An education of Central Coast wines

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Entertainment,Scott Greenberg

Part two of a two-part series

California's Central Coast is one of the largest and most desirable grape-growing regions in the world. The Central Coast American Viticultural Area stretches along the bucolic California coastline, starting in San Francisco County in the north and winding its way down to Santa Barbara County in the south. While the region encompasses almost 4 million acres of land, just more than 90,000 acres are actually planted with wine grapes -- which accounts for almost 15 percent of the state's total wine production.

The maritime effect of the Pacific Ocean climate, diverse soils and varied topography provide idyllic conditions for growing a wide range of grape varieties. From big cabernet sauvignons to delightfully charming chardonnays, the Central Coast offers a wide range of delicious choices.

There are three distinct subregions within the Central Coast AVA: The northern section includes San Francisco Bay, the central section is made up of Monterey and San Benito, and San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties comprise the southern section. Last week, I covered several delightful wines from the southern section. This week, I will review a few enchanting choices from the two subregions to the north. Retail prices are approximate.

According to its website, Chalone Vineyards was one of the first wineries in the region to recognize the remarkable potential that Monterey County -- with its maritime-influenced climate and cool, consistent growing seasons -- possessed for cultivating chardonnay grapes. The fruit for its 2009 Chalone Vineyard Monterey County Chardonnay ($13) comes from vineyards predominately located in the northern Salinas Valley, in the Arroyo Seco AVA. The combination of cool nights, warm days and well-drained vineyards allows the fruit to ripen long and slowly throughout the growing season, producing a wine that features flavors of green apple, ripe pear and juicy nectarine on the front of the tongue, and that are supported by tropical fruit and bright acidity on the back end. There is just enough oak treatment to provide a hint of vanilla on a semicreamy frame and lend structure on the straight-forward finish. QPR 8

Contra Costa is located in the northern section of the Central Coast AVA and is home to some of the oldest petite sirah plantings in the state thanks to the influence of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and the region's sandy loam soil. The 2008 Rosenblum Cellars Heritage Clone Petite Sirah ($21) from Contra Costa County takes full advantage of the old clones that produces an inky-dark wine. Aromas of blueberry jam, blackberry and mocha dominate the fragrant bouquet. Thick and chewy flavors of blackberry, dark cassis and black plum sit on the middle of the tongue with authority, while notes of cocoa and black pepper fill in the back of the palate. Dusty, smooth tannins hold everything together on the medium-bodied finish. QPR 9

J. Lohr Vineyards & Wines has vineyards located throughout much of the Central Coast AVA, but it makes its 2011 J. Lohr Fog's Reach Pinot Noir ($28) with fruit from vineyard sites located in the cool and windy area of the Arroyo Seco appellation of Monterey County. The loamy sand and gravelly soils are layered on top of large cobblestones, providing excellent drainage for the vines and stressing the fruit. This produces an elegant pinot noir with aromas of wild strawberry and cherry scents, and earthy flavors of dark raspberry, strawberry and cinnamon. Notes of wet stone and tea compliment the vanilla undertones on the smooth, graceful finish. QPR 8

Cooled by the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Cruz Mountains in the northern region enjoy the warm days and cool nights that provide an ideal growing environment for the grapes that go into the 2008 Ridge Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Estate Santa Cruz Mountains ($40). Cabernet sauvignon is blended with bits and pieces of merlot, petit verdot and cabernet franc for a wine that sports aromas of blackberry, dark licorice and floral violets. The big-bodied wine has enough structure to hold the bold flavors of blackberry, dark cherry and smoked meats together on a frame that is supported by dusty tannins and accented by cocoa and vanilla notes on the long, powerful finish. QPR 10

Note: QPR is a rating system that compares the quality a wine delivers relative to the price. A QPR of 10 is considered an excellent value.

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