Monday, February 11, 2013

Wine Artisans Of The Santa Lucia Highlands

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA of Monterey County is a cool climate growing region, known for its Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wine grapes.  The folks who promote the appellation go as far as to say they are California’s “premier cool-climate winegrowing district,” although I’m sure the PR firms representing the Russian River Valley, the Sonoma Coast, Anderson Valley and the Sta. Rita Hills would have something to say about that.

The cool climate comes courtesy of the geographical structure of the area.  The SLH AVA is located on the northeast side of the Santa Lucia Mountains.  The Salinas River Valley channels the cool air from Monterey Bay across the mountainside vineyards.  This gives the region a long, cool growing season, perfect for Pinot.

Artisans of some of the 50 vineyards of the SLH were in Los Angeles - Century City, to be precise - on Tuesday February 5, 2013.  They poured their wines at Craft, superstar chef Tom Colicchio’s Los Angeles creation.

The pioneers of the SLH - those who planted in the early 1970s - have been joined over the years by others in the region’s growth spurts during the ‘80s and ‘90s.  The AVA’s website says Rich and Claudia Smith (Paraiso,) the McFarland’s (Sleepy Hollow,) Phil Johnson (La Estancia) and Nicky Hahn (Smith & Hook) were the leaders who discovered that the conditions in this area were exceptional.

The vineyard acreage of the SLH is planted largely to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but smatterings of other grape varieties are around - Riesling, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, Gewürztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Merlot, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and a few others fill out the vineyards.

I sampled at about a dozen of the tables here, and I found that the Pinot Noirs - with some exceptions - were more savory than fruity, and the Chardonnays were mostly rather oaky.  That wasn't always the case, and those that minimized the oak effect benefited from it.

Grape varieties other than Pinot and Chardonnay were few and far between, but they proved a lively minority.  Around the room, I kept hearing the homily, "When I want a Pinot, I look for SLH."  I have also heard variations on that theme about other Pinot areas in California and Oregon, but after tasting a few SLH Pinots, I'm sure these comments are quite heartfelt.  The quality of the Pinots poured here were uniformly high.

August West
Pinot Noir SLH 2011, $32 - This blend of Rosella's and Sierra Mar Vineyards bears a fragrant nose, and a light palate struck with raspberry and tea.  A favorite from Deadhead winemaker Ed Kurtzman.
Pinot Noir Rosella's Vineyard 2011, $45 - An extremely elegant single vineyard effort, one of many wines produced from Gary Franscioni's vineyard.

The Bernardus Pinots are marked by wonderful acidity.
Pinot Noir Pisoni Vineyard 2010, $65 - Savory raspberry fruit.
Pinot Noir Rosella's Vineyard 2010, $55 - The feminine exception at this table full of masculine wines.  Pretty violet nose.
Pinot Noir Soberanes Vineyard 2010, $55 - A delight, with funk on the nose and earth on the palate.
Pinot Noir Gary's Vineyard 2010 - Savory and earthy, which is how they like 'em at Bernardus.

Hahn and Lucienne
These two labels use grapes taken mainly from the cool-climate north end of the AVA.
Hahn Estate Chardonnay 2011, $25 - From the Lone Oak Vineyard, slight oak on the nose and beautiful fruit.
Hahn Estate Pinot Noir SLH 2011, $35 - Beautiful fruit on this three-vineyard blend.
Lucienne Pinot Noir Lone Oak Vineyard 2010, $50 - Great fruit and acidity.

Hope and Grace
Pinot Noir Doctor's Vineyard 2010, $48 - Napa winery comes to SLH for a little savory edge to the fruit. Very nice.

J. Lohr Highlands Bench
Chardonnay SLH 2011, $25 - Eighteen months in oak for this one, but you'd never guess it.  The label's red winemaker, Steve Peck, explains that barrel fermentation on the lees makes for a milder oak effect than fermentation in tanks before oak aging.  One of the better California Chardonnays I've had.
Pinot Noir SLH 2011, $35 - This is a big Pinot with lots of fruit on the nose and palate.  Due for a March release.

Chardonnay North Highlands Cuvée, $30 - Clean and fresh tasting, with good use of oak and great acidity.
Pinot Noir Home Vineyard 2011, $35 - A lovely bouquet, floral and fruity.
Syrah Home Vineyard 2009, $26 - A hint of cocoa on the nose, a savory edge on the palate.

From one of the founding families of the SLH AVA.
Chardonnay Estate 2010, $18 - A bit oaky, but nice green apples and tropical fruit.
Pinot Noir Estate 2009, $25 - Fruity and light, with wonderful freshness.
Pinot Noir West Terrace 2009, $45 - More masculine than the Estate, with savory black tea notes.
Faite Pinot Noir 2009, $60 - A powerful, savory nose brought high fives to winemaker David Fleming.  Great acidity.

Chardonnay Sierra Mar Vineyard 2010, $42 - Big and oaky.
Viognier/Roussanne Les Tournesols 2010, $30 - Easy on the oak, with tropical flavors and great acidity.
Pinot Noir Rosella's Vineyard 2009, $48 - A great nose, tea notes and very nice acidity.
Syrah "Les Violettes" Paraiso Vineyard 2010, $36 - Light, fresh and aromatic, with 6% Viognier in the mix.

Puma Road
In addition to their SLH wines, they also poured a Gewürztraminer farmed just across the highway from the AVA and some Bordeaux blends grown in Hollister.  All were very nice.
Pinot Gris Silvio's Vineyard 2011, $25 - Two months in new oak is just right.  Apples, peaches, great acidity.
Chardonnay Silver Cap Vigna Monte Nero 2010, $24 - This one gets a short time in oak, then goes to stainless steel.  All fruit.
Chardonnay Reserve Vigna Monte Nero 2011, $50 - Six months in oak brings a lush texture.  One of the better Chardonnays here.
Pinot Noir SLH 2010, $35 - A big, big Pinot.

Winemaker James MacPhail creates single-vineyard Pinot for the Hess family of wines.
Pinot Noir SLH 2010, $32 - Elegant and a bit spicy.

Siduri and Novy
Novy Chardonnay Rosella's Vineyard 2011, $27 - The oak is played savory, not sweet.
Siduri Pinot Noir Sierra Mar Vineyard 2011, $51 - Pretty, floral and feminine.
Siduri Pinot Noir Gary's Vineyard 2011, $52 - Savory bouquet, with tea on the palate.
Novy Syrah SLH 2010, $24 - Nice and earthy.

Chardonnay SLH 2011, $34 - A combo of grapes from Lone Oak and Fogstone Vineyards.  Oak spice on tropical fruit.
Pinot Noir SLH 2011, $42 - A fruity middleweight with a floral, spicy nose.
Pinot Noir Fogstone Vineyard 2010, $59 - Fruit and flowers.

Chardonnay McIntyre Vineyard 2010, $45 - Minerals and oak.
Pinot Noir Tondre Grapefield 2010, $49 - A savory angle to the floral notes.  Very interesting.
Pinot Noir Boekenoogen Vineyard 2010, $49 - Rich and full in the mouth.
Syrah Doctor's Vineyard 2010, $39 - Cool climate Syrah with a funky edge to the dark fruit.  Quite nice.

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