Catching up with the Santa Lucia Highlands
By Kerry Winslow
The Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey’s most acclaimed wine area, sits on a bench land above the Salinas River, it is a cool climate region affected by cool breezes and fog sucked down the valley from Monterey Bay. Monterey’s deep cold water canyon makes for consistent weather patterns and a long growing season in the Santa Lucia Highlands, which is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, though an argument for Syrah continues to brew here and it’s promising results since 2004 almost eclipse the epic results for Pinot Noir. The Santa Lucia Highlands leading lights remain the Pisoni and Franscioni families vineyards, these includes the famous Pisoni Vineyard, Garys’ Vineyard, Rosella’s Vineyard and their newer sites Soberanes and Sierra Mar Vineyards, all of which surely could be considered Cru vineyards if not Grand Cru, as Robert Parker called Pisoni and Garys’ a few years back in his reviews in The Wine advocate. Being from just over the hills in Carmel Valley, I certainly view the Highlands as my home team and having worked there and being involved in many insider events there I feel I have the experience to give a little insight into the currant and up coming releases from this remarkable region. At a recent trade tasting for the Santa Lucia Highlands I caught up with many friends and producers and had a chance to further my own knowledge and sample the latest set of wines.
What follows is a quick look at some terrific wines that I highly recommend and that are setting the standard for the SLH region, as per normal the Pinot Noirs lead the way, though as mentioned, Syrah is vastly underrated here and maybe the best value of the red wines. On a sobering note, I was very disappointed with the Chardonnay releases on the whole, what is going on? I will say both Roar and Lucia (Pisoni) put out suburb Chards in 2012, but most of the 20 or so from well regarded producers underwhelmed and in some cases were downright awful, there seemed to be a veggie theme or an over sweet style that repeated way to often, it was an eye opener no question. The whites as whole just didn’t excite and were way off quality wise from where I would have expected, though there was some exceptions including a few Pinot Gris wines and Rhone whites, but maybe the best of the whites was the Nacina Riesling by Tudor, this was maybe the biggest surprise, even though there has over the decades been some nice plots of Riesling found in the Santa Lucia Highlands. In summary, Pinot Noir is your go to Santa Lucia Highlands wine, but be sure to check out the Syrah, and be very selective on the Chardonnay in 2012, I hope it was just an abnormal blip and we’ll see Chardonnay again show it’s true potential again in the 2013 vintage. The Santa Lucia Highlands is remote and mysterious and sadly not all that accessible to wine enthusiasts to explore or tour, but it remains one of California’s best appellations and is close attractions like the wondrous Monterey Bay, the quaint and sleepy Carmel-by-the Sea, and the beautifully rugged Big Sur coastline, which is not too bad at all.
The latest SLH wines
The region’s star varietal and the wine that put the area on the world stage, Pinot Noir makes a richly flavored and generous style with a dark hue and density, these are full force Pinots. While they may lack the delicacy of the Sonoma Coast, these wines offer layers of fruit and still have good acidity with the best giving hedonistic pleasure and length. In recent vintages there has been a toning down of ripeness and use of new wood, but still leaving the soul of the place intact. There are a number of promising wines emerging, but I am not thrilled by the arrogant pricing, I am shocked that unheard of labels are asking over $60 for a non single vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot, and while some of these wines are interesting and well made, they don’t deserve mentioning here. Here are the wines that have star quality and or a great track record, again the Pisoni family look to be the leaders in region, though the other wines list here are wonderful examples. Others of note, Siduri continues to make some of the best SLH wines, with fruit coming from all of the Pisoni farmed sites, Adam Lee was one of the first to showcase the regions Pinot, then there is Kosta Browne and new comers Black Kite making some serious stuff.
2012 Lucia, Pinot Noir, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
The newest vineyard in the Cru class is the Santa Lucia Highlands is the Pisoni family’s Soberanes Vineyard, this site has massive potential and could even eclipse the more established sites, this is going to be exciting to follow over the next few years. The latest wines from Jeff Pisoni, the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah all look impressive, the 2012 vintage is set to match 2007 or 2009 in quality. The Soberanes is planted to the best clones and has all the history and excellence learned and proven over the last two decades, again this is a special place and the vines are already giving a peek into their future here with a great set of wines, even from these young vines, especially this Pisoni Clone Pinot Noir from Lucia. The 2012 shows more depth, density and finesse than the prior wines from this site, I think the proof is in the pudding, the Soberanes Pinot is beautiful and wonderfully detailed, refined and lush. The nose has classic Santa Lucia Highlands dark fruits, briar and floral array, leading to a palate of well defined cherry, plum and blackberry fruits with hints of mineral, gravelly stones, wild herbs, cinnamon, vanilla and a touch of smoky wood. This is really good and lavish Pinot Noir with smooth texture, a touch of vibrant acidity and underlying spiciness, there is also a hint of saline, licorice and lingering strawberry, drink over the next 4 to 6 years.
