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California's Hidden Gem: Santa Lucia Highlands AVA
Cindy Rynning

North AmericaRed WineRegional WinesWhite WineWine EducationWine Reviews

On Highway 101, between San Francisco and Paso Robles, is a stretch where mountains on the west offer vistas and the valley floor to the east is the setting for cowboy towns, crops and orchards. My first trip that took me on this highway was years ago when I flew into the San Jose airport, rented a car and drove south. At the time, I didn’t realize the significance of the undulating Santa Lucia Mountains and the stellar wines of Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, although I stopped at the tasting room of Paraiso, a short drive from the highway, and purchased several impressive wines. But now I do.

Through the years, I’ve had the opportunity to enjoy and appreciate the nuances of wines from this special, cool-climate growing region, one that I consider a hidden gem. And after a recent virtual tasting of wines (sent as samples) paired with lively conversations with member winemakers and growers, I realize that this small yet mighty wine region in Monterey County deserves plenty of attention.

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA

The Santa Lucia Highlands American Viticulture Appellation (AVA) was established in 1991 and now there are 50 vineyards. With only 22,000 acres across 18 miles in length and 1-2 miles in width, only 5900 acres are under vine (the balance is on unplantable mountainsides). 3400 acres are of Pinot Noir, 2100 acres are of Chardonnay and the remaining are planted with Syrah, Riesling, Pinot Gris and others. Vineyards in the AVA are planted at 50-1650 feet in elevation on 5-20% gradation on east facing slopes. Soils are granite-based alluvial deposits and gravelly, sandy loam.

During the tasting, winemakers explained that the region’s cool semi-arid climate, coastal influences of fog and wind from Monterey Bay, low annual rainfall averaging 10-14 inches and strong daily winds provide optimal conditions for grape growing. The AVA boasts one of California’s longest growing seasons resulting in slow, even ripening of the grapes and superb flavor development.

Steve McIntyre of Mcintyre Vineyards feels that Monterey Bay “is the most important climate influencer. The wind from the bay pulls cool air from the ocean, dries everything out and modulates high temperatures. Wind, fog and temperature are our terroir.”

The wind is legendary. Pushing south through the Santa Lucia Highlands from the Monterey Bay, the wind is evident each day during the growing season. It begins in the mid-afternoon and lasts until after dusk. Average maximum daily wines of 10-15 miles per hour and gusts up to 25 miles an hour effect change in the structure of the grape skins resulting in higher phenolics and deeper flavor. The wind also stops photosynthesis, giving Santa Lucia Highlands a shorter daily growth and physiological development in the vines and a longer growing season than most cool-climate regions.

The area is rife with history. Spanish missionaries and conquistadors planted the first vinifera wine grapes in Santa Lucia Highlands in the 1790s, but for the next two centuries, the focus was more on vegetable farming than on viticulture. Thanks to a small pioneering group of farming families (Nicky Hahn at Hahn Estate, Rich and Claudia Smith at Paraiso, the McFarland family at Sleepy Hollow and Phil Johnson at La Estancia), the region’s winegrowing potential was truly discovered in the 1970s. Over the next 20 years, vintners from other regions joined local ranching and farming families like the Pisonis, Franscionis, Manzonis, and Boekenoogens to develop that potential into the renowned winegrowing region it is today. Santa Lucia Highlands AVA

Mark Pisoni, Vineyard Manager of Pisoni Vineyards, emphasized that “we’re all farmers. People are important and our region has fantastic multi-generational families.” He should know. Beginning in the early 1900s, Pisoni’s family owned a dairy farm, then grew produce on the Salinas Valley floor. By the 1980s, Mark’s father farmed wine grapes in Santa Lucia Highlands. The rest is history and the family are “a team working together to make wine.”

Exemplary Wines from Santa Lucia Highlands AVA

Each wine I tasted was expressive. Kristin McIntyre of McIntyre Vineyards stated that wines from Santa Lucia Highlands are “tried and true to their terroir and family history and have an uncanny ability to age.”

The Scheid 2017 Reserve Chardonnay was lush and ripe with notes of spiced apples, crème brulee, dried apricot and creamy butterscotch. Luli 2017 Chardonnay offered glorious aromas and flavors of peaches, orange blossoms, orchard fruit and herbs. Likewise, Lucia 2018 Chardonnay enticed with aromas of pear, lemon curd, baked apple and minerality while the textured palate revealed elements of wet stone, citrus blossoms and orchard fruit. Aromas of brioche, grilled pineapple, toasted lemon and crème brulee were mesmerizing on the Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2017. The creamy palate had flavors of vanilla, marzipan and stone fruit.

Dan Lee from Morgan Vineyards is proud of his 2019 Morgan Riesling. I found aromas of white flowers, honeysuckle, and lemon zest that led to flavors of melon and bright green apple. Bright acidity, a touch of sweet and low alcohol were not only refreshing but opulent. Lee cultivates one acre of Riesling at his property although “the AVA has much Riesling that is sent to big wineries for blending.”

Pinot Noir is the “flagship” red grape in Santa Lucia Highlands AVA and each glorious wine I tasted mirrored the region’s cool climate and soils. McIntyre Pinot Noir McIntyre Estate Vineyard 2017 oozed aromas of spice, cherries, dark red berries, vanilla, sage and mint leading to flavors of juicy berries, eucalyptus, white pepper, earth and herbs firmly set on a foundation of moderate acidity and soft tannins. 2018 Sarah’s Vineyard Pinot Noir was elegant and sophisticated with brilliant aromas of dark plums, berries and sage and ripe flavors of fruit enhanced with notes of baking spice and a dash of chocolate shavings.

Hahn SLH Pinot Noir Orchestral Santa Lucia Highlands 2016 was bold, complex and luxurious. Earth, spice, red cherries and black pepper tingled the nose and the intense notes of cherries and plums framed with vibrant acidity and integrated tannins teased the palate. Balanced with body and length, Clarice Pinot Noir SLH Rosella’s Vineyard 2018 was decadent, exotic and exceptional. Notes of black cherries, candied orange slices, violets, crushed blueberries and hint of moss were pervasive on both nose and palate. Miner 2017 Pinot Noir Gary’s Vineyard presented lush aromas of dark red berries, hint of oak and baking spices including cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. Moderate acidity and velvet like tannins provided a firm base to this stellar wine.  

A joy from the first sip to the last was Cattleya The Initiation SLH Syrah 2017. Power met sophistication in this wine and if you’re a Syrah afficionado, this wine has your name on it. A plethora of floral aromas led to generous flavors of spice, red fruit, blackberries, cigar box, white pepper, green tea and wet forest floor, all lifted with vibrant acidity and soft tannins.

Inspired to appreciate the wines of California’s best-kept secret, Santa Lucia Highlands?

Cheers! ~ Cindy

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