The Central Coast is a large encompassing American Viticultural Area (AVA) that extends from the south of San Francisco all the way to Santa Barbara, California. The region contains 40 AVAs including Paso Robles, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey, and Santa Barbara and each of these sub-regions specializes in different types and expressions of wine. While the Central Coast may not have the same namesake as Napa Valley, it does happen to produce some of California’s most intriguing, up-and-coming wines. To explore each region, their top-performing varieties, and what makes each area unique, we’ll take you on a virtual driving tour through Central Coast’s wine scene.
Which Wines to Seek Out From the Central Coast
This answer really depends upon the climate where the grapes grow and each sub-region has a different terroir. That said, the Central Coast as a whole is most famous for its Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah wines. So, if you just want to taste the highlights, this is a good place to start.
Central Coast Wine Map
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As a whole, the Central Coast is planted with 90,300 acres (36.500 hectares) of vineyards. Currently, the most widely planted variety is Chardonnay.
The majority of the vineyards can be found in the valleys that open up to the Pacific. The benefit of being along the coast is that the cold, moist air gets pulled in and creates a layer of morning cloud cover which reduces temperatures and sun exposure on the grapes. This is why cool climate varieties such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir excel in the coastal regions of the Central Coast AVA.
Notable Cool and Coastal AVAs
- Santa Cruz Mountains: The mountains to the west of Silicon valley were originally planted with vines by French immigrants in the early 1900s. The upper slopes and western side are known for Pinot Noir, whereas the more inland areas produce elegant examples of Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet, and Syrah.
- Sta Rita Hills: This region was featured in the blockbuster flick Sideways and perhaps because of the press (and partly because of the quality), SRH has since become one of the most famous Pinot Noir and Chardonnay regions on the West Coast.
- San Luis Obispo: Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley are the 2 AVAs in SLO that produce outstanding, rich Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines.
- San Benito: An intermediate climate area with a vein of limestone soils that’s become known for Pinot Noir (look up Calera) but there is potential for elegant styles of Sangiovese, Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Franc.
- Monterey: A larger encompassing region with many large scale vineyard farms producing a great deal of the bulk Chardonnay and Merlot that we see labeled “Central Coast” in grocery stores. Still, within Monterey AVA, there are several great sub-regions including Santa Lucia Highlands, Chalone, and Arroyo Seco.
- Santa Maria Valley: Home to the California’s largest connected vineyard, Bien Nacido, which has 900 acres in Santa Maria Valley. The region is more intermediate in terms of climate and is hailed for its lusher styles of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah.
Early spring in Paso Robles at Justin Vineyards. Photo by Brian.
Where there isn’t morning cloud cover, there is a very different wine scene. The inland regions and ridges receive ample sunshine and a long, hot, dry growing season, so you’ll see a prevalence of warm to hot climate grapes excel here including everything from Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre to Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel.
Notable Warmer and Inland AVAs
- Paso Robles: One of the most exciting regions for Syrah and other Rhône varieties on the West Coast. The area also produces a great deal of pocketbook-friendly, smoky, and satisfying Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Santa Ynez Valley: Moving inland from Sta Rita Hills, it gets noticeably hotter and you’ll find a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Syrah.
- Ballard Canyon: Noted for being slightly cooler than the Santa Ynez Valley because of massive temperature shifts between night and day. Ballard Canyon has a keen focus on Syrah and other Rhône varieties including Grenache, Viognier, and Roussanne.
- Hames and San Antonio Valleys: The inner-most regions of Monterey contain some of the largest bulk wine production farms and wineries. There is potential here considering the presence of limestone soils but quality will need to start in the vineyards.
If you love Syrah, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon, Paso Robles will blow your mind.
If you love Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, Santa Barbara is your home away from home. Learn what makes this region so incredibly special.