($53 Est.) 93+ Points, grapelive
2012 August West, Pinot Noir, Rosella’s Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
Ed Kurtzman’s latest August West Rosella’s follows in his tradition of fruit forward, unfiltered wines and reminds of his brilliant efforts in the past with Roar, and since he is no longer making Roar, this label is getting more quality attention. His 2011 scored 92 in Parker’s Wine Advocate and certainly this vintage is considerably better in all areas with rich density and deeper complexity. This is pure Rosella’s with dark fruits, spice, mineral and lush texture showing this Cru vineyard in it’s best light with black cherry, plum and mountain berry fruits, hints of savory herbs, game and sweet smoky wood. This vintage of Rosella’s is full and polished with good grip, silky ripe tannins and juicy freshness, this is a delicious effort.
($45 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
2010 Miura, Pinot Noir, Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
Miura’s Emmanuel Kemiji was one of the first high profile Master Sommelier to turn vintner, now you have your Rajat Parr MS at Sandhi and Evening Land and Sarah Floyd MS with Luli, and a few others. Kemiji’s wines have always a great mix of talent and terroir, especially his Miura Pisoni and Garys’ Pinots, but he also makes a sublime set of Spanish wines and I have always loved his Syrah wines that are made under his Antiqv2s label, these also have fruit sourced from Pisoni and Garys’ Vineyards. Emmanuel Kemiji’s membership to the Court of Master Sommeliers has made him shy on wanting full flavored and rich wines, all the wines he produces are lavish and showy wines, but they are certainly balanced and in my own experience age well, I recently uncovered a few Miura and Antiqv2s wines from 2001 and 2002 in my cellar and found them extremely beautiful and vibrantly fresh. I’ve been lucky to have had Miura, and Kemiji’s other wines since he first started, and he has always had the talents of Byron Kosuge as his consulting winemaker, this consistency and the access to great fruit has always been a major plus, these are wonderful wines. Emmanuel and Siduri’s Adam Lee where two of the first clients of the famed Pisoni Vineyard and were among an elite set of vintners to get these grapes, they also helped convince Gary Pisoni to make his own wines. The Miura 2010 Pinots are both terrific and classic wines from these two Cru sites in the Santa Lucia Highlands, the Pisoni might have the edge early, but the Garys’ is also a stunner. The Miura Pisoni starts with a heady nose of fruit, flowers, earth and mineral with violets, cassis and bramble leading to a glorious palate of blackberry, plum, raspberry and a dense core of black cherry fruit along with smoky oak notes, briar, cinnamon stick, wild herbs, anise and loamy truffle notes. This wine is deep and packed with layers of detail and flavor, still vivid, tight and lively with vitality and vigor, good acidity, silky tannins and a long hedonistic finish all make for a perfectly delicious Pinot Noir of class and distinction, in a pure Pisoni charmer, flamboyant, but without question a gorgeous wine. Drink this rewarding Pinot over the next decade, best from 2016 to 2022.
($63 Est.) 94 Points, grapelive
2010 Miura, Pinot Noir, Garys’ Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
The 2010 Miura Garys’ is more restrained, intense and brooding than the flamboyant Pisoni at this stage, but I wouldn’t bet against this one from turning the tables on it’s bother in a few years, everything is there to blossom and develop into a stunner itself. The more generous Pisoni might have it’s day now, but there is a lot to love here too, this Miura Garys’ Pinot shows darker fruit, more acidity and a slightly less ripeness, though it does open up in the glass and fills out magnificently on the palate with rich fruit and clear detail, while the nose is shy it still has plenty to offer as well with hints of rose petal, violets and tea spices along with toasty oak and mocha. The raspberry, cherry and plum fruits are lifted by acidity and silky tannins, though there is a lush and dense mouth feel that shines through and this is rich wine from start to finish. Background notes of wild strawberry, licorice, forest mushrooms and a hint of game add complexity, give another couple of years to unfold for the best rewards, I’m sure this will continue to improve and intrigue over the next 3 to 5 years, and clearly this Pinot Noir has seductive charms not to be missed now and in the future.
