Until recently, I was under the impression that majority of California’s chardonnay and pinot noir wine production were relegated mostly to Napa and Sonoma valleys. So, I was surprised to learn that the central coast of California is actually responsible for more grape production of the aforementioned varieties than Napa or even Sonoma.
In particular, the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA (American Viticultural Area), a sub-appellation of Monterey County AVA, located just inland from the bucolic coastal towns of Carmel and Monterey, is home to more than 2,200 acres of chardonnay and 3,500-plus acres of pinot noir grapes, where they thrive in the abundant warm sunshine and cool maritime air.
Perched on the east-facing slopes of the 18-mile long Santa Lucia mountain range, the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) AVA spans 22,000 acres, but only 6,400 acres are currently planted with grapevines. Most of the vineyards are located on the sloping eastern-facing mountain hillsides and range from 40 feet to 2,330 feet of elevation. A small number of growers own many of the vineyards, and they share a long history of being dedicated to sustainable farming practices, while also embracing both technology and innovation to improve the quality of the wine, as well as the health of the land.
One of the greatest attributes of this region is the combination of the diversity of the vineyard soils and the unique climate. While the days can prove to be fairly hot during the growing season, the cool afternoon breezes that push up the canyon from nearby Monterey Bay, often topping 15 to 25 miles per hour, dramatically lowers the evening temperatures. That helps the grapes mature more slowly, thus allowing the fruit to develop to their full potential ripeness. The result is rich, vibrant wines that are easy to enjoy when new but also able to develop further with aging.
While the region has long been popular with golf enthusiasts making a pilgrimage to the iconic Pebble Beach and Spanish Bay courses in Carmel, as well as families visiting Big Sur and Monterey, the SLH region is gaining a serious following among wine consumers. For those who do not want to make the 45 to 60 minute trek out to the vineyards from the coast, there is a plethora of wine-tasting salons that dot the charming streets of both Carmel and Carmel Valley, providing visitors with an opportunity to sample a wide variety of chardonnay and pinot noir from nearby producers. However, wine lovers who have the time to make the commute out to vineyards will be rewarded with spectacular views along the way and warm and engaging hospitality at the wineries. Just remember to sip and spit!
Steve McIntyre is one of the most knowledgeable viticulturists in California. A farmer first and foremost, for McIntyre, everything about making wine starts in the vineyard. He is a true believer that healthy land makes great wine. There’s no arguing that philosophy when you taste the 2018 McIntyre Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay. This chardonnay has beautiful aromas of baked apple, citrus and vanilla scents. On the palate, the wine opens up with ripe pear, mango and toasted almonds, and hits the back of the tongue with a lush, silky-smooth finish that is balanced with just the right dose of acidity. $28
Testarossa Winery’s winemaker Bill Brosseau likes to craft elegant wines for everyday enjoyment. His 2017 Testarossa Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay is a blend of fruit sourced from some of the best vineyard sites in the SLH appellation. It is a rich and ripe style of wine that spends 15 months in new and older French oak barrels. This combination produces vibrant fruit alongside creamy-styled flavors. Bright, enticing layers of tropical fruit are heightened by the enchantingly sweet aromas of baked apple, honey and butterscotch. Notes of mango, coconut, kiwi and citrus zest enhance the complex palate. The lush, creamy mouthfeel is elevated by subtle flavors of green melon and ripe apple. $41
Talbott Vineyards prides itself on making wine “inspired by the traditions of Burgundy” and refers to their famous Sleepy Hollow vineyard as a “Grand Cru,” a French term of art referring to the best vineyard. One sip of the 2016 Talbott Vineyards Sleepy Hollow Pinot Noir and it’s easy to see why. Their flagship pinot noir offers elegant, fresh aromas of cherry cola, black plums and baking spices on the nose. In the mouth the wine is rich and savory with flavors of black cherry, ripe raspberry and orange rind. Hints of cinnamon and plum jam mingle together on the soft, elegant finish. $40
Rosella’s vineyard is one of the most well-known farms in SLH. Owners Gary and Rosella Franscioni planted the 50-acre vineyard, which rests along the slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range, back in 1996 and produces fruit that is highly sought after. One of the wineries lucky enough to source fruit from this iconic site is Siduri, whose 2016 Siduri Santa Lucia Highlands Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir is simply delicious. It features pretty aromas of red plum and spring strawberry scents on the nose. The flavors of dark raspberry, bright cherry, wild strawberry and wet stone are well-balanced and nicely textured. The supple finish is simply delicious, with a touch of cinnamon for added charm. $48
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect the correct price of the 2017 Testarossa Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay.