Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes
Aspen Times Weekly

Chardonnay is America’s most popular varietal and, no surprise, it is also California’s most widely planted wine grape with over 95,000 acres under cultivation. So where in California would you find the most chardonnay? Napa? Sonoma? Santa Barbara?

Well, with close to 16,000 acres dedicated to the “winemaker’s grape,” Monterey County, south of San Francisco and north of Santa Barbara, reigns supreme, edging out Sonoma County for the most acres of chardonnay.

And in Monterey, quantity has begat quality as wineries like Chalone, Bernardus, Hahn Estates, and Morgan have been become ubiquitous in wine shops across America.

The history of winemaking along the scenic central coast dates back to the 1790s and the Spanish occupation of California, but the modern history began relatively recently. In the 1960s, pioneering winemakers like Dick Graff took over Chalone Vineyard and Jerry Lohr launched J. Lohr Vineyards and Wines, knowing instinctively that the topography of the coastal mountains, the cooling breezes of the Pacific and the varied soils provided the area with the natural ingredients to become one of the great wine-growing regions in the world.

Today there 85 wineries in the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association and the wines are as varied as the terroir. While there are other varietals, significantly syrah and pinot noir, coming out of the region, chardonnay is still Monterey’s signature grape.

There are nine AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) found in Monterey County. The largest, the Monterey AVA, runs from the shores of the Monterey Bay itself down the spine of the coastal Gabilan mountain range 100 miles or so to the southeast. The smallest is the Chalone, which has just 300 acres currently planted.

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Despite its size, the Chalone AVA may enjoy the best reputation in the county. That is, no doubt, due to the efforts and excellence of Chalone Vineyards. But there are others in the region making fine wines as well.

Michael Michaud (pronounced me-show) spent his formative years at Chalone Vineyard before setting out on his own in the high dusty hills above Soledad, Calif. His 2004 Michaud Chardonnay is a testament to experience and an understanding of his terroir. High (1,500 feet), dry, and subject to temperature swings that can range as much as 50 degrees on a given day, Michaud’s Chardonnay has what he likes to call a “layered complexity.” The wine has hints of French oak, but more than that, it subtly combines the sweetness of apricot and pears with the flinty-ness of stone. While this wine was made in limited quantities (less than 800 cases), it is worth seeking out at $38 a bottle.

Another region in the northern portion of the county that is generating buzz is the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, which had to endure a hot and smoky fire this summer that, for a time, threatened both the town of Big Sur and the vineyards.

In the heart of the appellation, Steve Pessagno, the former winemaker for Jekel Vineyards, has been producing top-drawer pinot noir as well as chardonnay in limited quantities. The 2006 Pessagno Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay is both big and elegant and has that soft buttery flavor that lovers of California chardonnay look for.

Further south in Arroyo Seco AVA, the operative word is “hangtime.” The grapes tend to bud earlier in the season than they would in the northern climates of Napa and Sonoma, and they tend to ripen a little later in the year, allowing them extra days on the vine to develop depth and flavor.

J. Lohr produces a wonderful, complex chardonnay in a rocky vineyard not far from the mouth of the Arroyo Seco, which means “dry river bed.” The 2006 J.Lohr “October Night Vineyard” Arroyo Seco Chardonnay is as fragrant as it is flavorful. I had it with pan-fried wild salmon and a tomatillo salsa, and it was a perfect pairing, standing up to the spice of the salsa and melding with the rich flavor of the fish.

These are just a few of the chardonnays that are made by the winemakers of Monterey and there are a number of other bottlings using the fruit of the region made by Napa and Sonoma vintners. One of the joys of wine is exploring, discovering and expanding one’s horizons.

Put Monterey on your wine GPS. You’ll drink well.

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