Spice Girls: The Delicious Pinot Noirs Of Santa Lucia Highlands
Pinot Noir lovers who cherish balance and nuance with a flicker of exotic spice and tea owe great thanks to the Pacific Ocean. It’s the ocean’s cooling marine breeze that slows grape ripening helping to coax deeper flavor from the fruit while allowing it to hang on the vine longer than other varietals. This ocean air conditioning is critical to coastal AVA’s such as Sonoma Coast and Santa Lucia Highlands. One other thing—most of these wines hover in the $30 -$40 range. No one needs to break the bank for a well-made wine from SLH. Grape grower and winemaker Steve McIntyre of McIntyre Vineyards is responsible for cultivating 12,000 acres in Monterey County; his viticultural skills are without peer and his Santa Lucia Highlands wines come from a highly prized site replete with 80 acres of some of the AVA’s oldest Pinot and Chardonnay vines. McIntyre started farming in the Highlands back in 1983. “Back then you could count the number of Pinot vineyards on one hand. The ranch I was farming (Hahn Smith & Hook) was comprised of Bordeaux varietals and it was a struggle to produce something that didn’t taste like bell peppers.” Mcintyre credits pioneers such as the Pisonis for elevating Pinot Noir in the region. “It’s hard to find more than a few rogue Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the Highlands anymore. Now, it’s exciting to be associated with one of the greatest places in the world to grow Pinot Noir.”
The net effect of the the Santa Lucia Highlands terroir, which McIntyre describes as “everything we can’t control; soil, elevation, sun orientation, climate, etc.,” is a consistent flavor quality tinged with exotic spice. Dan Morgan Lee, proprietor and winegrower for the award-winning Morgan Winery, has been working the vineyards of Monterey and the Highlands for over 30 years. Says Lee, the region is a “nice combination of well drained, deep soils that are not very fertile and a cool marine climate with a big dose of wind. This intersection of nature just grows great Pinot Noir that is proven year after year with consistent quality. The net result yields wines with a flavor profile that leans towards a cherry berry base, with layers of dried herbs, smoky leather, and some cedar/clove and rose petal elements—wines that seem to please the vast majority of Pinot lovers.”
Lee notes that the biggest challenge in Highlands is mildew control. “The marine climate is very moderate without big spikes of cold or hot days. Powdery mildew loves this environment, and it is by far our biggest challenge in the vineyard.” An average day in SLH is similar to that of one in San Francisco–cool and foggy in the morning with burn off by mid-to-late morning. Then, sun, wind, and later the fog comes back. “Monterey Bay Marine is the best way to describe it,” says Lee.
For McIntyre it’s about consistency and getting the word out. “The SLH is one of only five or six places in the world that can grow world-class Pinot Noir on a consistent basis. For me, that really provides perspective. Now we just need to educate people as to its geographical location.” For a full list of wines from the region click here. Below are a few to look for:
Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir, 2016: A blend of pinot fruit from several premium vineyards in the SLH appellation. The wine delivers richly resonant black cherry, tea and spice notes. Beautiful balance between acidity and tannin. $35
Vineyards in the Santa Lucia Highlands