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California’s crazy quilt of coastal wines

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Dividing up California’s various wine country regions could well be done in many different ways, most of them geographic.

The two major divisions are inland and coastal. The former are all those similar regions that run north to south in the middle of the state, the Central Valley,” where cooling marine influences are minimal.

As a result, the warm-to-hot temperatures during the growing season do not allow for grapes to remain on the vine long enough to be turned into great wine.

Coastal vineyards are better suited for the making of the more delicate whites and the nuanced reds that are considered by wine lovers to be worth paying a premium to get.

But it’s not as simple as saying that all coastal wines are better than all inland wines. California’s Mediterranean climate can be hot and humid — or lacking in humidity — anywhere in the state. All of which makes for a fascinating crazy quilt of coastal wines that usually are based on the regions from which they come.

Colder regions, such as Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey, and Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara, all coastal areas, are equally suited to make excellent chardonnay and pinot noir (as well as other varieties), but the wines differ based on the unique conditions found in each area.

I have been a judge at wine competitions for more than 30 years, and over that time I’ve been asked to evaluate the wines of the Central Coast. Two decades ago, at such a judging, a handful of judges looked at wines from a small number of regions, notably Santa Barbara’s rolling hills (such as Santa Ynez Valley) and southern San Luis Obispo areas (such as Edna Valley), the then-small Paso Robles area, and little else.

At the time, the term “Central Coast” was defined as just a few regions not even half way up the coast.

Times change. As wine has become more popular, as winery tourism has grown, and as wine technology has improved the breed, more and more vineyards have been planted in coastal regions. This has led to consumers being offered more choices.

Last week, I was one of 18 judges to evaluate 568 entries submitted to the Central Coast Wine Competition, which is affiliated with five regional county fairs.

As California wineries have grown in number, so has the Central Coast Wine Competition, which now accepts wine from as far south as Ventura County (which borders on Los Angeles County) and as far north as the San Francisco Bay.

The wider range of wine styles creates a challenge for both the organizers as well as the judges. After two days of judging, it was clear to me that this expanded region is making some superb white wines, with the reds still yet to find a style that creates excitement.

Indeed, if one thing was evident from judging the red wines is that some of the most interesting are from grape varieties yet to make a splash with most consumers.

In recent years, I’ve had superb wines from grapes called Touriga, Lagrein, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Cabernet Pfeffer, Aglianico and Cabernet Franc from Central Coast vineyards.

As for the white wines, some of the most exciting this year were a dry riesling, an albariño, a malvasia bianca, a dry gewurztraminer, and a number of white blends.

Wine of the Week

2011 Zocker Gruner Veltliner, Edna Valley, Paragon Vineyard ($20) — One of the best white wines at the Central Coast Wine Competition was this dry, mineral-y white wine from an Austrian grape variety. It is slightly floral and citrusy, and has an earthy tang that matches brilliantly with white seafood. It has a screwcap for freshness.

Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County. where he publishes "Vintage Experiences," a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at HYPERLINK ""

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