Are you looking for a Pinot with lavish black cherry and baked berry flavors sprinkled with baking spice and toasted oak? Or is an ethereal and tense option more your choice, with its brisk red fruit and waves of bay leaf and juniper? You can have either style of Pinot Noir from California’s Central Coast, where the chameleonesque grape reflects a myriad of microclimates and winemaker whims, usually with delicious results.
Given the appellation’s more than 90,000 vineyard acres planted across nearly 300 miles, from the San Francisco Bay to the Santa Barbara coast, the variety shouldn’t surprise.
But recent interest in more transparent wines unleashed a wave of winemakers eager to explore such austere styles. Melville Winery packs fruit with herbs like few others, while Scar of the Sea, Soquel Vineyards and Tread, the new Zaca Mesa brand, combine energy with elegance.
Cool-climate vineyards are key to this style, according to Cole Thomas of Madson Wines, which sources from the Santa Cruz Mountains then uses native yeasts and mostly neutral oak in the cellar. Due to old politics, the Santa Cruz Mountains are technically not in the Central Coast AVA, but they’re grouped together for this analysis. “Ultimately, we do these things to make a wine that is expressive and youthful upon release,” says Thomas. “The goal is to produce wines that will do better decanted or with time, aging in the cellar.”
However, there’s no shortage of rich Pinot Noir from the Central Coast. Loring Wine Company makes powerful wines from across the region, with a particularly opulent Santa Lucia Highlands bottling. Fess Parker and Landmark in the Sta. Rita Hills aren’t afraid of oak, and wineries in Paso Robles, such as Sculpterra and Asuncion Ridge, go bold as well.
As a brand built on richer wine, Kosta Browne is scaling back a bit, but the recent wines remain full of plump fruit. “Over the years, we’ve fine-tuned our style by focusing on balancing California’s natural gorgeous fruit profile in a slightly more elegant tone, while remaining true to our bold identity,” says Winemaker Julien Howsepian, who credits the Central Coast’s aging vineyards for producing more nuanced grapes today.
Explore the many styles of Central Coast Pinot Noir with these 12 recently reviewed wines.
Melville 2019 Sandy’s Block Estate Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills); $50, 97 points. This wine starts with aromas of pine needle and tarragon, with joyous bowlfuls of ripe yet snappy raspberry and cherry chiming in. Herbal elegance shines throughout the sip, giving eucalyptus-like depth to the juicy red-fruit flavors.
Kosta Browne 2018 Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Lucia Highlands); $165, 96 points. Dark cherry, sweet sage, light cardamom cream and a steely minerality are expertly integrated on the nose of this bottling from an iconic vineyard. It’s a hearty wine on the palate, loaded with both roasted cherry and taut raspberry, but it’s the array of chaparral herbs, from wild thyme to juniper and bay leaf, that provide the most intrigue.
Madson 2019 Ascona Vineyard Pinot Noir (Santa Cruz Mountains); $50, 96 points. Quite light in the glass, this exciting bottling offers pronounced aromas of thyme, juniper and green peppercorn, with just the right amount of crisp red fruit. The taut and fresh flavors of cranberry and pomegranate are wrapped in tea leaves and pine needles on the engaging palate.
Scar of the Sea 2019 Bassi Vineyard Pinot Noir (San Luis Obispo County); $36, 94 points. The epitome of zestiness in a red wine, this lightly colored bottling begins with tart cranberry, orange zest, peppercorn and a hint of eucalyptus oil on the nose. Sichuan pepper and green-peppercorn flavors spice up the palate, where pomegranate and fresh acidity would pair well even with delicate fish. Editors’ Choice.
Soquel Vineyards 2019 Coast Grade Vineyard Partners’ Reserve Pinot Noir (Ben Lomond Mountain); $50, 94 points. Fresh and perfectly ripe aromas of strawberry and black raspberry meet with forest notes of juniper and bay plus a rusty minerality on the nose of this bottling. Grippy tannins frame the layered sip, where pomegranate and dark-plum flavors are woven through lavender, tea-leaf, cardamom and even coriander elements.
Tread 2019 Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara County); $40, 94 points. This new brand from Zaca Mesa focuses on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and this countywide Pinot blend is a stunner. Aromas of rainy slate, pomegranate and hibiscus roll into a palate of sumac, red fruit and light game that sizzles with acidity. Editors’ Choice.
Fess Parker 2018 Sanford & Benedict Pinot Noir (Sta. Rita Hills); $60, 93 points. Fairly dark in the glass, this bottling from a historic vineyard offers the telltale hints of wet earth and light game as well as dark-fruit elements of cherry and even blueberry, with a strong wood-spice scent. The palate is hearty with baked red currant and orange-rind flavors, made more complex by the dried sage, intriguing game and grippy tannins.
Loring Wine Company 2019 Pinot Noir (Santa Barbara County); $29, 93 points. All the hallmarks of Brian Loring’s style are in this countywide blend, from beautifully ripe aromas of baked boysenberry to fresh lavender florals to warm notes of buttery pastry. Tension and freshness frame the sip, giving structure and vibrancy to the baked berry and vanilla flavors. Editors’ Choice.
Scott Family 2018 Dijon Clone Pinot Noir (Arroyo Secco); $45, 93 points. Light in the glass, this bottling offers herbal and fresh aromas of pine needle as well as iron and sour cherry on the nose. The herbal tones prove even more delicious on the high-acid palate, where juniper and moss add depth to a snappy and fresh raspberry flavor.
Calera 2018 Pinot Noir (Central Coast); $30, 92 points. Fresh boysenberry and cranberry aromas are wrapped in a rusty iron note on the nose of this bottling. There’s a tarry tone to the sip, which is firm in tension and offers flavors of black plum, lavender and cracked pepper.
Sculpterra 2018 Estate Pinot Noir (Paso Robles); $36, 90 points. There’s no wonder that the warmer climates of Paso Robles produce riper styles of Pinot Noir, but that’s perfectly pleasant for those craving fruit. This bottling begins with cherry compote, cola candy and vanilla on the nose, leading into a full palate of generous spice-cake flavors that weave through the richer cherry and orange rind elements.
Golden 2018 Pinot Noir (Monterey County); $13, 89 points. Dried cherry, earth and dried mushroom aromas show on the nose of this well-priced bottling. Tart cranberry flavors meet with crumpled thyme and sage on the palate, as well as some loamy earth. Best Buy.