Annual Coverage of California's Central Coast

The worldwide trend to produce wines that emphasize finesse over sheer mass and power is in full blossom in California's Central Coast, even in the mostly hot Paso Robles region.  That should come as a welcome surprise to wine lovers who have mostly disparaged the area (if not most of the New World) for making too many inelegant, high-alcohol wines.  In fact, the cooler Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills and Arroyo Grande appellations, among others, proved long ago that they were capable of producing balanced, ageworthy wines, and the number of producers in those AVAs who seek to fine-tune that style continues to grow, seemingly exponentially.

Current vintages. With two generally cool vintages, 2011 and 2010, now in the market and on deck, there are plenty of examples available to make the case that the Central Coast can compete with California's North Coast as a source for restrained, graceful wines made from a range of varieties.  In fact, some of the most stylish chardonnays and pinot noirs being produced in the New World are now coming from the cool Sta. Rita Hills, and the vines are generally still young.

Of the two current vintages 2010 is clearly superior to 2011, as the wines are more concentrated, relatively speaking, and show noteworthy energy and sharp focus.  The exceptions are wines that were made with fruit that was blasted too hard by the late September heat wave.  Producers who didn't have their pinot noir and chardonnay in by then saw their sugar levels run away from them while acidities rapidly fell.  As one might expect, those producers whose practice is to harvest on the early side fared better than those who look for maximum hangtime.  Varieties that are harvested later, like syrah, zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, were far less affected by the heat, and that fruit was mostly harvested under ideal conditions.

While it's a little early to make a definitive call on 2011 the red wines tend to be lighter than the '10s, with bright acidity and good focus.  It was a cold growing season and while the grapes struggled to reach maturity it appears that most of the best producers accomplished that goal.  But the wines show a distinct light touch:  broadly speaking, it's a vintage that produced wines that devotees of the elegant school will enjoy but that fans of a bolder, richer style will likely find lacking in heft and body.  Like 2010, 2011 is an excellent vintage for white wines and I'm very interested in following the progress of sauvignon blanc, especially those made from fruit grown in the newly minted Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA.  Conditions there are proving to be ideal for this cool-climate variety and the number of wineries who are successfully pursuing it is growing steadily.

Stephan Asseo of L'Aventure and an old hand in the Paso Robles region told me that 2009 was still his personal benchmark and "definitely in the top three vintages here.  Now, with 2010, we have a top four."  In fact, he went on, "the 2010s are sometimes preferable to the 2009s because of their freshness and because some 2009s can lack vibrancy.  You could say that 2010 is a bit less typically California, especially compared to '09." 

The move toward elegance in southern California.  A suaver style is being accomplished via a number of methods, mostly centered around more careful site selection--i.e., more vineyards that enjoy the cooling benefits of altitude and exposure to Pacific Ocean breezes as well as those that are shielded from too much sun exposure. Then there are the choices made for clonal selection, canopy management, and, most obvious of all, harvest timing.  In addition, numerous producers told me on my recent tour of the region in September that they have become more gentle in their pressing regimen and have shortened their maceration times.  As virtually every producer will point out, ripeness and fruit concentration aren't the primary challenge here.  Rather, it's how to rein in the raw materials.

A number of producers also made the case that as their vines come into maturity, they are allowing us to see the region's true potential.  Many vineyards in the Central Coast were planted less than a decade ago, so we're still a number of years away from seeing exactly what can be accomplished here.  But enough vines have entered their mature phase to give a good glimpse of where things are heading.  This is especially true in the Santa Maria Valley, Arroyo Grande and Edna Valley and on the west side of Paso Robles, where a number of renowned vineyards are well into, or even beyond, their second decade of age.