Flavor Profiles From Santa Cruz

Researchers define five distinct winegrowing subregions in the sparsely planted appellation

by Paul Franson
Santa Cruz Wineries
Mary Lindsay's Muns Vineyard is in the Summit subregion of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
Santa Cruz Mountains, Calif. -- The Santa Cruz Mountains is an expansive, highly diversified area for growing grapes, with many varied terroirs. To try to better understand the vast and diverse appellation that is the Santa Cruz Mountains, Mary Lindsay of Muns Vineyard, who is president of the Viticulture Association of the Santa Cruz Mountains (vascm.org) worked with the online web portal AppellationAmerica.com last year to carve out subregions within the area. Lindsay, AA's Clark Smith and regional correspondent Laura Ness were joined by Prudy Foxx, an area viticulturist, in the project.

Viticulture and wine experts conducted a series of wine tastings in September and October 2008 with Appellation America. The results define five different subregions with distinctive characteristics that make their way into the wines produced from grapes grown in each. The subregions are Skyline, Saratoga/Los Gatos, Summit, Los Ranchos (Highway 17 corridor) and Corralitos/Pleasant Valley.

Santa Cruz Wine Map
A blind tasting of 55 Pinot Noirs on Oct. 22, clearly identified that wines produced from grapes grown in these areas bear varying signatures born of the soils, weather and vegetation present in each of these distinctive domains.

The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association will hold its annual Pinot Paradise festival on March 28 and 29, designed to showcase these subregions and the wines that bear testament to the terroir inherent in them.

An overview of the appellation

The Santa Cruz Mountains cover almost 480,000 acres from Woodside in the north to Watsonville in the south, but only about 1,500 acres are planted to winegrapes. The American Viticultural Area (AVA) is located between two major bodies of water that produce fog events and affect the growing climate: Monterey Bay/the Pacific Ocean on the west and San Francisco Bay on the east. Elevations range from almost coastal (starting at 400 feet) climbing to mountains as high as 2,600 feet, with ridges and valleys throughout.

The San Andreas faultline divides the region along its highest ridgetops, with the Pacific Plate on the coastal side, and the North American Plate inland. Soil on the Pacific Plate, an ancient seabed, is primarily sedimentary sandstone, mudstone, clay and shale created by marine deposits; and loam. Soil on the North American Plate is metamorphic, granitic. In some areas, especially in vineyards near the faultline, soils from both can be found.

The Pinot Noir vineyards extend along the ridgetops along Skyline and south above Summit Road, as well as on the western, coastal side of the mountain range facing Monterey Bay and further south into Corralitos/Pleasant Valley. All of these areas are in the cool Region I that is ideal for growing Pinot Noir.

In general, Santa Cruz Mountains wines are characterized by an earthy, mineral quality, especially the Pinot Noirs, with a complexity and balanced acidity that pairs well with food and helps them to age well.

Subregional flavor profiles

The research also identified several major subregions defined by microclimates that lend distinct flavor profiles to the grapes grown in each. Despite clonal differences and diverse winemaking styles, the underlying subregional characteristics in the vineyards can be pronounced. These subregions have been identified as a way of better understanding and enjoying Santa Cruz Mountains wines. There is only one sub-appellation in the Santa Cruz Mountains, Ben Lomond.

From the north end of the appellation around Woodside to the southern end near Corralitos:

Skyline (Thomas Fogarty, Woodside, La Honda, etc.)

The northern end of the appellation is in the Woodside area. It includes vineyards along the ridge at about 2,100 feet, as well as vineyards down slope closer to San Francisco Bay. These vineyards can experience dramatic temperature variations, with an almost daily evening maritime fog event during the summer that brings chilly coastal air to cool off the warm afternoons.

Flavor Profile: Pinot Noirs are characterized by pronounced acidity and bright, lively fruit; red berries, cranberry, guava, cocoa, allspice, orange peel.

Saratoga/Los Gatos (Mt. Eden, Savannah Chanelle, Cinnabar, Black Ridge, Pichon, etc.)

These Pinot vineyards are primarily on the hilltops above Saratoga and near Lexington Reservoir in Los Gatos (where they are cooled by the mists coming off the reservoir). Sandwiched between the ocean to the west and San Francisco Bay to the east, vineyards on the eastern side of the mountains along the peninsula also enjoy a long, cool growing season from their proximity to these bodies of water. Temperatures are generally moderate, with low daytime highs and few heat spikes, so growing days are long and even. Sun exposure is primarily eastward or southern, which promotes slow, measured ripening, and the vineyards are generally more protected than on the western summit overlooking the coast. This variation, as well as the mountain soils, produce grapes with intense, vibrant, lasting flavors.

