Monterey County, one of California's less familiar grape- growing areas, produces some exceptional wines of special interest to the fan of the California vineyard. Containing the city of Monterey and the agriculturally rich Salinas Valley to the southeast, Monterey County undertook large-scale planting of varietal grapes only in 1970. More red than white grapes were initially planted, but some Monterey reds tend to develop a vegetative, or bell-pepper, taste that is not an asset. This could be due to the youth of the vines, but for the moment Monterey is best regarded for its riesling and gewurztraminers and occasionally chardonnay and sauvignon blanc. As a rival Napa cabernet-maker recently told me, "We like to think of Monterey County as white wine country."
Competition aside, Monterey happensto produce some reds that stand up to the best in the country. The most famous of these is Chalone's pinot noir, made from 60-year- old vines and heavily oaked to give it character. It varies in depth and body, as do all pinots, but in general is considered one of the best, and most expensive, in California. What is not widely known is that Chalone is now making a cabernet sauvignon, sold only at the winery, as well -- an intense and surprisingly elegant wine without the bell pepper taste. The winery is located in the Pinnacles area, high above the Salinas Valley floor, where the air is cooler and the soil sparser. Heavily stressed cabernet vines may soon cover more of those rocky hillsides next to the pinot noir.
Less well known is Durney Vineyard, in the Carmel Valley just over the coast range from the ocean, an isolated pastoral dream up against the Los Padres National Forest. A unique combination of geological factors forces ground water close to the surface of a generally dry valley, so that Durney does not have to irrigate. The combination of nutrients in the water, the soil, and hot days and cool nights produces robust, deeply colored cabernets that often out-show the competition in blind tastings. The rich, cedary, earthy qualities have been compared to those of the Rutherford cabs from Napa. Durney's wine might more accurately be called an American cousin to a big bordeaux from Medoc.
Durney's vines are 15 years old. The 140 acres of vineyards produce slightly more than 12,000 cases a year that the founder, William Durney, has no trouble selling. They have yet to find their way into most East Coast markets, including ours, but that may soon change. Durney's other wines -- a dry chenin blanc and a crisp, floral riesling -- are competitively priced; the '81 cabernet sells for about $12.50, a good price for a quality California cabernet.
Durney, initially a cattle rancher, came to the Carmel Valley with his wife 27 years ago. He pioneered grape-gowing there and maintains a strong proprietary interest in his wines. Entirely made from Durney grapes, they are 100 percent varietal wines aged mostly in American oak.
Wine-making is a source of some debate between Durney and his winemaker, Don Lee, who would like to introduce a small amount of cabernet franc to lighten the wine and eventually to have an equal number of American and French barrels. They agree that Durney cabernets need 14 months in oak and from nine months to a year in bottle before release to discourage premature drinking of wines that often require another five years in the cellar.