by Andrew Chalk
When wine drinkers see Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) on pinot noir or chardonnay bottles, they usually know that it is in California’s central coast. However, if you asked them where it is in relation to other central coast appellations, things might get a bit sketchy. For example, where does it sit relative to the AVAs of Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, or Arroyo Seco? Which county is it in? The most important question is: Compared with other central coast AVAs, in what ways are its wines distinctive?
Like other central coast AVAs SLH suffers what might be described as an identity crisis. This article investigates SLH in terms of its location, grape composition, climate and soil. And then attempts to pin down the facets that SLH wines possess that other regions do not, or where the level of a facet differs in SLH relative to other AVAs.
Santa Lucia Highlands AVA (established in 1991) is actually a sub AVA of the Monterey AVA in Monterey County on the eastern slope of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range adjacent to the Salinas Valley. On a map it looks like a 18-mile long piece of spaghetti stretching along the range with vineyards and wineries dotted throughout its length. The AVA sits on southeast-facing alluvial benchlands 50-200 feet above the valley floor. Plantings stretch up to about 1,650 feet (the Cortada Alta Vineyard), while the mountains reach 2,330 feet. There are 50 vineyards and 8 wineries. Vineyards in the northern part of the AVA are planted on 5-20o slopes along the bench lands. Vineyards in the southern part of the AVA sit on mesas between canyons and arroyos.
SIZE AND GRAPE COMPOSITION
The AVA is fairly small. There are only 22,000 total acres, much of it unplantable mountainside. There are 6400 planted acres. Pinot noir is the most planted at 3537 acres (55%), chardonnay 2234 acres (35%), leaving 10% (629 acres) for other grapes. Those are syrah, riesling, pinot gris, and trace amounts of other varieties. The most popular pinot noir clones are Pisoni, Swan, 828, 777, 2a, and 115. Clones that have worked least well are 32 and 23.
The most important climatic feature of the AVA is Monterey Bay and its orientation and proximity to the Santa Lucia Highlands. The bay consists of a canyon that is 2 miles deep starting 100 yards off shore. Warm air at the southern end of the Salinas Valley, around Paso Robles, rises, sucking the cold air off the bay and down the valley. The narrowing of the valley causes a venturi effect of faster wind speed. The practical result is daily winds of 10-15mph (and gusts up to 30 mph) from 1pm until 2am or 3am, which lowers temperatures. The result is that on the Amarine-Winkler scale SLH is Region 1 (coolest). This reduces the photosynthesis rate and enhances carbon loading in the grape skins creating more complex flavors and thinker skins. As a result, while budbreak is early, February or March, harvest is late, late September or early October.
Another effect of cool Monterey Bay winds is fog, which also cools the grapes. It forms around 6-7pm and burns off by 9-10am each day. Combined, growing season days start out sunny and warm and then cool in response to the winds. The Pacific Ocean acts as a heat sink so Monterey Bay winds give SLH has a lower high temperature than Russian River Valley, similar high temperatures to the Santa Maria Valley and Santa Rita Hills, and begins to cool each day about an hour earlier than those other AVAs. However, all of those AVAs have much lower lows than SLH and as a result have a larger diurnal range than SLH.
There is a second effect due a smaller diurnal range. It slows the respiration process in the berry which preserves organic acids, resulting in lower pH levels and higher acidity.
The table below shows how the semi-arid climate in the AVA compares with some other pinot noir producing areas:
In terms of viticulture the low rainfall means that rain is not a problem diluting grapes during harvest and all vineyards are irrigated, but on a supplemental basis. Growers rely on moisture deposited in the soil until hot days in June or July.
Soil, the other part of terroir, is predominantly Chualar fine Sandy loam and Arroyo Seco fine Sandy loam. Both soil types are granite based alluvial deposits.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
The Monterey Bay winds (that so deserve a name, like Mistral, sirocco, or zephyr), soil, cool temperatures, fog, elevation, clones, and accumulated knowhow of the viticulturalists and winemakers meld to produce the SLH style of wine. I asked some SLH winemakers and growers how they would define the SLH style that makes the wines distinct in a tasting.
