Saturday, January 10, 2009

Santa Lucia Highlands - Premier Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Morning fog over Double L Vineyard of Morgan (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Over the past five or six years, the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) has become one of the great viticultural appellations in California. Located about a thirty-minute drive directly east of the city of Monterey, this is Steinbeck country where fields planted with lettuce, asparagus, celery and other crops dominate the landscape. Tucked between these fields and the hillsides of the Santa Lucia range, a few dozen vintners have planted vineyards primarily to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. A fierce wind comes in the valley every afternoon, moderating temperatures and shutting down the vines, making this ideal for early ripening varieties.

Dan Karlsen, winemaker at Talbott Vineyards (Photo ©Tom Hyland)

Some of California’s finest Chardonnays are from this area; two that immediately come to mind are the Sleepy Hollow bottling of Talbott and the “Double L” from Morgan. Both have great intensity of fruit and excellent structure and vibrant acidity that make them ideal candidates for aging. Dan Karlsen, who has recently taken over winemaking duties at Talbott, is currently producing some of the best wines from this estate in some time; the Sleepy Hollow offering beautiful pineapple fruit (a direct result of the classic old Wente clones), a rich mid-palate and lively acidity. The Morgan, made by Dan Lee, displays pear and Meyer lemon flavors along with notes of spice in the finish. Other first-rate Chardonnays from Santa Lucia include the 2006 Paraiso, an excellent value at $18 and the gutsy McIntyre Estate bottling from 2007, a wine that has great depth of pineapple and golden apple fruit backed by a rich finish with great persistence. This is an outstanding value at $27- don’t miss this one!

As for Pinot Noir, SLH has become one of the top growing areas in all of California. Joe Wagner, vineyard manager for Belle Glos (the Pinot Noir project of Caymus) told me that, “of all the Pinot Noir sites we farm in California, I get the most consistent fruit from our SLH site.” Other great sites include the Pisoni Ranch, which is the source of Pinot Noir for about a dozen of the finest producers of this variety throughout the state. Gary Pisoni, a free thinker if there ever was one, is a fanatic about French clones of Pinot Noir and it shows in the big spiciness in his wines. Pisoni along with his partner Gary Franscioni also owns the appropriately named Garys’ Vineyard, another great Pinot Noir site prized by some of California’s best producers.

Lee also crafts a gorgeous Pinot Noir from his “Double L” vineyard; the current 2006 bottling offers up aromas of cardamom, cumin and morel cherry; there is excellent depth of fruit, light spice and beautifully defined acidity. Also look for these SLH Pinot Noirs: the outstanding 2006 Belle Glos “Las Alturas”, the 2006 or 2007 Paraiso “West Terrace”, a spicy wine with silky tannins and the 2006 Pessagno “Four Boys”, made from the La Tache clone of Burgundy.

There are other varieties planted in SLH as well; Paraiso makes an excellent dry Riesling with light notes of pear and lime, while Lee has planted a small amount of Syrah at “Double L” (the current 2006 with its flavors of black cherry and mocha is remarkable).

But it is the Burgundian varieties that have made the Santa Lucia Highlands one of the finest growing areas in all of California and the good news is that the producers there are just starting to get on a roll. I can’t wait to taste the bottlings from this area over the next few years!

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