Known commonly as the great white grape of the Burgundy region of France, Chardonnay has become the most popular white wine in America, if not the world. Chardonnay is by nature a rich, full-bodied wine that grows at its best in a relatively cool climate. It is grown in virtually every growing region in the U.S. and is made in a myriad styles. Most Champagne and methode champenoise sparkling wine has Chardonnay in its blend. At one extreme, it can be elegantly floral and forward in the nose, with lovely fruit of pears and melons and a clean green apple acidity with a certain flinty or chalky mineral quality. It often has a full almost "oily" mouthfeel that lasts seemingly forever on the palate, with a perfect balance of fruit, acid and alcohol. Despite the long, complex finish, Chardonnay makes you hungry for food and thirsty for more wine all at the same time. At the other extreme, the first inhalation fills your nostrils with the sweet vanilla of new French oak and the creamy, buttery complexity that only Chardonnay can embody. Butterscotch, hazelnuts, toasted almonds all might come to mind, and the fruit might be tropical in nature, perhaps pineapples or coconuts, with more grapefruit-like acidity. This is truly a chameleon grape, and it can be altered as much by the climate and soil as by the winemaker's hand. In this country, it has found its best representations in Monterey and the Central Coast, Santa Barbara County, Carneros, Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Willamette Valley (Oregon), Yakima Valley (Washington), Virginia and Long Island.
The Central Coast is a vast region, stretching south from Monterey to the quintessential California beach town of Santa Barbara on the Pacific Ocean.
Monterey County is at the northern end of the Central Coast region. It is distinguished by the Salinas Valley. Made famous by the writings of native son John Steinbeck, the Salinas Valley is a thriving agricultural region, recognized for extensive vineyard plantings of the most popular varieties, both red and white. At the northern end, the valley is cooled by the maritime influences of the Pacific Ocean. It becomes downright hot by the time you reach the southern end in Paso Robles. Here, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and red Rhone varietals do well in hillside vineyards which cool down at night.
As the California landscape curves southward again towards the Pacific Ocean, the vineyards become positively nippy by Paso Robles standards. Foggy mornings and nights are perfect for Burgundian-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande and Santa Maria Valley in San Luis Obispo County. There are also plantings of Riesling and Gew'rztraminer. Some believe the unspoiled Santa Ynez Valley, in northeast Santa Barbara County, is the next great California wine region. Santa Ynez experiences the typical am/pm cooling influences of the Pacific, but can be quite warm and Rhone valley-like during the day. The region holds great promise for Rhone varietals, as well as the classic Burgundian ones.