Focus on the Central Coast

Followers of the Central Coast’s wines were chomping at the bit to get their hands on the top producers’ 2007s even before the first grapes were harvested. And now that the wines are actually in the bottle, consumers have been busily clearing out the marketplace in spite of the weak economy. While a number of the items that I have reviewed in our annual coverage are sold out at the wineries, many of the top bottlings are still working their way through the wholesale and retail pipeline, so plenty of superb wines are still available. Many of these same wines also grace restaurant lists, as the exuberant style of most 2007s makes them very easy to enjoy right now.

But drinking the best 2007s, especially the reds, would shortchange their obvious potential. The 2007 season yielded wines that were variously described to me as "the most perfumed in memory" (Chad Melville), "deep but incredibly lively" (Greg Brewer), "the freshest I've ever made" (Sashi Moorman), and "pretty much all that I could wish for" (Justin Smith). The key to 2007's great success, according to Brewer, was "being able to get full maturity, and thus complexity, at relatively low sugar levels and with good acidity, which means that you could make wines that are powerful without showing excess weight or making a dull impression." The growing season was marked by a cold, dry winter, and the resulting grapes and clusters tended to be small. Yields for Rhône varieties were roughly the same as those of 2006, which themselves were down from 2005 levels, often significantly. And for pinot noir and chardonnay across much of the region, production levels were down by anywhere from 20% to 33% from the levels of 2006. The result, according to Manfred Krankl: “We got excellent concentration, but often a ridiculously small crop, which is the curse of most great vintages." While the best 2007s clearly possess the depth and balance for a slow and positive evolution in bottle, their freshness lends them a lively character, highly perfumed bouquets and vivid, finely etched fruit.

An unfortunate irony is that while 2007 produced the largest collection of seriously fine syrahs I've yet tasted from Southern California, the wine-buying public's enthusiasm for this category is at a nadir. As the Central Coast’s syrah vines have begun to achieve maturity, and as the best producers have become more comfortable with the variety, quality has never been higher. Wine lovers who may be put off by the wild, smoky and often peppery character of syrah from the northern Rhône Valley will be pleasantly surprised by the majority of 2007 Central Coast syrahs, which manage to offer true varietal expression with complementary ripeness and sweetness of fruit. More than a few growers who invested in the variety in the 1990s are beginning either to uproot their syrah vines or to graft them over to more market-ready varieties, especially pinot noir—or they are seriously considering doing so as bulk prices continue to spiral downward. Unless the market pulls an about-face soon it's a safe bet that we'll have far fewer Central Coast (indeed, American) syrahs to review in the next five years or so.

Pinot noir continues to pull the high end of the Central Coast market, and many of the best producers are taking full advantage of consumer demand for their limited-production wines by jacking their prices ever higher. Heated demand for the 2007 vintage has encouraged many producers to take price hikes, which, after all, could be justified in light of a short harvest. But one need not look further than Napa Valley for examples of wineries that have pushed their prices beyond their customers' comfort levels. How much $60+ ready-to-drink pinot noir (and chardonnay) is a fiscally whipped marketplace really able to absorb before the next vintage comes along?

In stark contrast to the upward swing in pinot noir pricing, it is worth noting that prices for many topnotch Central Coast syrahs and syrah-based blends have actually come down recently. I'm hard-pressed to think of a category that delivers more bang for the California buck than some of the $30-and-under syrahs and Rhône blends that are included in this year's coverage. The wines in this issue were tasted during my September tour of the region as well as during September and October in New York.