Appellations were once a simple matter but not anymore. Consumers understand the difference between Napa and Sonoma, for instance, especially when they go to the cash register. But keeping straight the sub-appellations – especially when they overlap with other appellations – taxes the brain.
“American Viticultural Areas” are approved by the Tax and Trade Bureau, a division of the U.S. Treasury. To be awarded an AVA, the petitioner must demonstrate, among other things, that the defined area is diverse and unique to other areas. If it overlaps an existing AVA or is within another AVA, the petitioner must show there is something distinct to warrant special recognition. “California,” for instance, is hardly unique but it is an AVA. Inside, there are 139 separate AVAs.
This labyrinth of appellations can be confusing to many consumers but they mean a lot to a producer’s profits. A wine from a Napa Valley AVA commands more money than, say, one from Lodi. Aside from the cost, there is a difference in flavors because the soil changes. A pinot noir from Santa Rita Hills in Santa Ynez Valley is going to taste much different than a wine from the same grape variety grown in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County.
New appellations are added every year. West Sonoma Coast is awaiting its approval with iconic supporters such as Paul Hobbs, Flowers, Joseph Phelps and Peay. But most recently San Luis Obispo Coast has become an AVA. It will join 15 other appellations in San Luis Obispo County, but this is where it gets confusing. Eleven AVAs fall within the large Paso Robles AVA. Additionally In the county are the adjacent York Mountain, Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande AVAs. The new SLO Coast AVA overlays Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande AVAs. Confusing, yes.
The San Luis Obispo Coast AVA, about 60 miles long, runs from Nipomo in the south to San Simeon in the north. It is between the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains. Temperatures here are the coldest on average of any California AVA. Chardonnay and pinot grow well in this climate but you also will find Rhone grape varieties such as grenache, syrah and viognier. It’s also a tourist mecca with sites such as the Hearst Castle and Pismo Beach.
Here are a few of the top producers and their wines we liked:
Laetitia Estate Chardonnay Arroyo Grande Valley 2020 ($22). Wow, what a great value. Ripe tropical fruit notes with a kiss of oak and spice.
Laetitia Estate Pinot Noir 2020 ($27). It will be hard to find a better pinot noir at this price. Medium body with lots of ripe black cherry flavors and generous aromatics. The producer also makes a reserve pinot noir at $44 that has more complexity.
Talley Vineyards Chardonnay Arroyo Grande Valley 2020 ($34). Citrus aromas and pear flavors make this a delicious, well-balanced wine with smooth mouthfeel.
Chamisal Califa Grenache 2019 ($45). We loved this bright and fruity grenache from one of Edna Valley’s oldest properties. Strawberry and cherry flavors.
Saucelito Canyon Elodie Estate Old Vine Zinfandel 2019 ($75). Cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc work with old-vine zinfandel fruit to create a rich and intense blend from the Arroyo Grande Valley. Ripe blackberry and currants.
Center of Effort Rosso Corsa Pinot Noir 2019 ($80). Produced in small quantities and only in good vintages, we mention this pinot noir only because it represents the quality you can expect from this new AVA. From a cool climate with coastal fog, it has forest-floor and anise aromas with ripe black cherry flavors. It is sold only through its website.
Stephen Ross Wine Cellar Spanish Springs Vineyard Albarino 2020 ($25). Like the wines from Northern Spain, this albarino has a lean profile with fresh acidity, peach and pear flavors. It’s a good aperitif or a wine to serve with oysters and other seafood dishes.
Wolff Vineyards Old Vines Chardonnay 2020 ($29). You probably have heard of old-vine zinfandel, but chardonnay? The vines for this Edna Valley wine are 45 years old and pre-date phylloxera. Whole-cluster pressing and malolatic fermentation give a lot of lush appeal to the wine. Tropical fruit and citrus flavors abound.
Tolosa Edna Ranch Chardonnay 2018 ($59). Full body with tantalizing apple and pear flavors. Long in the finish with light oak notes. Good value.
Decoy California Chardonnay 2020 ($20). About 60 percent of the fruit comes from Sonoma County in this reasonably priced and tasty chardonnay. Lots of citrus notes with a hint of vanilla.
Poggio Stenti Montecucco Rosso DOC 2019 ($29). A blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon, this Italian wine from Italy’s Maremma region is an excellent buy. Lots of forward and soft red fruit and balsamic flavors.
Maciarine Montecucco Sangiovese DOCG 2016 ($35). Raspberry and red currant notes dominate this delightful Italian sangiovese. Hints of mint and rosemary with easy tannins.
Borsao Tres Picos Garnacha 2019 ($19). This is one of our favorite everyday red wines. Made from garnacha (grenache) grapes, it offers ripe cherry and strawberry aromas and rich blackberry and plum flavors. It’s an easy drink to pair with barbecued meats.
Esporao White Reserva Alentejo 2020 ($19). From Portugal, this refreshing wine is a blend of the local antao vaz, arinto and roupeiro grapes. Sublte aromas, smooth texture and juicy tropical fruit flavors.
Lake Sonoma Winery Boar’s Blood Red Blend 2018 ($60). This heady blockbuster is a rich blend of cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah and barbera. Generous aromas of dark berries with a hint of vanilla. Chewy tannins with sweet dark fruit flavors and a hint of vanilla.