Unless you’re new to Your Glass or Mine at this point you should know that I’m a BIG Pinot Noir fan. It’s hands down my go-to red. And to be even more specific, I’m talking about Pinots from the Willamette Valley in Oregon. I can honestly say that I haven’t really explored many other regions with the exception of New Zealand, which was pretty good. But, other than that I tend to stay in one lane when it comes to the varietal.
Which brings me to the larger theme of today’s post…stepping outside your comfort zone when it comes to the type of wine you like. Not following me quite yet? Let’s take a quick poll:
Raise a glass if you’re like me and once you find a wine from a particular region you like you tend to stick with it. For example, you’re a die-hard Napa Cab or New Zealand Sauv Blanc drinker. Or maybe you don’t even pay attention to what you’re drinking as long as it’s good. I know a lot of you can probably relate.
The point that I’m trying to make is that often we either stick with one region or don’t even pay attention to it all when selecting wine, which can be a detriment if you’re really trying to understand your wine palate. You may say that you hate Chardonnay, but have you explored how it’s made in various regions? You may be surprised that you despise oaky Chards from California, but enjoy a crisp Beaujolais Blanc (made from Chardonnay grapes) from France.
So, today I’m excited to introduce you to a small winegrowing appellation in Monterey County that is producing some of California’s best Pinot Noirs. Are you familiar with the Santa Lucia Highlands? I wasn’t until I received an invitation from the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans to participate in a virtual tasting with some of their local winemakers. They were gracious enough to send a number of samples to try. If you’re a Pinot fan get ready to take some notes. Follow along as we explore what makes the Santa Lucia Highlands unique and introduce you to a couple of Pinot Noirs from the region.
The Santa Lucia Highlands: Sun, Wind & Wine
The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is an American Viticultural Area that runs down the western side of the Salinas Valley in Monterey, California. Winegrowing in the area dates back to the late 18th Century, when Spanish missionaries planted the first vines. The modern wine industry sprang up in the 1970s, and the area became an AVA in 1991.
The influence of the Pacific Ocean plays a major part in the climate of the Santa Lucia Highlands. The elevated slopes are subject to bright morning sunshine, and coastal breezes that sweep down the Salinas Valley from Monterey Bay to provide a counter to this in the afternoon. Reaching gusts of up to 25 miles (40 kilometers) an hour, the wind retards photosynthesis and forces grapes to develop a thicker skin, contributing higher tannins and phenolic structure to the finished wines produced in the area. Nighttime and morning fogs also provide cooling influences, creating a classically cool-climate viticultural area with a long ripening period.
In fact, the Santa Lucia Highlands have one of the longest growing seasons in California, with harvest sometimes following the rest of the state by up to six weeks. This long growing season means that grapes can ripen slowly and evenly, developing complex varietal character and fresh acidity.
The soils in the Santa Lucia Highlands are well-drained with low fertility, making them perfect for the production of premium grapes. The combination of the soils and the exposure to wind stresses the vines, causing them to put all their energy into the production of fruit rather than the canopy. The resultant berries are small with thick skins, leading to great structure and depth of flavor in the wines.
The Santa Lucia Highlands is recognized for single vineyards that stand among some of California’s grand cru vineyards. Dozens of highly respected Napa and Sonoma wineries source Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from this AVA. Still, it remains fairly unknown despite its proximity to one of California’s most coastal destinations for golf, hiking, ocean views, and other othe nation’s most important vegetable-growing valleys.
A Look at some Locally Produced Pinot Noirs
Now that you have a better idea of the AVA, let’s look at some of the wines that the Santa Lucia Highlands sent me. Note that I’m tasting (and in real-time) from left to right of the wines featured in the picture above.
2018 Clarice Garys’ Vineyard Pinot Noir
Clarice Wine Company is a new and unique type of winery, combining aspects of an online wine community, a wine education website, and a limited-enrollment wine club. Membership is limited to 625 members who have exclusive access to wine industry leaders from all fields of the wine business and get the opportunity to interact with them in a private and intimate forum. It’s founder Adam Lee started this project (which is named after his grandmother Clarice Phears) after selling Siduri Wines to Jackson Family Winery. Clarice Pinots are made with little intervention (very little destemming, no additions) and bottled without fining or filtration.
Ty’s Takeaways: This Pinot has very beautiful aromas…light and dainty on the nose. I got hints of black cherries and blueberries. This is a light-bodied red. It felt like water on my tongue. A lot of those dark fruit flavors appear on the palate accompanied by some earthiness that gives it a little grit that lingers on the finish. I’d give it 3 out 5 corks. Definitely drinkable. I could see this Pinot being a staple at a dinner party.
2017 McIntyre Estates Pinot Noir
Steve McIntyre is one of the most knowledgeable viticulturalists in California. By minimizing human intervention, McIntyre’s vineyards and wines remain as natural as possible. The 80-acre McIntyre Estate Vineyard lies in the “sweet spot” of the Santa Lucia Highlands. It produces incredibly intense and complex Pinot Noirs and well-structured concentrated Chardonnays. It was among the first properties in the Santa Lucia Highlands to be SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Certified.
Ty’s Takeaways: The McIntyre Pinot had aromas of spice, cherries, dark red berries, and some hints of vanilla. I sensed more red fruits in this Pinot than the last. *takes a sip* Yes, this Pinot is more in line with what I prefer. So fresh and so clean. Very fruit forward with soft tannins on the finish. I’d give this one 4 out 5 corks. This could definitely be in rotation this summer. It’s so light and not overbearing. I could get into some trouble with this one.
2017 Siduri Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir
Siduri, named for the Babylonian goddess of wine, specializes in cool climate Pinot Noir from growing regions across California and Oregon. This is another Pinot from Adam Lee. Four different clones of Pinot Noir from the Rosella Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands were used to make this wine while 40% was aged in new French oak for 14 months.
Ty’s Takeaways: This Pinot has very pleasant pomegranate and red cherry aromas. On the palate, I got notes of raspberry flavors with a hint of spice. I’d give this one a 3 out of 5 corks as well. It’s on the same level as the Clarice. It’s solid, but I wasn’t in love with it.
2019 Walt Rosella’s Vineyard Pinot Noir
Walt Wines is a family affair. Bob and Dolores Walt were dedicated winegrowers who loved the land and each other. Their family produced six different varietals that we sold to several great wineries. Now their daughter Kathryn Walt Hall runs the vineyard. Walt produces Pinot Nor and Chardonnay sourced from exceptional vineyards as far north as Oregon and as far south as Santa Barbara County.
Ty’s Takeaways: This Pinot has aromas of ripe red cherry, black tea and some dried rose petal. Although light in body, it is powerful and well structured with dense red fruits, brightness, and supple tannins. I’d give it a 4 out of 5 corks. Another great Pinot to add into your rotation.
Whew! Tasting all these Pinots, especially by yourself was not an easy task but I’m grateful that Santa Lucia Highland Wine Artisans provided the opportunity. I hope that you leave this blog post with a better understanding of the region. It’s crazy that I never knew this region existed before last month and now I’m noticing it in other wines. In fact, the McBride Sisters are getting ready to release a Reserve Pinot Noir from this region later this month. Hopefully, when you see Santa Lucia Highlands you’ll think of YGOM and this post. The world of wine is endless so I challenge you to explore different regions and how they make the varietals that you love. Let me know your thoughts below. Until next time…glasses up!