Santa Lucia Highlands Tasting: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Country

Sept2011 014SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS TASTING: PINOT NOIR AND CHARDONNAY COUNTRY – Scott’s Seafood Restaurant, Walnut Creek, California (9/20/2011)

Santa Lucia Highlands is a relatively young appellation, one of eight Monterey County AVAs, established only in 1992. At that time, it was largely planted to Pinot Gris and Chardonnay in its northern two-thirds, and Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot in the southern third. There were then only 1850 acres under vine; today there are 5,900 planted acres. The initiators of the AVA, led by Smith & Hook (which is still around, as part of Hahn Family Wines) had in mind the goal of establishing a red-wine area for the cooler reaches of the Salinas Valley. These days, it’s much more well known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In fact, over 46% of the appellation has been planted to Pinot Noir, and over 34% to Chardonnay. The next major variety, at only 8%, is Riesling.

The vineyards are planted on the southeast facing terraces of the Santa Lucia Mountain range, overlooking the Salinas River Valley. It’s a relatively cool appellation, benefiting from fog and ocean breezes off of Monterey Bay, and strong afternoon maritime winds. This climate gives it the benefit of long hang time, and late harvests that begin in mid-September and generally extend through late October. The Wine Artisans of the Santa Lucia Highlands, the high fallutin’ name of area’s growers’ and producers’ association, has produced a fabulously detailed three-page map of the appellation that’s available here. I’ve long been fascinated by this area as I think that at least three of its vineyards–Pisoni, Garys’ and Rosella’s–have to be considered grand crus for California Pinot Noir, based on their substantial track records and luscious, complex fruit.

This tasting was a little problematic in that it was largely outdoors on a day that reached 90 degrees or more. The winery representatives were busy rotating both the whites and the reds through ice buckets and ice baths, trying to keep the wines at roughly the right temperature for a tasting. Some of the wines I tasted were, as a result, a little colder than ideal, while some were a little warmer. Everyone was sweating and trying to make the best of the oppressive heat. I tasted through a total of 67 wines, primarily Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays, from 20 producers, i.e., half the total number of grower winery and associate producer members of the association. The quality of what I tasted was very good on the whole, and 19 of the 67 wines I tasted I rated 91 points or higher. The producers responsible for at least one wine that I rated 92 points or higher were August West, Bernardus, La Rochelle, Scheid and Tudor. My favorite Chardonnays of the tasting, all of which I rated 91 points, were the 2009 Paraiso SLH, the 2008 Paraiso Eagle’s Perch and the 2008 Wrath McIntyre. My favorite wines of the tasting, all of which were Pinot Noir or Syrah that I rated 92 points or higher, were:

2010 August West Pinot Noir SLH – 92 points
2009 August West Pinot Noir Rosella’s – 93 points
2009 August West Syrah Rosella’s – 92 points
2008 August West Syrah Rosella’s – 92 points
2007 August West Syrah Rosella’s – 93+ points
2009 Bernardus Winery Pinot Noir Pisoni – 93 points
2008 La Rochelle Pinot Noir Sleepy Hollow Block A – 92+ points
2008 Scheid Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve Doctor’s Vineyard – 92+ points
2006 Tudor Pinot Noir SLH – 92+ points
2006 Tudor Pinot Noir Sarmento – 92 points

This tasting solidified the hypothesis I’ve developed over the years that, although the coolish conditions allow for long hang time, Pinot Noir here does tend to get quite ripe, but with plenty of complex phenolics. Chardonnay from this region has yet to develop as much identity as the luscious and complex Pinots, but Paraiso and others may be leading the way toward a more poised, balanced and distinctive Chardonnay from this region. Syrah represents only 166 of the 5,900 planted acres here, but I consistently enjoy Syrah from this appellation.

For more information on some of the producers, and my complete tasting notes, see below.

