Santa Lucia Highlands: 6 Pinot Noirs & Chardonnays to Try
Santa Lucia Highlands Artisans Paint Beautiful Pictures of Vintage 2011, 2012: Tasting through a luscious lineup of brilliant Chardonnays and well-schooled Pinot Noirs, all from the Santa Lucia Highlands, is enough to restore your faith in winemaking. With few exceptions, the wines from this region, made by wineries far and wide, are singularly impressive. Each year, attending the Santa Lucia Highlands Artisans trade tasting at Fort Mason proves illuminating, much like a ray of sunshine through a stained glass window. The Chardonnays sing like a halo’d choir and the Pinot Noirs reverberate with a carillon of melodic flavors.
The single vineyard designates keep growing in number, and we had a fine time hunting down the growing number of labels making wines from the Sierra Mar and Soberanes vineyards, both managed by Gary Franscioni and Mark Pisoni.
Along with usual well-known pillars of the AVA who can always be counted on for excellent, consistently well-made wines, among them Bernardus, Hahn, La Rochelle, Morgan, Pisoni/Lucia, Roar, Scheid and Wrath, there were outstanding efforts from new to the group producers, including Black Kite, Cattelya and Hawks View, the latter hailing all the way from Oregon.
The Double Gold Debut award newcomer to the event goes to Black Kite Cellars for their two Soberanes wines, a 2012 Chardonnay and a 2011 Pinot Noir. They were both simply spot on. The Chardonnay thrills with apricot, honeydew melon and toasty marshmallow, while the pinot seduced with endless layers of dark fruit, chocolate and tobacco spice. A very impressive debut!
Probably the single-most impressive Pinot Noir of the day for me and my sister tasters was the 2011 Mansfield-Dunne “Peterson Vineyard, $48” one of the most Burgundian of all those we sampled. Aromatically intoxicating with its medley of alpine strawberries, roasting chestnuts, fern and baking spice, this taut, silken beauty amazes with its savory autumnal flavor rush, gushing with racy acidity and delighting with its perfectly poised, lip smacking finish.
The “smooth and sexy” Syrah award goes to Cattelya, Bibiana Gonzales Rave’s new 2012 effort from the Soberanes vineyard (barrel sample), excitingly vibrant in the nose, and packed with blueberry, ripe plum and hints of bacon on the finish. Cattleya is the name of the orchid that is the national flower of Bibiana’s native country of Colombia. She is married to Jeff Pisoni of Pisoni/Lucia wines.
The “pepper power” award goes to Wrath’s 2011 KW Ranch Syrah, a ball of savory fire from the white pepper and flint in the nose, to its blend of lavender, rosemary and coriander woven seamlessly with red plums and roasted fennel. KW Ranch is owned by winegrower Kirk Williams: it used to be known as Fairview. Kirk’s daughter, Kori, also makes wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands.
Six Positively Perfect Pinot Noirs
2012 August West Sierra Mar, $45: pretty raspberry aromas are followed up by vibrant cherries and exciting energy
2011 Lucienne Smith Vineyard, $50: gorgeous raspberries, chocolate, truffles and earth – an impressive, unforgettable wine
2011 Hawks View Soberanes, $38: hard to even believe the deftness of this wine, a perfect pairing of sweet and savory, with blueberry, raspberry, cardamom and baking spices, swept on a wave of soaring acidity. Simply stunning!
2012 Roar SLH, $40: young, zesty, packed with lively raspberry and strawberry fruit; great promise and a bargain, to boot.
2011 Wrath Tondre Grapefield, $49: lean, earthy, savory and packed with everything from raspberries to salami. A really gutsy pinot.
2011 Wrath Boekenoogen Vineyard, $49: fantastic expression of this storied vineyard, packed with raspberry, chocolate and hints of mint. Beautiful density.
Six Noteworthy Chardonnays
2011 Bernardus Sierra Mar, $40: brilliant execution with a pleasingly grippy texture of peach skins and rich shortbread, as elegant as Blythe Danner in satin.
2012 Manzoni North Highlands Cuvee, $30: a terrific ice dance of citrus and tropical fruits, with pineapple, crème brulee and vanilla. Seriously one of the best wines ever from Manzoni.
2012 Morgan Double L vineyard, $42: encapsulates all the charm of a tangy apple torte, with lovely acidity.
2011 Pelerin Sierra Mar, $42: thrilling rendition of lemon cream pie with absolutely flawless balance, like a gymnast on the parallel bars.
2012 Lucia (Pisoni) Soberantes, $53: intriguing notes of almond and marzipan, with a delicate balance.
2011 Scheid Reserve, $38: From Doctor’s Vineyard, this is packed with mango, apricot and tropical fruit. For those who really like oak.
Mark your calendars for the Santa Lucia Highlands Artisans Gala, May 17, at Mer Soleil on River Road in Monterey County. No true lover of well-crafted chardonnay and pinot should miss this opportunity to sample the amazing bounty of this premiere region for Burgundian varietals and sensually spicy syrahs.
BY: LAURA NESS, WINE JUDGE & WINE WRITER
Laura Ness, aka “Her VineNess,” is an accomplished wine journalist and wine critic whose passion for wine was ignited by a visit to France, where she had the unmatched pleasure of tasting Sancerre in the medieval town of Sancerre – splendid!— and then a Saumur, after visiting the Chateau de Saumur in Chinon. The concept of terroir came alive in those incandescent moments. She regularly judges wine competitions and serves on the tasting panels of the Pinot, Cabernet and Chardonnay Shootouts. She was instrumental in helping define the unique sub-regions of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA in concert with Appellation America. You can usually find her sipping and smiling in Mendocino, Livermore, the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Cruz Mountains and Paso Robles. Laura writes extensively for many industry and consumer publications, and has weekly wine columns in several Bay Area newspapers. She blogs, irreverently and sporadically, at myvinespace.com.
Photo Credit: Naotake Murayama