Listen to the winemakers and grape growers in the Santa Lucia Highlands and you’d think there is no better place to make wine. They may be right.
“Every year my father says we have the vintage of the century,” Mark Pisoni said in a recent Zoom program.
His father is Gary Pisoni, one of the pioneers who settled in this ideal grape-growing region in Monterey County, about 2 ½ hours south of San Francisco. The family operation makes some of the best chardonnay and pinot noir in the region.
This 18-mile-long sub appellation benefits from a confluence of climate phenomena. A deep canyon of cold water, just offshore of the Pacific Ocean, fuels winds that sweep down the Salinas Valley at speeds of 10 to 15 miles per hour and often gusting to 25.
Morgan winemaker Dan Lee called the winds “our air-conditioner.”
Most of the well-drained vineyards are planted on the lower slopes of the Santa Lucia mountain range at elevations ranging from 50 to 1,650 feet. Granite and other minerals that wash down from the mountains and enrich the soil.
Coupled with the morning fog, the winds create a condition too cold for zinfandel and cabernet sauvignon, but perfect for chardonnay and pinot noir – the two primary grapes grown in the region’s 5,900 planted acres.
Cooler conditions lengthen the growing season, the longest in all of California. Grapes ripen slowly and develop stronger acidity. Low rainfall, especially during crucial ripening periods, forces stressed roots to glide through loose sandy loam to absorb the minerals and create multi-dimensional wines. Berries are small and thick skinned too. The wines we tasted from here have a consistent vibrancy, balanced acidity and depth of flavor.
Santa Lucia Highlands may not have the tourist attractions of Napa Valley, but it certainly has the vineyards to give Napa a run for its money. Carmel, Monterey and Big Sur offer the upscale accommodations and for visitors.
Here are our favorite wines from Santa Lucia Highlands:
- Morgan Double L Vineyard Riesling 2019 ($25). With just a touch of residual sugar, this fresh and bright riesling gives this grape variety new life. Meyer lemon aromas, apple and melon flavors.
- Luli Chardonnay 2017 ($24). A great value in chardonnay, this has apple and citrus aromas followed by complex pear and peach flavors with a dash of minerality.
- Wrath KW Ranch Syrah 2017 ($35). The syrahs from this region are consistently lush and complex, as demonstrated by this gem from sustainably grown grapes. Blackberry and kirsch flavors with solid but fine tannins.
- Scheid Reserve Chardonnay 2017 ($45). Rich, viscous mouthfeel with floral aromas and notes of pears and apples. Oak-inspired hints of vanilla, butterscotch and spice.
- Cattleya The Initiation Syrah 2017 ($70). With grapes from the Soberanes Vineyard, winemaker Bibiana Gonzalez Rave has mastered an inaugural, complex syrah that is extracted but not overdone. Layered aromatics with blackberry and plum notes, rich mouthfeel and hints of pepper and licorice. Great wine.
- Lucia Soberanes Vineyard Chardonnay 2018 ($45). The Pisoni family, first introduced to Santa Lucia Highlands in 1982, are farmers first. But this well-made chardonnay shows off the family’s winemaking skills as well. We loved the minerality that serves as a backbone to a concentrated chardonnay with Meyer lemon and apple notes and a rich mouthfeel.
- Hahn SLH Orchestral Pinot Noir 2016 ($90). Using a field blend of clones in the Burgundy tradition, this complex and lush pinot noir demonstrates abundant strawberry and cranberry flavors with a long and luxurious finish.
- Miner Gary’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2017 ($60). “Gary” is Gary Pisoni, a pioneer in the region whose 50-acre vineyard is the source for many prized wines. The Miner version has black cherry and cranberry flavors cloaked in a rich, velvety body and accented by nutmeg, cloves and vanilla.
- Clarice Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($90). Grapes from two vineyards and two different clones harvested at the same time make for a broad and complex pinot noir with fresh boysenberry, black cherry and raspberry flavors.
- Talbott Vineyards Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay 2017 ($45). Sleepy Hollow, first planted in 1972, has garnered a lot of respect for its chardonnay and for good reason. Fermented and aged in oak, this delightful wine is round with tropical fruit and apricot notes, punctuated by spice, nutmeg and vanilla notes.
- ROAR Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir 2018 ($65). We liked the earthiness and suppleness of this exquisite pinot noir. Copious black cherry and raspberry notes with floral aromas and long finish.
- Steele Parmelee H ill Vineyard Sonoma Valley Chardonnay 2018 ($36). Barrel fermented and aged in oak, this balanced chardonnay exudes tropical fruit and peach flavors with a hint of butterscotch. Good acidity. Steele’s Cuvee Chardonnay ($24) is also a good buy.
- Clos Pegase Chardonnay 2018 ($30). Ripe peach and melon flavors and smooth mouthfeel make this a delicious chardonnay.
- Cameron Hughes Lot 676 White Blend 2016 ($14). Roussane, viognier and marsanne from Santa Barbara County make up this outstanding and inexpensive blend. Round and bright citrus flavors with a dose of pineapple and stone fruit make it an ideal aperitif for summer quaffing.
- ZD Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2019 ($27). We loved this surprisingly complex sauvignon blanc for its generous aromas of apples and pears, bright grapefruit flavors and fresh acidity.
- Fratelli Vineyard American Super Tuscan Blend 2017 ($30). Some may quibble with a Napa Valley producer using Italy’s “Super Tuscan” label, but you can’t quibble with wonderful flavors that emulate the Tuscan blend of sangiovese and cabernet sauvignon.
- Alma Rosa Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2017 ($45). We liked the bright fruit and earthiness of this delicious and extracted pinot noir. Black cherries, raspberries and currants dominate the palate.
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Tom Marquardt (email for questions) and Patrick Darr have been writing a wine column since 1985. They’ve traveled extensively to vineyards in France, Spain, Italy, Greece and the U.S.
Tom lives in Florida with his wife, Sue, where he conducts wine tastings. Patrick is in the wine retail business in Annapolis, Md.