Big Sur’s rugged shore. Carmel’s bleached sands. Pebble Beach’s gentle tide pools. The Monterey California coast is world-famous for unparalleled scenic beauty. And Monterey’s world-class wines rely on those very same picture-perfect elements… Warm sun, cool fog, ancient soils: essential components all to the winegrower’s art. Renowned vineyards and wineries large and small call Monterey County home. From the steep slopes of Carmel Valley to the rolling hills of Salinas Valley, Monterey stands alone in crafting wines of exceptional flavor, character, and balance. And local winemakers’ hospitality is as famous as their vintages. Sample the magic that is Monterey at any of the area’s 60+ tasting rooms.
Two Hundred Years Ago
Franciscan friars, in the Spanish mission of Soledad, planted the first crop of wine grapes over two hundred years ago. Over time those vines withered and, sadly, no trace remains today. Now, this area has multiplied in size to include around 40,000 acres of planted vineyards.
Rediscovered in the ’60’s
It was not until the early 1960’s that the full potential of Monterey County, as a wine-producing region, began. In 1960 Professor A.J. Winkler, a viticultural authority from the University of California at Davis, published a report classifying grape growing districts by climate. Monterey County was classified as Region I and II, comparable with the premium regions of Napa, Sonoma, Burgundy and Bordeaux.
New Vineyards Established
This discovery came at an opportune time. The demand for table wines had been steadily increasing, and established wineries had begun to seek out new land for their vineyards.
So, in the early 1960’s, the first shrewd plantings of vineyards began. Among these were Wente, Mirassou, Paul Masson, J. Lohr and Chalone. From those early beginnings, Monterey Wine Country has grown to more than 40,000 acres planted in vineyards varying in size from sixty to several thousand acres, making it one of the largest premium wine grape growing regions in California worth over $200 million.
Unique Characteristics of Monterey Grapes
All grapes grown in Monterey County are wine grapes, there are no table grapes or grapes sold for juice. Wines from these vineyards have unique qualities which make them easily distinguishable from those produced elsewhere in California or the world. All have intense varietal flavor, which means the true taste of the grape is reflected in the wine. In Monterey County, Chardonnay is an especially important grape as it comprises 40% of total grape acreage. Chardonnay grapes from Monterey County vineyards have become especially prized by winemakers throughout the state. Currently, the northern areas of the county are heavily planted in Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, and Pinot Blanc. In the warmer southern areas, red grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon (the second largest variety), Merlot and Zinfandel are common.
Land, Climate and Growing Methods
The remarkable grapes which produce these distinctive wines are the result of three key elements - the land itself, the near-perfect climate and the blend of traditional and innovative methods used by growers and winemakers.
The gently sloping land was good for drainage while the terrain and soil characteristics were the most suitable for planting, cultivating and harvesting grapes away from urbanization. In addition, the soil temperatures were cooler than in other parts of the state. This factor naturally limited the size of the crop, thereby increasing grape and wine quality.
The area provided the proper temperature – enough warm days, a shorter frost season and less chance of unseasonable and damaging rains. The primary attribute of this singular climate is the cooling air of the Monterey Bay, which creates a longer growing season. As air in the southern part of the county warms at noon each day and rises, cool air from the Bay fills the void left by the rising warm air.
Grapevines in Monterey County tend to produce buds in the Springs, two weeks earlier than vines in other regions. Due to the cool growing season, the Fall harvest typically begins two weeks later than other regions. Thus, local grapes remain on the vine a full month longer, developing the characteristic intensity of flavor.
During this longer growing season, county viticulturists will encourage even ripening of the fruit by raising the canopy which covers the grape bunches. This canopy manipulation is prevalent in Monterey County, in order to balance the relationship between hang time and ripening.
This slowly matured fruit offers intense varietal flavors and an ideal sugar-acid balance. These concentrated, true varietal flavors are the hallmark of Monterey County’s quality wines.
The final element – the methodology – came about because the plantings were new. For centuries, the world’s most famous wine-producing regions had used the trial-and-error method. However, because these were new plantings, the vineyardists in Monterey County could combine many years of experimentation and the best of proven traditional methods with modern technological improvements and scientific research. From these first new plantings Monterey County has become one of the most unique wine regions in the U.S.
In addition to the ideal climate, the lack of abundant rainfall allows Monterey County grape growers to control the amount of water the vines receive. By utilizing some form of water distribution system, i.e., drip or sprinkler, growers are able to give the grapevines water when they need it and to withhold water in order to concentrate the flavors of the grapes.
The very first irrigation system to be implemented in a valley vineyard took place in Monterey County in the early part of the 1960’s. The lack of annual rainfall made it necessary to have a predictable supply of water to the grapevines to ensure that they would thrive and produce a harvest with not only great quality but also higher yields per acre. The early irrigation systems relied on sprinklers, however, many of the vineyards have converted to a drip irrigation system which is a more efficient method of distributing water.
Monterey County was also a leader in the development of mechanical harvesting. This machine is the most efficient method of removing grapes from the vines during the harvest. A mechanical harvester will gently vibrate the vines and allow the grapes to drop into a conveyer belt. The grapes are then transported to a bin and either crushed and pressed immediately in the vineyard, or trucked to the winery for fermentation. This method of harvesting grapes is typically done at night to take advantage of the cool temperatures. The main benefit of mechanical harvesting is that once the grapes are ripe and have the ideal sugar-acid balance, those grapes should be picked and delivered to the winery as soon as possible, mechanical harvesting is the quickest and most effective method of harvesting.