Flavor Profile: Pinot Noirs display distinct acidity, dense raspberry and dark cherry fruit, along with a fresh outdoors qualities of balsam, sage, wet stone, "mountain spice."

Summit Road (Muns Vineyard, Burrell School, Silver Mountain, Loma Prieta, Miller Hill, Quenneville, etc.)

This area is south of Highway 17 above Soquel, runs along Summit Road, and has the highest elevation Pinot vineyards in the region, as high as 2,600 feet. Many of the vineyards here have all-day sun, and are surrounded by scrub oak, pines and high chaparral. During the growing season, they are cooled by breezes that blow up the mountains from the coastal fog that blankets Monterey Bay. It is important for the Pinot vineyards to be irrigated and for canopy management practices to shade and protect the fruit in the sunshine. The Pinots produced here can be big but balanced, with bold tannins for aging.

Flavor Profile: Pinot Noirs are generally very bold, full-bodied and rich, characterized by distinctive cherry, raspberry and pomegranate fruit, and can be more floral, smokey, with dark chocolate hints.

Los Ranchos (Vine Hill, Ahlgren, Clos Tita, Branciforte, etc.)

This area (generally along the Hwy. 17 corridor) cascades towards the coast from the Summit area and encompasses Rancho San Augustine on the west (Scotts Valley) and Rancho Soquel Augmentation on the east (from Santa Clara County to Soquel). Originally planted extensively to vines in the 1800s, much of this area was designated as "Vine Hill" in 1867.

These mountaintop vineyards range in elevation from 800 to 1,300 feet with southern exposure, and are cooled by their proximity to Monterey Bay. Growing season temperatures range from a daily high of 80°F to a nighttime low of 55°F. The top soils are well drained, and range from 1 inch to 3 feet of sand, sandy loam, loam and clay loam on top of weathered or lithic bedrock. The vineyards are surrounded by lower elevation chaparral which includes madrones, manzanita, oaks, chamise and yerba santa.

Flavor Profile: These Pinot Noirs are big, complex and multi-layered with aromas and flavors of olallieberries, cranberries, chocolate, caramel, spicy coriander. Tannins are firm, acid balanced, minerality is evident. They are unctuous and generally fruit forward.

Corralitos/Pleasant Valley (Martin Alfaro, Pleasant Valley Vineyards, Windy Oaks, Bargetto's Regan Vineyard)

This is the southernmost end of the region, close to Watsonville. These vineyards are typically at lower elevations (about 400 to 800 feet) along the coast. In the summer it is not unusual for early morning fog to blanket these vineyards. It burns off late in the morning, followed by warm afternoons and evenings, and cool nighttimes. This dramatic daily temperature variation during fruit development creates intense, concentrated flavors. It slows ripening, creating complex, nuanced flavors. Soils are sedimentary (sandy, clay, silt, loam).

Flavor Profile: Pinot Noirs from this region tend to be brilliant in color, elegant, with hibiscus, bay, nectarine on the nose; root beer, blueberry on the palate. The acidity is pronounced but inviting, with well integrated minerality.

For more information on Pinot Paradise, contact the Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association, at (831) 685-8463 or scmwa.com.

For more information on the Appellation America Pinot Noir evaluation: wine.appellationamerica.com/.

For more information on the Santa Cruz Mountains winegrowing region and vineyards, contact the Viticulture Association of the Santa Cruz Mountains at vascm.org.
Posted on 02.04.2009 - 10:36:03 PST
Santa Cruz Mts. wineries will introduce these new subregions at World of Pinot Noir (March 6-7, Shell Beach, CA) in a special focus tasting and seminar Friday morning. Participating and pouring their SC Mts. Pinots will be: Jeffrey Patterson, Mt. Eden; Michael Martella, Thomas Fogarty; Ed Muns, Muns Vineyard; Jerold O'Brien, Silver Mountain; Sal Godinez, Wines of Vine Hill; and Joe Martin, Martin Alfaro. Pinot Paradise, the SC Mts.' celebration of Pinot Noir the last weekend of March (March 28-29), will provide a more in-depth examination with a technical session Sunday morning and Grand Cruz tasting that afternoon. About 40 wineries will pour about 80 SC Mts. Pinot Noirs and participants will be able to taste by subregion.
J Muns
Los Gatos, CA USA