Why Monterey Grows Great Wine Grapes

why monterey grows great wine grapes - monterey wine tasting

Ever wonder why Monterey’s known for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay? With vine roots of Monterey County’s wine industry that can be traced back to the Spanish Missions in the 1770s, the region’s a special place for unique wines.

Today, Monterey is home to large scale producers and boutique wineries alike. Big and small, both capture the region’s bounty in a bottle. Monterey can make a range of premium wines in a diverse range of styles thanks to the region’s unique topography, varied soils, and distinct macroclimates resulting in several American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) within the county’s borders.

How Monterey’s Physical Geography Affects Wine Grapes

Monterey County is home to several major geographical features that impact the viticultural climate.

These include the Monterey Bay and two separate mountain ranges: the Santa Lucia Range and the Gabilan Mountain Range.

Together, these features create diverse terroirs for winegrowers by impacting weather patterns. 

Monterey Bay’s maritime influence plays a major role in moderating the climate throughout the county’s viticultural areas. The Monterey Bay forms a large, cool underwater canyon, known as the Great Blue Canyon.

Rising inland temperatures during the growing season create a vacuum, evaporating cool ocean water to form fog banks that are sucked in through Carmel and Salinas River Valleys in the afternoons, where they blanket the land into the early morning before burning off. 

Consistent fog banks moderate warm inland climates, leading to significant diurnal shifts, or the difference between nighttime and daytime temperatures. These diurnal shifts lengthen the growing season while preserving grape acidity.

Balanced acidity and sugar ripeness are critical for quality wine.

Two key mountain ranges play an important role in the region’s viticulture.

Perhaps the most famous, the Santa Lucia Range, runs North to South alongside the Pacific Coastline, from Carmel to the Cayuma River in San Luis Obispo County.

The mountain range is the steepest coastal range in the contiguous United States and forms a rain shadow on the Salinas Valley, along with canyons and alluvial fans.

Also within Monterey County, the Gabilan Range runs North to South on the eastern side of the Salinas River Valley.

The Gabilan Range and the Santa Lucia Range parallel each other and act to form a wind tunnel off of Monterey Bay.

This wind tunnel causes wind stress in the Salinas Valley, which can stop photosynthesis, rip leaves off of vines, and delay ripening. 

The distinctive physiography of Monterey County, including cooling ocean fogs coupled with a natural wind tunnel, means that bud break and harvest in the Salinas River Valley happen on average two weeks earlier and later, respectively, than the rest of California.

The region has one of the longest growing seasons in the world and, when combined with its unique geology, is capable of producing a spectrum of quality wines.

How Monterey’s Diverse Geology and Soils Affect Wine Grapes

In addition to the physiographic features in Monterey County, the region benefits from a diversity of soils thanks to its unique geology. 

Monterey County is home to one of the most active fault lines in the world: the San Andreas Fault. 

Converging fault lines over 100 million years ago created Franciscan Complex rock and Salinian rock, the two predominant rockbed types in the county (County of Monterey Planning and Building Inspection Department, 2008).

Franciscan Complex rock is a mixture of different kinds of rock sediment that formed as a result of tectonic activity. This means that throughout Monterey County vineyard soils consisting of Franciscan Complex will vary, making each site unique. 

The region is also home to an ancient seabed that plays an important geological role.

During the Pleistocene era, the Salinas River Valley experienced repeated rising and falling sea levels due to the expansion and contraction of glaciers in other parts of the world. Each time the sea level fell, new marine deposits were left behind throughout Monterey County.

This glacial activity helped to form the Gabilan Mountain Range, and, as importantly, led to the development of complex nutrient-rich clay-based soils.

Active uplift, rapid erosion, and soil deposits have formed broad alluvial fans of well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. Vineyards planted on these alluvial deposits have access to abundant nutrients.

As a result, the Salinas River Valley floor is home to large, commercial wine-producing vineyards.

The range of soils found across Monterey County help to create a vibrant patchwork of vineyards capable of producing different varietals of high-quality wines throughout several prominent AVAs.

The Best Monterey County AVAs

The American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) of Monterey County reflect the diversity of the region’s wines. Most famous among them are: Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Carmel Valley AVA, San Antonio Valley AVA, Arroyo Seco AVA, and San Lucas AVA. 

Santa Lucia Highlands AVA

Beginning with the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA (est. 1991), this district offers winegrowers an ideal Region 1 for classic Pinot Noir cultivation. Sitting on the east side of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, the district’s elevation provides vineyards full access to the morning sun.

Maritime breezes sweep through the Salinas River Valley’s wind tunnel cooling the vineyards in the afternoon.

Several mesoclimates formed by mountain canyons allow growers to produce Syrah in a style similar to that of the Northern Rhone. Santa Lucia Pinot Noirs are dense, with black fruits, leather, earth, and camphor.

In contrast, Carneros Pinot Noirs are lighter, with berries and herbs. Arguably, the macroclimate for the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA with its consistent ability to produce high-quality Pinot Noir has made the region one of the most recognized in Monterey County.