August West

Ed Kurtzman is the winemaker and co-owner of this label, with partners Gary Franscioni (owner of Rosella’s Vineyard) and Russian River vineyard owner Howard Graham. I’ve enjoyed these wines, and others that Ed has made, many times, but this was the first time I had a chance to taste a vertical of August West’s Syrahs. They were delicious, especially the stunning 2007. The ’09 Rosella’s Pinot was also one of the two best Pinot Noirs of the tasting (with the ’09 Bernardus Pisoni). Ed has been making wine since 1994 when he worked in the cellar at Bernardus in Carmel Valley. He then worked as enologist and assistant winemaker at Chalone before become winemaker for Testarossa in 1999. He has been consulting winemaker over the years for Fort Ross, Freeman and ROAR, and also makes wine under his own Sandler label. The August West Pinot Noirs are usually fully destemmed and fermented with a combination of ambient and cultured yeasts. They are barrel aged in French oak, about 40% new, for 10 to 11 months. The Syrahs are whole cluster fermented and usually inoculated with cultured yeast. They are aged in barrel for up to 16 months.
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  • 2010 August West Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark cherry red color; intense, ripe raspberry, black cherry nose; very tasty, rich, ripe cherry, raspberry syrup palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (90% Rosella’s, 10% Garys’) (92 pts.)
  • 2009 August West Pinot Noir Rosella’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark cherry red color with pale meniscus; nice floral, tart raspberry, tart cherry nose; very tasty, poised, tart cherry, raspberry palate with a touch of rosehips and good acidity; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)
  • 2009 August West Syrah Rosella’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Very dark ruby color; smoky, tart plum, charcoal, lavender nose; tasty, tart black fruit, roasted meat, charcoal palate; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • 2008 August West Syrah Rosella’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Very dark ruby color; lavender, tart plum, roasted plum nose; tasty, poised, tart plum, tart berry, lavender palate; needs 3-plus years; medium-plus finish (92 pts.)
  • 2007 August West Syrah Rosella’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark purple red violet color; very aromatic, lavender, tart black fruit, roasted plum nose; suave and elegant, lavender, tart black fruit, tart plum, lemon blossom palate; medium-plus finish 93+ points (93 pts.)

Belle Glos/Mer Soleil

  • 2009 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Las Alturas Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Very dark ruby color; high pitched, black cherry, blackberry nose; tight, tart blackberry, black cherry, sweet oak palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Mer Soleil Chardonnay Barrel Fermented – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light yellow color; odd, reduction, citrus nose; reduction, tart citrus palate; short finish (80 pts.)
  • 2010 Mer Soleil Chardonnay Silver Unoaked – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light yellow color; floral, lemon blossom, lifted nose; tart lemon, lemon blossom palate with good acidity; medium finish 88+ points (88 pts.)

Bernardus

Bernardus has estate vineyards in Carmel Valley that are largely devoted to Bordeaux varieties and Sauvignon Blanc. They also purchase fruit from other coastal regions, including SLH. The owner is Ben Pond and the winemaker is Dean DeKorth. They have only been making Pinot from Pisoni fruit, the best of their SLH Pinots, since 2008. I’ve been impressed with Bernardus wines in other tastings, including blindtastings, and this lineup was also strong.
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  • 2009 Bernardus Winery Chardonnay Sierra Mar – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light lemon yellow color; tart lemon, acacia, tart apple nose; tangy, tart green apple, lime palate with intriguing oak flavors; medium finish 88+ points (all French oak, 50% new) (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Bernardus Winery Chardonnay Rosella’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light yellow color; nice acacia, pear, tart apple nose; tasty, focused, tart pear, mineral, tart apple palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Bernardus Winery Pinot Noir – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; ripe cherry, ripe raspberry nose; tasty, ripe raspberry, ripe cherry palate; medium-plus finish 91+ points (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Bernardus Winery Pinot Noir Rosella’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium dark ruby color with pale meniscus; rich raspberry, cherry, rosehips nose; tasty, poised, tart raspberry, tart cherry palate with a touch of smoke; medium finish (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Bernardus Winery Pinot Noir Pisoni Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; ripe raspberry, cherry, French oak nose; tasty, ripe raspberry, ripe cherry palate with rich core of fruit; medium-plus finish (93 pts.)

Hahn/Lucienne

  • 2010 Hahn Estates Chardonnay Signature Series – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light yellow color; green apple, tart pear nose; green apple, tart pear palate with lowish acidity; medium finish (30% new French oak, 70% stainless steel) (86 pts.)
  • 2009 Hahn Estates Chardonnay SLH – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light lemon yellow color; nice, lifted, tart lemon, mineral nose; tasty, lemon, apple, French oak, pear palate; needs more acidity; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Lucienne Pinot Noir Doctor’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; ripe cherry, expensive French oak, brown sugar nose; plush, black cherry, black raspberry, French oak palate; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)
  • 2010 Hahn Estates Pinot Noir SLH – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; cherry pie filling, brown sugar nose; soft, ripe cherry, cherry pie, vanilla palate; medium finish (87 pts.)

Hope & Grace

  • 2008 Hope & Grace Pinot Noir Doctor’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium dark ruby color; spicy cherry, black cherry nose; soft, ripe black cherry, oak spice palate; medium finish (16 mos in French oak, 60% new) (89 pts.)

