Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape in this northern-most portion of the Central Coast, a large appellation that includes Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties. The Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay keep conditions relatively cool here and much of the soil is gravel--like the soil in some of the most prized vineyards of Bordeaux. Though it may seem strange, poor soils are actually beneficial to the hardiness of the vines and can encourage concentrated fruit flavors. As in the Graves area of Bordeaux (graves is French for "gravel"), Cabernet Sauvignon leads the way in the San Francisco Bay.
Major grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Zinfandel, Barbera, Petite Sirah and Pinot Noir
Notable sub-appellations: Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties
Monterey and San Benito
South of the San Francisco Bay wine region, you'll find beautiful Big Sur and the much heralded wine area of Monterey and San Benito Counties. Chardonnay is a big player in the cooler locations.To the south, where the days are warmer, you'll find Merlot and Syrah. Many vines are planted on steep slopes, and the Monterey Bay provides a cool climate that helps the grapes mature slowly. Because of the cool weather, the grapes hang on the vines a little longer here than in many other places, slowly developing flavors and building character. Sub-appellations in Monterey include Chalone, Arroyo Seco and Carmel Valley. Arroyo Seco's claim to fame is mainly vibrant whites like Chardonnay and Riesling; in the warmer parts of the appellation, Zinfandel and Syrah excel. Limestone soil in Chalone is producing exceptional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vineyards of the Carmel Valley tend to sit just out of reach of the cooling fog on steep slopes of granite; their relatively warm environment is well suited for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
Major grape varietals: Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Petite Sirah
Notable sub-appellations: Chalone, Arroyo Seco and Carmel Valley
San Luis Obispo County
Moving into the southern portion of the Central Coast, we find Cabernet Sauvignon is king. There are about twice as many acres devoted to Cabernet in San Luis Obispo County as there are for Merlot, the county's second most planted grape. There are many twisting, turning canyons in the county with differing orientations to the warm sun and generally clear blue skies. Several soil types (shale, granite, sandstone) and a diversity of microclimates encourage both cool- and warm weather-loving grapes to flourish in San Luis Obispo County. You might recognize San Luis Obispo's four sub-appellations: Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande, Edna Valley and York Mountain. Mountains block Paso Robles from the cooling fog that blankets the southern stretches of San Luis Obispo County, making it the warmest appellation of the bunch and helping it to earn a reputation for its Cabernet Sauvignon and warmth-loving Syrah. In Arroyo Grande, meanwhile, in the areas affected by fog and cooling ocean breezes, sparkling wines, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir do well; elsewhere, above the fog line, Zinfandel and Syrah excel. Edna Valley is another cool-climate area well known for elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Major grape varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Riesling, Tempranillo and Semillon
Notable sub-appellations: Paso Robles, Arroyo Grande, Edna Valley and York Mountain
Santa Barbara County
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from Santa Barbara County are earning rave reviews. Chardonnay leads the plantings here, covering twice as many acres as Pinot. Syrah and Viognier (varietals of the Northern Rhone in France) are also coming on strong. A rare geologic feature in Santa Barbara County contributes enormously to the climate. Here the mountains, which until they reach Santa Barbara run parallel to the coastline, suddenly make a turn and run roughly east and west toward the ocean, creating a unique pathway for fog to roll in on, carried by cool breezes that keep temperatures down in the vineyards and encourage a long growing season. Whereas the temperature in certain inland sections of the county can soar into the 100-degree range, the vineyards that benefit from the fog and breeze remain some of the coolest spots in California despite being the southern-most appellation in the Central Coast. Santa Barbara County includes three sub-appellations: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez and Santa Rita Hills.
Major grape varietals: Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sangiovese, Grenache, Merlot, Pinot Gris, Riesling
Notable sub-appellations: Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez and Santa Rita Hills