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Zeroing in on the Central Coast AVA

Updated: Jan 8, 2022

Maybe you’re like me when you see a wine from the Central Coast AVA in California. Not quite sure what it means, or how it compares to other AVAs in California. After all, the Central Coast is a pretty broad swath of land. So let's break it down a bit.

It’s the climate ….

The Central Coast AVA starts south of San Francisco and extends all the way to Santa Barbara. At about 250 miles long, it’s only an average of 25 miles wide. There are over 90,000 acres of vines planted and over 360 vineyards. The best way to think about this AVA is to consider that it is an uber AVA that captures the cool climate characteristics of this part of the state.

There is a range of mountains that run parallel to the Pacific Ocean along the California coast, and the valleys that extend west to the ocean from these mountains make perfect growing regions for cool climate loving grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In fact, Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape in the region.

With this much area there are differences in the climatic influences that shape wine aroma and flavor characteristics. The northern portion extends from San Francisco to Monterey, with the area around Santa Cruz one of the most notable. This region is one of the few coastal regions that is known for their Cabernets.

The midsection of the AVA starts around Monterrey and heads south to San Luis Obispo. Influenced by the Monterey Bay and the wind-swept coastline, this section is notably cooler. Chardonnay dominates here, and toward the south end of this section some Merlot.

The bottom of the Central Coast Ava starts around San Luis Obispo and reaches down into Santa Barbara County. The warmest of the AVA’s sections, you’ll find a fair amount of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, particularly around Paso Robles. As you head further south to Santa Barbara, more Rhone varietals and Pinot Noir join in the fun.

Lots of sub-AVAs

Within this large AVA there are 40 smaller AVAs created to identify that area's specific site character. Some of the most notable of the cooler AVAs include Santa Cruz Mountains which in addition to the aforementioned Cabs, also produce delicious Pinot Noir. Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey Country is an emerging Pinot lover’s go-to AVA. Arroyo Seco near the Santa Lucia Mountains is developing great Riesling and Rhone varietals. Edna Valley near San Luis Obispo is known for its Chardonnay and Pinot. Further south, Sta. Rita Hills is producing world-class Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah.

Some of the warmer AVAs include Paso Robles which is producing lush Rhone varietals and dusty, smoky Cabernet Sauvignon. Santa Maria Valley, a great source for Rhone varietals, and Santa Ynez which also produces amazing Rhone varietals and the heat loving Bordeaux varietals.

Why Central Coast and Not a Sub-AVA?

AVA regulations require that 100% of the fruit be grown in the AVA to use that AVA designation. A large AVA like Central coast is useful at identifying a wine’s style and aroma profile even if the fruit for that wine might not all be sourced from a sub-AVA.

For the Central Coast AVA, think Pacific Ocean influence. Generally more moderate temperatures, even in the warmer sections, that will lead to higher acidity, slightly lower alcohol. Although there are unique and sought-after variations in the Sub-AVAs, the Central Coast is mostly known for its Chardonnay, Pinot and Rhone varietals. Bordeaux varietals will lean toward less alcohol, lighter body and a bit more acidity, although the areas around Paso Robles and Santa Ynez can produce some lush full-bodied wines.

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