I went into my Monterey wine tasting experience this summer envisioning something very different than I got. I thought this would be the land of psychedelic, spiritual wines, it being so close to Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur and the famed but mysterious Esalen Institute (a spirituality retreat tucked into the woods and on the cliffs that used to be rumored as a cult.)
We had to get our car fixed in Monterey proper, and the sky was dismally gray and cold, and the area industrial. Yuppies jogged along the beach path. We saw a few cops throw a robber on the grass as we were waiting for our car. But no hippies. A bit later we went to the tourist area of Cannery Row, and saw the usual tourist trappings of souvenirs and expensive restaurants, but no hippies. A day later, in the swank town of Carmel, we were surrounded by elegant clothing boutiques and avante garde toy stores; and our third day was in Carmel Valley Village, a tiny rural town composed of basically all wine tasting rooms. We drank wine in all of these places, but didn’t see any hippies anywhere.
At first I found the wine more dry and acidic than the Santa Barbara and Paso Robles wine south of here that I was used to. The more I tasted, the more I realized I was wrong about the dry part, but I was right on about the acid*. Both whites and reds made my mouth water significantly more than I was used to. I brought this up to a couple of the pourers in the tasting rooms, but they had never heard this before. They thought it had to do with the winemaker’s decisions in making the wine—but I know I’m right. There is something entirely different about the wine in this area.
Wines to me have emotional qualities, like Santa Barbara wine is generous, sunny and talkative, while French wine is pensive, restrained and moody. If there’s one word I could use to describe my favorite Monterey wines, it would be aggressive. I’ve heard this word used pejoratively in winespeak, as in “overly aggressive tannins,” but I mean aggressive in the best way possible. Many wines were tight and astringent, giving them some attitude, but we found the occasional wine that just smashed you in the teeth. I wish I could tell you what’s responsible for this quality, it may have something to do with intense minerality. In any case, I experienced it as unique to this region. We bought a pomegranate dessert wine with intriguing undercurrents of swiss chard that had just this quality. And a pinot rose that could sober you up after a party, it was so assertive. When I brought this up to the wine pourers, they still didn’t know what I meant, just like with the acid. It certainly points to the subjectivity of wine tasting.
It didn’t take me long to get used to the intense acidity on the wines, and it even sung on some of them, like the chardonnays. Monterey chardonnays are the best I’ve ever had (haven’t yet been to Napa, but I bet these could compete). The lemony acidity nicely finishes a mouthful of round, cheesy/yeasty and richly layered flavor.
Monterey is a good region for syrah (though the region is most known for pinot noir and chardonnay). But while a Paso Robles or Santa Barbara syrah is a fertile, joyous thing, a Monterey syrah buries all its fruit into a tight, tannic box and hides it from you. And gives you complexity instead. It’s like the former is a young woman with a cornucopia of fruit on her head, and the latter is a middle-aged urbanite staring at her laptop and brooding over her past. Monterey syrah reads much like Cabernet.
I never did find the hippie wines I was looking for in Monterey, but did find something else. I haven’t spent enough time there to really describe the character of the place, but the wines speak for themselves. Or shout, rather. Monterey is a great place to visit for wine tasting, and was voted as one of the top ten wine tourism destinations worldwide by Wine Enthusiast magazine. If you go, don’t miss the chardonnays. And look for the wines that kick you in the pants.
* Upon further research, I discovered that 2010 and 2011 were cooler years for the Central Coast, giving them higher acid and less sugar than 2009. This would account for some of what I was tasting in Monterey, as many of the wines were of those vintages. However, I still believe part of what I was tasting was due to regional characteristics.