Santa Lucia Highlands AVA: A Strangely Effective Place to Grow Burgundy

A winemaking rarity exists about 100 miles south of San Francisco. Along coastal Monterey highlands, which can reach 1,200 feet in altitude, grow Burgundian varietals in a sunny, cool climate.

The weather is that diverse along the 12-mile Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. Generous morning sun bakes grapes. This heat is offset by fog and heavy afternoon winds. Both sweep up and over from nearby Monterey Bay. Gusts around 14-15 MPH slow photosynthesis and lengthen growing season.

The highlands have loamy-soiled slopes that drain well. Less water is sucked up into the vines. All this results in thicker grape skins, deeper flavors and darker colors — ideal for Pinot Noir.

Home to 6,100 acres of vineyards, the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA not long ago was but a vision. Spanish missionaries first planted vines here in the 18th century. For the next 200 years, winemaking came second to raising livestock.

Bottle Shot Lucienne Doctors Pinot Noir 2013

Doctor’s Vineyard

Then Nicholas and Gaby Hahn arrived in 1979. They were on a tour of California to invest somewhere in winemaking. After the Hahns stopped in Monterey for a break, they realized they may have stumbled onto something.

Fog and wind that came up from the bay, alternating with periods of sunlight, posed intriguing winemaking conditions. Convinced of the potential, the Hahns in 1979 began buying land along the highlands. A year later they launched their first vintage.

Today, Hahn Family Wines owns four vineyards, totaling 650 acres, of the 37 sites along the Santa Lucia Highlands. The company was instrumental in getting the area AVA-recognized in 1991.

I had opportunity to sample their wines last week when Hahn Family Wines came to New York.

The tasting, held in NYC’s Tratoria Il Mulino, opened with the Santa Lucia Highlands Chardonnay 2014 ($25 per 750-ml. bottle). It was bright and citrusy, well balanced between sugar and acid. Like wines that followed, it had an ABV higher than typical — 14.5% — thanks to ample sun in the AVA. This creates more sugar, which means more alcohol.

The tasting focused on Pinot Noir, including the Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir 2013, and three 2013 vintages from their Lucienne single-vineyard line. We also tasted three Pinot Noirs from neighboring vineyards to better understand the area’s terroir.

The tasting traveled through vineyards north-to-south, away from the bay. Up first was Lone Oak Vineyard ($50, 14.5% ABV), poured alongside Morgan Double L Vineyard 2013. Closest to the bay, Lone Oak was ripe with wild berry flavors, and had a smooth, velvety texture.

As did my personal favorite, Doctor’s Vineyard ($50, 14.5%). Centrally located — along with its pouring partner, Testarossa Soberanes Vineyard 2013 — Doctor’s Vineyard has warmer temperatures, plus more wind for a longer growing season. This brought out robust berry and fruit flavors.

The third pairing was the Smith Vineyard ($50, 14.5%) with Siduri Sierra Mar Vineyard 2013. The Smith vineyard was the highest planted, as high as 1,280 feet, above the fog line. Flavors included black fruits, more so than the other Luciennes.

Smith, too, was velvety smooth. And all of Luciennes were aged for 14 months in French Oak, 40% new. This lent light vanilla notes. Since each Lucienne went through similar aging and harvesting techniques, the different bottles were truly representative of their distinct vineyards.

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The Santa Lucia Highlands tasting.

The tasting concluded with the Hahn SLH Pinot Noir 2013. This blend contained 52% Smith grapes, 42% Doctor’s and 6% Lone Oak. Aging occurred for 10 months in French Oak, 40% new. The wine was complex and balanced, evocative of all three Lucienne vineyards. It tasted of black fruits and red berries, with sage and floral notes.

The size of Manhattan, The Santa Lucia Highlands is AVA of distinct character that took some time to be recognized— thanks in large part to the Hahn Family’s creative vision.

“This area was neglected by California establishments for decades, because they thought it was too warm of an area,” explained Philip Hahn, second-generation chairman of Hahn Family Wines, who was on hand for the tasting.

“And you hear about how Burgundian varietals have to be tortured and toughened to be good,” he added with a laugh. “Well, plants like sunlight, too.”

Kyle Swartz is the associate editor of Beverage Dynamics Magazine. Reach him at kswartz@epgmediallc.com

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