La Rochelle

La Rochelle is another good producer, whose wines I’ve been impressed with over the years. The winemaker is Tom Stutz, and he’s specialized in Pinot Noir over the years. The owner is Steven Mirassou. The winery is based in Livermore Valley, but they buy fruit from throughout California and Oregon. The Sleepy Hollow vineyard was planted on its own roots over 30 years ago.
Sept2011 008

  • 2007 La Rochelle Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; tart cherry oak nose; soft entry, tart cherry, tart raspberry palate with some complexity; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
  • 2008 La Rochelle Pinot Noir Sleepy Hollow Block A – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium ruby color; appealing, cherry, strawberry, strawberry jam nose; very tasty, red fruit, strawberry, tart raspberry, cherry palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (mainly Martini clone and 3% clone 113) (92 pts.)

Manzoni

McIntyre

  • 2009 McIntyre Vineyards Chardonnay Estate – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light lemon yellow color; green apple, oak nose; green apple, lemon palate; short-medium finish (87 pts.)
  • 2009 McIntyre Vineyards Chardonnay Estate Block K-1 – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light lemon yellow color; French oak, tart apple nose; tasty, soft, medium bodied, tart apple palate; medium finish 89+ points (1 cluster per shoot) (89 pts.)
  • 2009 McIntyre Vineyards Pinot Noir Estate – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; ripe berry, baked cherry, brown sugar nose; ripe berry, baked cherry, brown sugar palate; medium-plus finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
  • 2009 McIntyre Vineyards Pinot Noir Block 3 – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Very dark ruby color; baked cherry, oak, ripe raspberry nose; tasty, plush, baked cherry, ripe raspberry palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (1 cluster per shoot; clone 777) (90 pts.)

Morgan

  • 2010 Morgan Pinot Gris R & D Franscioni Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light yellow color; tart peach, juice, ripe pear nose; soft, tart peach, citrus palate with good acidity; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Morgan Chardonnay Highland Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Bright light yellow color; oak, tart apple, tart pineapple nose; tight, tart citrus, tart apple palate with near medium acidity; medium finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Morgan Chardonnay Double L Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light green-tinged yellow color; nice, tart apple, tart citrus, grapefruit nose; soft entry, tight, tart yellow apple, tart pear palate with good acidity; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Morgan Pinot Noir Twelve Clones – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium ruby color; tart cherry, baked cherry, raspberry nose; light cherry, raspberry palate with a touch of oak spice; medium finish (actually 14 clones with this vintage) (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Morgan Pinot Noir Double L Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; tart red fruit, tart cherry nose with a green note; tart cherry, tart raspberry palate with some acidity; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)

Paraiso

  • 2009 Paraiso Vineyards Chardonnay Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light yellow color; pineapple, green apple nose; tasty, poised, tart pineapple, tart apple palate with balance; medium finish (76 and 96 clone; 50% stainless steel, 50% malolactic) (91 pts.)
  • 2008 Paraiso Vineyards Chardonnay Eagle’s Perch – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light medium lemon yellow color; poised, lemon gelee, lemon cream nose; soft entry, creamy textured, poised, lemon, lemon cream palate; medium-plus finish (clones 76 and 96, from a block that gets 2 weeks extra hang time) (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Paraiso Vineyards Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium dark cherry red color; oak, tart cherry nose; tart cherry, tart raspberry palate; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Paraiso Vineyards Pinot Noir West Terrace – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium dark cherry red color; floral, tart cherry, stems nose; oak, tart cherry, tart raspberry, stems palate; needs 2 years; medium-plus finish 90+ points (clones 667 and 115) (90 pts.)

Pelerin

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  • 2009 Pelerin Chardonnay Sierra Mar – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light medium green-tinged yellow color; tart pineapple, pineapple cream nose; soft, creamy textured, pineapple, ripe lemon palate with some acidity; medium finish (partial malo) (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Pelerin Les Tournesols Paraiso Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light lemon yellow color; appealing, tart pear, tart apple nose; soft, medium-bodied, ripe pear, apple palate; medium-plus finish (68% Roussanne, 32% Viognier) (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Pelerin Pinot Noir – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium ruby color with pale meniscus; ripe cherry, blueberry, plum nose; soft, ripe cherry, berry palate; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2007 Pelerin Syrah Les Violettes Paraiso Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Very dark ruby color; nice roasted plum, roasted berry nose; tight, tasty, roasted plum, tart berry palate; needs 1-2 years; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)

