. This blend of 26% Viognier, 25% Grenache Blanc, 25% Marsanne and 24% Roussanne manages to be both lush and light, showing candied melon, clover honey, pretty green pear and lime-butter on the nose. The palate offers Gala apples and fresh lemon zest, yet retains and intriguingly savory quality throughout the sip. Editors’ Choice.
Chronic Cellars 2014 Purple Paradise (Paso Robles); $15, 90 points. This blend of 77% Zinfandel, 14% Syrah, 8% Petite Sirah and 1% Grenache is a solid choice at this price. Vibrant fruit tones of strawberry, cranberry, black raspberry and mulberry mix with exotic vanilla and clove on the nose. Juicy and fresh flavors of pine-smoked blackberries give a peat-like character to the palate. Best Buy.
Rideau 2014 Camp 4 Vineyard Sangiovese (Los Olivos District); $34, 89 points. This is a versatile red wine, dark enough to hang with meat but light enough to work with heartier fish dishes and light pastas. Slightly dried cherry, plum and raspberry notes kick off the nose, and then the palate plays the acid card hard, offering tangy red plum, graphite and cured-meat flavors.