Until recently, I was under the impression that the majority of California’s Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wine production was relegated mostly to the 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 either.
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 AVA spans 22,000 acres, but only 6,400 acres are currently planted with grapevines.
Most of the vineyards are located on the sloping 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 mph, dramatically lowers evening temperatures which 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 SLH region is gaining a serious following among wine consumers, it can take anywhere from 45 to 60 minutes to trek out to the vineyards from the coast.
The good news is there are now 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. It is definitely worth the trip.
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Rosella’s vineyard is one of the most well-known farms in the Santa Lucia Highlands. 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 produce fruit that is highly sought after.
One of the wineries lucky enough to source fruit from this iconic site is Siduri, whose 2018 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. $50
Brothers Jeff and Mark Pisoni are definitely proof that two heads are better than one when it comes to crafting quality Pinot Noir.
Mark is responsible for the vineyards while his brother, Jeff, turns Mark’s efforts into stunning wines. Because their focus is only on quality, their production is limited and the wines may be hard to find — but the hunt is worth it.
The 2018 Pisoni Ranch Pinot Noir from the Santa Lucia Highlands 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. $75
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