Pessagno

  • 2008 Pessagno Chardonnay Lucia Highlands Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light medium lemon yellow color; floral, baked pear, acacia nose; tasty, tart pear, tart lemon cream, floral palate; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Pessagno Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Light medium lemon yellow color; baked lemon, oak, baked pear nose; tasty, ripe lemon, tart pear, baked pear palate with balance; medium-plus finish 90+ points (clone 4) (90 pts.)
  • 2008 Pessagno Pinot Noir Lucia Highlands Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium dark ruby color; high pitched, baked cherry, baked raspberry nose; odd, baked berry, black cherry, pie crust palate; medium-plus finish (88 pts.)
  • 2008 Pessagno Pinot Noir Four Boys Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; high pitched, floral, black raspberry nose; black raspberry, black cherry, berry palate; medium-plus finish (88 pts.)

Scheid

Scheid is a large family-owned operation that primarily grows grapes for other producers from its 10 estate owned vineyards. They also produce some wines, including this delicious Reserve Pinot from their Doctor’s Vineyard.
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  • 2008 Scheid Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve Doctor’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium dark ruby color with pale meniscus; baked cherry, lightly floral, tart red fruit nose; tasty, tart red fruit, tart cherry palate with integrated oak; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)

Sequana

  • 2009 Sequana Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium dark red color with pale meniscus; floral, roses, rosehips, tart cherry, cinnamon nose; floral, roses, rosehips, tart cherry, cinnamon palate; medium finish (89 pts.)

Siduri/Novy

  • 2010 Siduri Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; stems, menthol, tart red fruit nose; tart red fruit, menthol palate; medium finish 88+ points (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Siduri Pinot Noir Rosella’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; tart red fruit, stems nose; velvety textured, tart red fruit, stems palate; medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2009 Novy Family Wines Syrah Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Opaque red violet color; appealing, roasted plum, toasted nose; plush, soft, roasted plum palate; medium-plus finish 90+ points (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Novy Family Wines Syrah Rosella’s Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Opaque red violet color; oak, toasty plum nose; toasty oak, roasted plum, lavender palate; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Novy Family Wines Syrah Garys’ Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Very dark red violet color; deep, roasted plum, oak nose; plush, soft, roasted plum, oak palate; medium-plus finish (90 pts.)

Talbott

Testarossa

Tondre

Tudor/Radog

Owners and cousins Dan and Christian Tudor, come from families with long grape growing histories. Christian and Dan’s forebears have been in the winemaking business on the island of Hvar in Croatia for generations. The Tudors started growing grapes in California in the early 1900s, and still run one of the largest table grape vineyards in the country. Dan Tudor started making wine in 1982, and teamed with Christian to launch Tudor Wines, based in Monterey County, with the 2000 vintage. Dan is particularly passionate about Pinot Noir, but is also making a low priced Riesling under the Radog label from SLH fruit.
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  • 2007 Radog Riesling – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Very light yellow color; focused, tart peach, nectarine nose; tasty, tart nectarine, light peach, yellow cherry palate; medium finish 87+ points (87 pts.)
  • 2006 Tudor Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium ruby color with pale meniscus; tart cherry, roses nose; silky textured, tart cherry, roses palate; medium-plus finish 92+ points (92 pts.)
  • 2006 Tudor Pinot Noir Sarmento Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium cherry red color with pale meniscus; tart cherry, roses nose; appealing, velvety textured, tart cherry, roses palate with good balance; medium finish (92 pts.)
  • 2007 Tudor Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Medium dark cherry red color; baked cherry, pie crust nose; silky textured, tart cherry, baked cherry palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)

Wrath

  • 2008 Wrath Chardonnay McIntyre – USA, California, Central Coast, Monterey
    Light lemon yellow color; tart pineapple, pear nose; tasty, medium bodied, tart pineapple, ripe lemon, pear palate; medium-plus finish (clone 96, 11 mos. in oak, 50% new) (91 pts.)
  • 2009 Wrath Pinot Noir McIntyre – USA, California, Central Coast, Monterey
    Dark ruby color; baked cherry, raspberry nose; baked cherry, cherry, raspberry palate; medium finish (90 pts.)
  • 2009 Wrath Pinot Noir Tondré Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Dark ruby color; baked cherry, baked red fruit nose; baked cherry, baked red fruit, cinnamon palate; medium finish (88 pts.)
  • 2009 Wrath Syrah Fairview Vineyard – USA, California, Central Coast, Santa Lucia Highlands
    Very dark red violet color; nice roasted plum, creosote nose; tasty, roasted plum, creosote palate; medium-plus finish (91 pts.)
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