7 Oct 2011

Potholes, pine trees and rain (Mt. Harlan & Santa Cruz Mountains)

I felt a sense of regret leaving the Central Coast this morning, a feeling I'm sure I'll have many times during my travels. The past few days have been fairly gloomy and rainy in the area which according to the locals has been fairly common this vintage, which will be a much later one. Some of the hosts I've had at wineries have been almost apologetic about the rain, considering California is the sunshine state, but coming from Melbourne means you get used to odd weather patterns.

The view from Calera
As I drove North up the 101 Highway the proliferation of agriculture continued, with crops of cabbages, fruit and of course, grapes. Once I got into the Monterey region the density and volume of grapes increased dramatically. I had read that this was the heartland of the bulk fruit market in California, and not having been to the Murray-Darling Basin in Australia, all I could compare this to was Bordeaux. I wasn't long before I had to turn off the highway towards my first visit of the day; Calera. Driving up towards San Benito was pretty amazing, very rugged stark land compared to the coast. This was made slightly more dramatic by the rain.

The owner and founder of Calera, Josh Jensen, established a pretty impressive pedigree in Burgundy working at Domaine Dujac and Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Upon his return to the States he attempted to find limestone based soils to grow pinot noir and chardonnay on, the same limestone found in the Cote d'Or of Burgundy. After two years he settled near Mt. Harlan in San Benito County, 25 miles off the coast and 2,200 feet upwards, one of the highest vineyard sites in California. The first vineyards were planted in 1975, long before the post-"Sideways" craze for pinot.

The Calera winery
Calera produce a range of single vineyard wines off the Mt. Harlan estate, mostly pinot with some chardonnay and a bit of viognier as well. They also purchase fruit from numerous AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) throughout the Central Coast, to produce the Central Coast range. In a very broad sense these represent the village wines, whilst the single vineyard wines are the crus. Calera produce about 30,000 cases mostly for domestic sale, but they also export heavily. At lesat 50% of their exports go to Japan, after their top pinot from the Jensen vineyard got referenced in a Japanese comic being mistaken for DRC. Apparently they go crazy for this wine; asking Josh to sign empty bottles with tears in their eyes. Apparently they have a lot of visitors from Japan come up to the winery, and their illusions of a gorgeous chateau on a mountain-top are shattered when they see a very unassuming winery on a pot-holed road.

The stand-out wine from the tasting
The Calera wines exhibit some of the most elegant and haunting characteristics I've seen in a long time. They certainly aren't afraid to express themselves, but the way the fruit, acid, tannin and oak integrate so well together does remind me of burgundy. The Mt. Harlan Viognier 2009 is possibly the most complex I've tasted, and has a subtle miso-like savoury note, with beautiful texture and well managed viscosity. The 2008 Ryan Vineyard Pinot Noir shows great brambly whole-bunch black cherry and pomegranate notes, a very ageable wine due to the tannins and acid. The Jensen Vineyard PN 2008 is more brooding and shows the vineyard age in its darker more contemplative fruit, with some brightness and exuberance. The Reed PN 2006 is starting to develop nicely (in a 375ml bottle), exhibiting more earthy game notes. I also got to have a look at the 2000 Mills Vineyard PN, which is developing beautifully, showing some slightly smoked bacon rind earthiness with the dark fruits. The Viognier Doux 2010 dessert wine is one of the best examples of the variety I've seen; amazing concentration and balance, with depth to match.

Whilst I could have stayed tasting and chatting to my host Sylvia and the team at Calera all afternoon, I had to press on to Santa Cruz. After getting stuck in traffic coming into Santa Cruz, I made my way up into the Santa Cruz Mountains just out of town. I had plugged into the navigator what was supposed to be Bonny Doon Vineyards, but it must be pretty out of date as they sold the winery and tasting room several years ago, moving down to downtown Santa Cruz.

In its place is Beauregard Vineyards, who have actually been growing grapes in them thar hills since 1949, not bad. Unfortunately the original Beauregard Vineyard contracted Pierces Disease and had to be pulled and replanted, and the new vines didn't start producing until the 2008 vineyards. I kind of freaked out when I saw they only produced 24 cases of the 2008 Beauregard Ranch Chardonnay, and 48 cases of the Pinot Noir. They have also been sourcing from other vineyards making Santa Cruz AVA wines, which in my opinion aren't anywhere near as good as the Beauregard Vineyard wines.

Whilst the chardonnay wines are a tad warm, they have good acids to hold everything together. The use of some American oak has an interesting influence on the chardonnay of dried coconut and lanolin. The winemaker doesn't aim for a certain level of malo-lactic fermentation, he just feels it each vintage. The pinot noirs and zinfandel show good restraint but certainly have that new world enthusiasm of fruit without the weight.

After checking in to my motel in Santa Cruz I finished the day with a burger at Betty Burger down by the beach, and it was probably the best I've ever had. If you are ever in Santa Cruz you have to have a Big Betty, but you can probably skip the sweet potato fries, they're just OK.

Click here to see more photos from Mount Harlan and Santa Cruz Mountains, California

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