Adam Lee, owner/winemaker at Clarice Wine Company:
“First and foremost, the SLH region is defined by the winds that kick up in the afternoon. This cools the region down dramatically (it’s the only area that I get fruit from that is often cooler at 4pm than 2pm). This allows a long hang time and great retention of acidity but a full ripening of tannins. So when I’m talking structure in the wines I mean acid not tannins. Great acid backbone which lends and accentuates red fruit character in the wine.”
David Coventry, winemaker of Talbott Vineyards:
SLH Wine characteristics are “Beautiful acidity. Density of fruit. Impeccable balance.”
Steve McIntyre, owner/winemaker, McIntyre Vineyards:
“I think Pinots from the Santa Lucia highlands are generally characterized as masculine, given their robust structure as compared to other appellations in the world. That is why we get accused of adding Syrah to our wines, when in fact they’ve just had so much hang time they accumulate all of the polyphenolics, tannins and flavonols that contribute to substantial structure. The aromatic profile is dependent on a number of factors including the terroir (everything we can’t control) and the particular clone a winemaker might be working with.”
Kerith Overstreet, owner/winemaker, Bruliam Wines:
“SLH pinots grow a thicker skin due to the intense winds, and of course color/flavor comes from the skins. The wind … can halt photosynthesis (long hang time due to slower sugar accumulation) and maintains the acidity.”
“So, these pinots have intense depth & character & complexity & suppleness on the palate. The fruit quality is brambly, wild ‘thicket of berries’ quality rather than a pure, sweet, farmer’s market summer berry. SLH pinots have a wonderful savory quality that adds complexity- wild sage, clove, earthiness, herbs. I categorize their hallmark flavors as ‘that earthy, leathery, clove-y thing.’”
Sabrine Rodems, winemaker, Wrath:
“Pinots in the Santa Lucia Highlands have such well developed flavors that you can pick at normal brix levels (24-25) and don’t have to let the clusters hang for abnormally long periods to develop.”
Claire Martin, managing director, Wrath Wines:
“The difference between SLH Pinots and ones from other AVAs is the depth of flavor that they offer. The characteristic SLH earthy minerality acts, in some ways, as broad shoulders for the fruit, spice, and herb flavors to sit on top of…”
Jeff Pisoni, co-owner/winemaker, Pisoni Vineyards:
“I would argue that the SLH is perceived (by vines) as drier because the gravelly/draining nature of the soil. It’s rugged terrain, but makes for beautiful tannin development.”
“And about the wine profiles compared to other regions: I don’t think anywhere else in California can obtain the tannin structure that SLH does—concentrated, yet finely grained. The soil & limited rainfall stresses the vines, but the cool weather also keeps the summer temps low so we can obtain this profile at moderate alcohol levels. And we all know that Pinot Noir absolutely needs aromatic finesse, which comes from the cold Monterey Bay winds.”
Ed Kurtzman, winemaker, August West Wine and Mansfield-Dunne:
“The ‘typical’ Chardonnay from the SLH is very tropical, rich and viscous. Some people describe the aromas as passion fruit, others describe them as pineapple. However, the higher you go in elevation, the more subtle the characteristics get. It seems like the lower elevation vineyards, the ones that are more influenced by fog, take on more of the tropical fruit notes. For Mansfield-Dunne and August West, we’re making Chardonnay from Cortada Alta, the highest vineyard in the appellation, with a Chardonnay block at 1,650 feet. The Chard from up there tastes much more like a Russian River Valley or Sonoma Coast Chard, with more stone fruit character, and much less tropical fruit. The Chards from Cortada Alta also have a leaner palate feel than the ones from lower in elevation, like Peterson Vineyard.”
