Navigating the Santa Lucia Highlands

California's mountainous Central Coast region is known for its distinctive Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays
Nov 2, 2011

There's a lot of hot air in the wine industry about California Pinot Noir and which style is right and which is wrong, which is all a load of nonsense. Excuse me if I don't goose-step in your direction, but I'm capable of liking a variety of Pinot Noirs, from elegant red Burgundies built for the cellar to California's biggest fruit bombs.

Somewhere along the middle of that stylistic sliding scale are the Pinots of Santa Lucia Highlands. Many of the top players in Pinot—as well as Chardonnay and Syrah—make a wine from there: Kosta-Browne, A.P. Vin, Peter Michael, Vision Cellars, Carlisle and Patz & Hall to name a few.

Stylistically, Santa Lucia wines tend to be big and full of bold fruit and typically have a supple, fleshy character, all balanced by high acidity and a distinctive loamy herb note. Two prime examples are the Loring Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2009 (93 points, $29) and Siduri Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands 2009 (92, $29).

Two of the most widely available wines from the region are Chardonnays. Talbott Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands Sleepy Hollow Vineyard 2009 (91, $40) has a long and impressive track record. Always a fine value is the Mer Soleil Chardonnay Silver Unoaked 2008 (88, $22).

Located just south of the San Francisco Bay Area, the region takes its name from the Santa Lucia Mountains, a range that stretches more than 100 miles from Monterey to San Luis Obispo. Spanish missionaries planted the first grape vines there in the 1790s but it wasn't until the early 1970s that the modern era began with the planting of Sleepy Hollow, Paraiso and other vineyards.

Approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1991, the region spans some 22,000 acres but only about 6,000 are planted to grapes. Nearly half of that is planted to Pinot, with the rest mostly Chardonnay plus a little Riesling, Syrah and more.

The vineyards run along the southeastern slopes of the highlands, overlooking Salinas Valley, and are planted as high as 1,200 feet. The soil is mostly gravelly, sandy loam. Vineyards along the northern slopes are particularly influenced by the cool, foggy weather from Monterey Bay. Pacific breezes are a natural refrigerator for the grapes, allowing for a long growing season without the severe heat. While Salinas Valley can be toasty warm, temperatures in the highlands rarely break 90° F.

Another factor that distinguishes Santa Lucia Highlands, specifically when it comes to Pinot Noir, is the Pisoni clone, which is widely planted in the area. Gary Pisoni's family has been farming vegetables in the valley since 1946 and, as the story goes, Gary took a trip to Burgundy and had the chutzpah to pick up cuttings left on the ground at the famed La Tâche vineyard and smuggle the buds home in his underwear. It wasn't exactly legal and Gary's response is always "no comment."

I'm not sure Burgundy aficionados would recognize their beloved DNA when they drink a Pisoni-clone Pinot from Santa Lucia Highlands, but it certainly adds to the lore of the region.

Have you tasted wines from Santa Lucia Highlands? Do you have a favorite or a new discovery? WineSpectator.com members can find all our latest reviews of Santa Lucia wines in our Wine Ratings Search.

United States California Red Wines Pinot Noir

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