California’s Central Coast wine-growing region isn’t as well known to the general public as Napa Valley and Sonoma Valley, but true oenophiles know this six-county zone is producing very exciting wines at affordable prices.
Vineyards stretch from Santa Barbara County in the south to San Francisco Bay in the north. The area covers many subregions that have already staked out a reputation for producing quality fruit and wines: Arroyo Grande Valley, Chalone, Edna Valley, Paso Robles, Santa Lucia Highlands, and Santa Ynez Valley to mention a few.
Both red and white grapes prosper here, although Chardonnay dominates nearly half of the 100,000 acres under vine.
What makes this area so good for Chardonnay? Overall, the soils are gravel-based and poor, which produce smaller grape yields of higher extraction. Sunny exposure allows the grapes to ripen to full potential. Hot daytime temperatures are tempered by cool, night-time breezes from the Pacific Ocean. Coastal bays deliver protective fogs and moisture. This diurnal temperature swing allows the grapes to retain good acidity levels and balance.
So lately I’ve been on a kick to find interesting and unique Central Coast wines. On a recent trip with the Wine Butler (former Sun photographer Michael Pigeon), I came across Cycles Gladiator Chardonnay. The label was striking — a naked woman with long, flowing red hair floating vertically alongside a vintage, winged bicycle that appears to be flying across the sky. Hmmmm, I thought, is this just sexy marketing or is the wine any good?
I looked at the back label and it became more interesting. There was a note from Adam LaZarre, an innovative Central Coast winemaker who has produced a bunch of stellar products for outfits big and small, including Constellation Wine Co. LaZarre first crafted the Cycles-Gladiator project in 2005 for Hahn Estates. When LaZarre left Hahn, the brand went into a decline before Dennis Carroll bought it for his Wine Hooligans Co. Carroll talked LaZarre into reviving Cycles Gladiator, and he is making a difference with quality fruit from Central Valley fruit. Lazarre and his wife, Angie, own their own label — LaZarre Wines — which produces small-lot, distinctive wines. (See www.lazarrewines.com.)
Cycles Gladiator Chardonnay 2014 opens well with a whiff of fresh spice, sweet melon and orange rind. There’s no drop-off on the palate: ripe fruit flavors of apple, peach and almond cake are wonderfully layered on a lush, smooth textural foundation that lifts the senses. The oak is carefully restrained, just enough to lend a touch of vanilla on the lingering finish.
LaZarre’s philosophy is to create a “seamless,” balanced wine, and he seemingly does so by vinifying 70 percent of the wine in stainless-steel tanks and the rest in a combination of French and new American oak. He also gives 50 percent of the wine a second fermentation “to take the sharp edges off” the texture and to enhance flavors.
The result is very full, rich, classy Chardonnay that rises well above its price point ($13.99) — and is now on sale for $11.99 a bottle in New Hampshire State Liquor Outlets.
LaZarre also crafts bottlings of Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Sirah under the Cycles Gladiator label. While I haven’t sampled any of these, I’m confident after tasting the Chardonnay that they deliver the winemaker’s best effort. At present, they are also on sale for $11.99 in the Granite State.
A quick note about the sexy label: It’s from a bicycle ad poster created in Paris in 1895 to attract women buyers. In 2009, the Alabama Beverage Control Board banned the label — and the wine — from sale because of its “immodest” characterization.