Michael Thomas, owner Wrath Wines:
“I would say first and foremost… the long growing season. … I think that long growing season promotes ripeness together with great acidity, caused by the cold winds that blow through the area every summer day.”
Claire Marlin, Managing Director, Wrath Wines:
“We do have a long growing season, in fact, we vie with the Sonoma Coast for the longest growing season in California. They fight the weather that blows in at the end of summer/early fall. We, luckily, have the Sta Lucia mountains that protect us from weather.
- We also have the cold winds off the Pacific that blow through the valley every summer day from approx.. noon onward. As it heats up in Monterey’s south valley, that hot air rises and creates a current that pulls the winds off the water into the valley. These winds are cold because the Pacific stays 52-53 degrees all year so they keep our local temps at a moderate level. They batter clusters which causes skins to thicken (more flavor) and also stay closed so they don’t aspirate acidity. It’s a rare climate combination in that we get great phenolic ripeness from the long hang time but also wonderful acidity for structure because of the winds.
- The final element is, again, the Sta Lucia’s. Those mountains are all decomposing granite and other minerals. These minerals get picked up by the vine roots and add an underlying depth of flavor that is really distinctive in our pinots and chards. When our Chardonnay wines are young and the acid is tighter, the minerality has a chance to shine through. As the wines age, then acid relaxes and the fruit flavors come more forward.”
Scott Shapley, winemaker, ROAR Wines:
“For me, I feel that what sets SLH Chardonnay apart is the way that minerality expresses itself in the texture of the wine. There can be an herbed, spicy component as well, and of course a wonderful range of citrus, tropical, and stone fruit, and some of that overlaps with other regions and comes from the basic character of Chardonnay, while some of that can be more specific to SLH. We tend to get more tropical notes than I usually see in Sonoma Coast, for example.
But the way those interplay with that underlying texture yields lush, balanced wines, whether they are made in a lighter style or a heavier style. It’s less a flavor than a feel, and it seems to run through the Chardonnays of the region.
The wind-driven growing climate plays a big role, but SLH Chardonnay still comes together differently from other wind-driven regions like Sta Rita Hills, and to me the minerality comes across as less flinty and more lush…”
Jeff Pisoni, owner Pisoni Vineyards:
“SLH properties: I feel the most prominent items are three things that really work together. Rocky, rugged soils and very low rainfall (means high stress on vines) all combined with cold, coastal climate to keep the acidity. It’s a rare combination. Other coastal areas might be high rainfall (North Coast), or low rainfall like other central coast areas (but richer soils)
All rolled up together, I feel this gives more texture and intensity, while at the same time vibrant and fresh.”
Not traditionally thought of as a sparkling wine region, that view may be about to change. Caraccioli Cellars makes more sparkling than still wine (60% is sparkling). Its grapes are estate grown chardonnay and pinot noir from its 124 acre hillside Escolle Vineyard which doubles in altitude from bottom to top. General Manager Scott Caraccioli remarks that it was “last watered in 2016. The long-term objective is dry farming”.
They started making sparkling wine in 2009 with winemaker Michel Salgues, founding winemaker at Roederer Estate. Salgues loved the Monterey Bay wind, and the ability to get phenolic ripeness at 19 brix. The Caracciolis gave Salgues the freedom he wanted and he produced Champagne style méthode traditionnelle vintage sparkling wines using the same grapes as Champagne. “It was his passion project” says Scott Caraccioli.
Those wines now sell for as much as the leading wines of major Champagne houses. They appear on the lists of leading restaurants and on the wine club list at the winery. Scott is particularly flattered that there are other sparkling wine producers appearing in the area, particularly those owning the process from start to finish.
Wine publications do not list SLH as a sparkling wine area. That may be odd when its two most planted grapes are the two most planted grapes in Champagne. Perhaps it is about to change.
The above article was made possible by a media visit with financial support from the Santa Lucia Wine Artisans (a winegrower’s organization).