Carmel Valley AVA

Vineyard nestled on a mountain ridge in the Carmel Valley AVA, with peaks of the Coastal Range in the background. Pronounced diurnal swings from daily fog intrusion and coastal breezes help to preserve acidity.
Vineyard nestled on a mountain ridge in the Carmel Valley AVA, with peaks of the Coastal Range in the background. Pronounced diurnal swings from daily fog intrusion and coastal breezes help to preserve acidity.

The Carmel Valley AVA (est. 1983) provides winegrowers a distinctive region for viticulture. Vineyards are located in Colchagua Valley and Carmel Valley. Colchagua Valley perches above the fog line further inland, and as a result can experience huge diurnal shifts from 100℉ during the day, to 30℉-40℉ in the evenings.

This diurnal shift equates to lengthened growing seasons and the possibility to develop complex fruit characteristics. Carmel Valley sits on top of San Andreas and Arroyo Seco sandy loam, with excellent nutrient and drainage capacity. 

With a focus on Burgundian-style wines, the valley sits in closer proximity to the ocean with a stronger influence from maritime breezes and fog intrusion than Russian River Valley AVA, which also grows Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Carmel Chardonnay expresses pear, apple, lemon, and notes of honey with age. Russian River Chardonnays can express stone fruits and tropical notes in part due to its warmer overall climate.

Within Carmel Valley’s many mesoclimates, winegrowers are focused on quality wines suited to its unique physical location. 

San Antonio Valley AVA

Moving on to the San Antonio Valley AVA (est. 2006), the macroclimate of this district resembles that of Paso Robles AVA. The more moderate region enjoys a warm, continental climate.

The warm days and cool nights are influenced by Lake San Antonio and the cool breezes off the Pacific Ocean some 100 miles to the north.

The overnight fog comes tumbling in towards the late afternoon and makes itself at home, only burning off by mid-morning the next day. This makes for an ideal climate. 

San Antonio Valley AVA consists of predominantly gravelly loam and clay soils.

The AVA is nestled up against the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, helping keep the fog pooled in the valley.

Line Shack Wines is perhaps one of the most well-known producers sourcing grapes for their gold medal Cabernet Sauvignon from San Antonio Valley AVA.

Their wines reflect Cabernet Sauvignon’s true varietal characteristics with cherry, red current, spice, and vanilla with a balanced finish. Grapes cultivated from the region create delicious Rhone and Bordeaux style wines.

Arroyo Seco AVA

Arroyo Seco AVA looking East from the deep gorge of the Arroyo Seco River. Vineyards located on river benches and hillsides.
Arroyo Seco AVA looking East from the deep gorge of the Arroyo Seco River. Vineyards located on river benches and hillsides.

As another one of the country’s earliest AVAs, the Arroyo Seco AVA (est. 1983) was created based on four separate geographical regions within its boundaries.

First, the “Gorge” is a narrow strip of land protected from winds but still affected by coastal fogs.

The Gorge has thin topsoil, and limited farmable land due to sloping terrain and high elevations.

Second, the “Ancient Riverbed” covers the land on either side of the present-day Arroyo Seco River.

The district is heavily impacted by the Salinas River Valley wind and coastal fogs. Rocky soils promote root stress.

Third, the “Western Bench” sits next to the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, rising some 40 vertical feet above the riverbed.

Due to the orientation, vineyards on the Western Bench experience extreme stress from the marine layer and winds. Finally, the “Southern Bench” sits at a cross section where the winds converge from the Salinas River Valley and the Gorge, creating howlers

Erosion over the millennia means that soils in the Arroyo Seco district, mainly shale and granite, are richer than the other sub-regions. 

Today, grapes grown in the Arroyo Seco AVA are part of several well-known portfolios, including: Wente, Ventana, Hahn, J. Lohr, and Bernardus. Old-vine Wente clone Chardonnay in Arroyo Seco produces wines with rich tropical flavors and excellent structure, whereas old-vine Chardonnay in Marin County highlights green apple, pear, and citrus.

The extreme growing conditions in the Arroyo Seco AVA help to create powerful wines.

San Lucas AVA

The San Lucas AVA (est. 1987) offers winegrowers a more moderate growing district within Monterey County.

Sitting on alluvial fans in the southwestern region of the Salinas River Valley, the AVA is less affected by extreme winds equating to warmer temperatures. 

That said, ocean fogs still tumble through the AVA, with diurnal shifts of up to 40℉, lengthening the growing season and allowing for more phenological ripeness in the grapes, thereby increasing flavor intensity and body. 

Likewise, the San Lucas AVA enjoys richer soils composed mainly of sandstone and diatomaceous shale, with good air circulation for vine roots. Varieties grown in the region include: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Syrah, among others.

Wines made from San Lucas grapes are fully expressive in their development. 

Monterey’s diverse factors make it a unique region for viticulture. 

The county’s physiography, geology, and multiple macroclimates as identified by distinctive AVAs combine to create some of California’s most distinctive wines. The range of grape varieties and potential wine styles are only limited by the winegrowers’ dreams.

Grab a bottle of Monterey wines the next time you’re at your local wine shop. Close your eyes and taste the maritime fog and the ocean breeze in each sip.

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