SLO Wine Country: One of California's ocean gems for visitors and vino

You have to read the story to learn where this amazing landscape is located. That peaked formation is what's left over from a volcano and is known locally as a "morro." (Credit for photo use: S. Christopher Weir)

You have to read the story to learn where this amazing landscape is located. That peaked formation in the center with the dark cap is what’s left over from a volcano and is known locally as a morro and it has a name: Islay Hill. (Credit for photo use: S. Christopher Weir)

Wine Quiz of the Day: Where is the above vineyard located:

1) South Africa

2) Sicily

3) Argentina

4) None of the above.

If you guessed No. 4, “None of the above,” you win.

This surreal sight is in the vicinity of Highways 1 and 101 in San Luis Obispo County, California. The “mountain” topped with the dark vegetation in the center is a morro — an ancient volcanic peak that is part of the “Nine Sisters” — a chain of such peaks that make this land of wine and outdoor recreation so unique.

The mountains in the background are the Santa Lucia range. The Pacific is about five miles away.

This hideaway is home to close to 30 vintners, and if you think they probably produce some pretty amazing wines considering the maritime climate and the volcanic soils you are right.

Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Rhone varietals and even Zinfandels excel in this region bordered by mountains and the sea. Aromatic whites thrive in the cool temps — besides Chardonnay, think Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Albarino — while in a warmer pocket, Cabernets and Zins can grow.

Soils are a mix of marine rocks such as limestone, sandstone and shale, and the remnants of the rocky volcanoes. There are two AVAs (American Viticultural Area) — the famous Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley.

The locals in southern San Luis Obispo County have a name for the lifestyle and wine region: SLO Wine Country, where visitors either hit the tasting rooms or prepare for hiking, bicycling, kayaking, surfing or just walking on the beach. If you still need a little help mentally locating SLO Country — it’s equidistant between San Francisco and Los Angeles, right on the ocean, not far from the Hearst Castle.

Winemaking dates back to the 18th century and the early Mission padres who grew grapes for sacramental wines. In the modern era, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir took root as the predominant varietals in the hands of such iconic wineries as Chamisal, Talley, Clairborne & Churchill, Saucelito Canyon and Edna Valley Vineyard.

S. Christopher Weir, who works for the SLO Wine Country association, describes the irony of this scenic wine land: “SLO Wine Country has flown under the radar compared to its neighbors to the north (Paso Robles) and south (Santa Barbara County), not to mention Napa Valley and Sonoma, however, it is producing remarkable wines.”

Here’s a taste, and below that, find key links for visiting this area:

Stephen Ross Albarino Jesperson Ranch Vineyard Edna Valley 2012, $22

This aromatic dry white is crisp and rich, with broad mouth feel from aging in three- and four-year-old French oak. It was stainless-steel fermented. Stephen Ross Dooley established this winery in 1994.

Chamisal Vineyard Estate Chardonnay 2011, $28

This is a tangy Chardonnay — with good citrus and tropical fruit with what the winery describes as a “savory note of wild fennel” — and indeed there is an herbal presence in the long finish. Fermentation in oak adds to the complexity and flavors. It’s made off the historic Edna Valley Vineyard that basks in the ocean influence — fog and cooling winds. The winemaker is New Zealand-born Fintan du Fresne. Chamisal is a pioneer in the Edna Valley.

Zocker Grüner Veltliner  Paragon Vineyard Edna Valley 2012, $20

Tart, green, crisp, tangy: This is the wine you want with fresh-caught seafood. It has firm acidity and is streaked with minerality with flavors of lime zest, grapefruit, white peach and nectarine. Zocker is a project of Niven Family Wines Estates and only makes white wine. The Nivens are famous for their Paragon Vineyard established in the Edna Valley some forty years ago. The Niven name is gold in this region. In recent years, E.&J. Gallo purchased the Edna Valley brand and Paragon Vineyard.

Laetitia Pinot Noir Estate 2012, $25

Aromas of intense cherry, blackberry, dark chocolate, caramel and vanilla lead to intense, concentrated flavors on the palate — imagine a dark chocolate bonbon flavored with a cherry and cherry liqueur. It has wonderful integration of oak, good length. The Laetitia vineyards were first planted to grapes in 1982 by French viticulturists who discovered the sparkling wines of Arroyo Grande Valley had a character similar to Epernay. Laetitia makes seven sparkling wines besides Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other wines.

Tolosa Pinot Noir Estate 2012, $32

Tolosa prides itself in sustainable growing practices and solar power. This powerful Pinot is crafted off its best blocks and is distinctly Burgundian in texture, brimming with cherries, raspberries, plum, chocolate, spice and vanilla notes. The oak is well-intergrated. Firm acidity and supple tannins complete this package.

Sinor-LaVallee Syrah 2012, $28

This spicy, fruit-packed wonder is produced by Mike Sinor and wife Cheri LaVallee-Sinor. It’s off their Bassi Ranch Vineyard, which is just a little over a mile in from the Pacific. It’s a veritable cocktail of blackberry, plum, cherry, black pepper and vanilla, with good acidity for balance.

LEARN MORE

SLO Wine Country: Plan your tour and research each winery here. Find maps as well.

San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce: Explore the sights, restaurants, more.

Hearst Castle is located just north of San Luis Obispo.

See this previous blog on Edna Valley Vineyard.

You can reach Sandra Silfven at ssilfven@hotmail.com.