Santa Cruz Mountains: California’s Best
By Antonio Galloni
What is the most overlooked terroir in California? It is a question I am asked often. The answer is always the same: The Santa Cruz Mountains. These rugged hillsides just south of San Francisco are home to some of the world’s greatest vineyards and wines. Fabulous, age-worthy Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Cabernet Sauvignon-based reds all flourish on these dramatic mountain sites.
To be sure, farming and winemaking
in the Santa Cruz Mountains can only be described as a labor of love. Yields
are typically tiny by world standards, the weather is capricious and there is
no easy way to reach the consumer directly, as wineries can so easily do in many
other parts of the state.
All of that actually works in the
consumer’s favor, as most of the wines – even at the highest level – remain
very fairly priced next to global benchmarks. And make no mistake about it, the
top Santa Cruz wines are among the world’s elite.
To say that 2011 was difficult in
the Santa Cruz Mountains is a massive understatement. Yields are never generous
here, but in 2011 they were depressingly low. To add insult to injury, making
top-flight wine in 2011 required extraordinary diligence and sacrifice, which,
to put it simply, meant far higher labor costs, especially in the vineyards. So
the wines were much more expensive to make than normal, but there is a lot less
to sell. Not exactly the type of scenario that makes bean counters happy.
As was the case throughout the
state, in 2011 cool weather the entire year delayed the harvest by at least a
few weeks for all varieties. Unlike
2010, there were no heat spikes whatsoever. On average, alcohols are 1% lower than normal, which is incredible,
given that alcohols are never particularly high here by California standards.
Overall, 2011 is more consistent
with Chardonnay than Pinot Noir, which was literally devastated by horrible
flowering and high amounts of shatter to the point some sites essentially
produced no fruit whatsoever. There are only a handful of Cabernet
Sauvignon-based wines made in the Santa Cruz Mountains, so the value of
generalized comments seems dubious, but what I have tasted so far is promising.
I have not tasted enough Syrahs and Syrah-based wines to form a conclusive
opinion, but the wines I have tasted so far are medium in structure and similar
in style to the Pinots.
Readers who want to discover the
best California has to offer owe it to themselves to make sure the Santa Cruz
Mountains is on their radar. For more on the region’s geography, readers may
want to revisit the text below, from an article originally published in 2011.
Ridge's Monte Bello Vineyard. Used
An Introduction to the Santa Cruz Mountains
The Santa Cruz Mountains is
arguably the least well known of California’s top winemaking regions, which is
hard to believe, since Ridge and Mount Eden have been considered two of the
country’s top estates for decades. A number of other wineries are within easy
driving distance of San Francisco, Cupertino and the Silicon Valley. The Santa
Cruz Mountains are technically not a part of the Central Coast, nor are they
considered part of the North Coast, which may explain why they are often
overlooked. Make no mistake about it; these hillsides are home to a number of
superb sites for Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and to a lesser extent, Bordeaux
varieties. I am still not convinced the Santa Cruz Mountains are as favorable
to Rhȏne varieties as other parts of the state, but time will ultimately tell.
The Santa Cruz Mountains is a
dramatic appellation divided by the San Andreas Fault. The entire AVA is considered
a cold micro-climate, but even here there are important aspects of the
topography and climate to consider. The eastern side of the appellation is
further away from the Pacific and closer to San Francisco Bay. Temperatures are
therefore warmer, and it is possible to ripen Bordeaux varieties, the most
famous being those grown on Ridge’s Monte Bello vineyard. The western side of
the appellation, closer to the Pacific, is colder and better suited to Pinot
Noir and Chardonnay.
Central Coast Coverage
As I have done for the last two
years, once again this year I am dividing Central Coast coverage into several
smaller articles in order to give greater focus to each of the specific regions
that make up this vast set of appellations that essentially spans just north of
Los Angeles to just south of San Francisco. Articles on the Santa Lucia
Highlands and Paso Robles will follow over the next few weeks to round out
published reviews on the wines of Santa Barbara and the Santa Cruz
Mountains. All of the wines in this
article were tasted in June 2013.
Cover: Rhys Horseshoe Vineyard. Used with permission