($63 Est.) 93+ Points, grapelive
2012 Roar, Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands.
From select blocks of Rosella’s, Garys’ and Sierra Mar comes the pretty and easy to fall in love with Roar SLH cuvee, which is a fantastic wine and has be considered one of the best values in the region. The blend of vineyards is a plus, and of course coming from some of the most prized sites in California, let alone in the Santa Lucia Highlands, this is no ordinary entry level wine! In the past this wine has even included some Pisoni fruit and it still might, but even without it, this is great stuff. This is one of the last Roar releases that was fashioned by Ed Kurtzman, he led Roar, after Adam Lee of Siduri, from 2007 to 2012 and will be missed, though the transition to new winemaker Scott Shapley looks to have gone very smoothly and all parties are moving happily ahead. The 2012 is more plush than 2011 or 2010, but the style is very consistent with the past with beautiful silky texture, unfiltered transparency and round full flavors. The nose is graced with red fruits, mocha and spicy elements leading to a palate of raspberry, cherry and plum fruits with hints of vanilla, peppercorns, briar and anise with hints of smoke, mineral and earth. This wine is vivacious and will drink nicely for next 4 or so years.
($40 Est.) 92+ Points, grapelive
My dark horse grape here, these wines are really on a roll, the Lucia, Cattleya, Antiqv2s by Miura and even the Wrath show what this varietal can do, these wines are exciting, rich and throughly rewarding. This region gives color and depth as well as cool climate refinement with vibrant acidity and northern Rhone flavor profiles in most vintages. The Roar and Lucia wines from 2004 and 2006 were major breakthrough vintages for Syrah in the region, in fact I think they surpassed the Pinots those years. The top sites in the SLH are Pisoni (Susan’s Hill), Garys’, Rosella’s, Soberanes, Paraiso and KW Ranch, formerly known as Fairview Ranch. These wines are often much less than the Pinot Noir, so they make for savvy choices for those that want stylish SLH wines. Don’t forget to check out Siduri’s Novy label for super sexy SLH Syrah as well!
2012 Lucia, Syrah, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
The Pisoni family’s Soberanes Vineyard, with it’s young vines, is proving a sensation, it just might be the most exciting new vineyard on the central coast, and Jeff Pisoni is taking full advantage of the quality and character found on this amazing site in the Santa Lucia Highlands. The vines here are the result of knowledge gained from the now legendary Pisoni estate and from top sites that the Pisoni and Franscioni families have planted and managed, like Garys’ Vineyard, plus the experience Jeff Pisoni has gained working with Peter Michael and other estates in the Sonoma Coast area. Soberanes has huge potential and might become as famous as the original Pisoni estate in the years to come, planted here are vines that include the famous Pisoni clone Pinot Noir, much rumored to be a La Tache/suitcase clone, an Old Wente clone Chardonnay and maybe the most exciting an Alban clone Syrah which gives the Santa Lucia Highlands some better material in what has been one of the great success’ of the region, Syrah. Yes, Pinot Noir from here is still the buzz word and yes it is still fantastic, and of course Chardonnay put the region on the map in the first place, but since 2004, and even before, Syrah has produced some of the regions best reds, I honestly think Roar and Lucia have made Syrah just as good as their Pinot, I remember tasting the 2004 vintage and even rating the Syrah higher, and this Soberanes 2012 is fantastic! Jeff Pisoni has crafted a rich, meaty and complex wine here and shown a bit of the future with this dark and layered Syrah, interesting it makes for a wonderful contrast to his wife’s same vineyard and vintage version under the Cattleya label. While Bibiana’s is more floral and higher pitched, Jeff’s is more blooding and earthy, you could say the Cattleya is like Cote-Rotie and the Lucia is more Hermitage or Cornas in style, but really both are Santa Lucia stars, these are great wines from great talents. The 2012 Lucia Soberanes Syrah starts with wild game, new leather, blackberry, briar patch and wild flowers that fill the nose before the explosion of intensity on the palate with boysenberry, blueberry, black currant and spiced plum fruits along with raw meat, black olives, melted licorice, lavender oil and white pepper. There is a bit of raw tannin and vibrant acidity, this wine is still really young, but with air the wine opens to reveal a polished nature and glorious texture with hints of cassis, cedar and cigar spice with just a faint charcoal note. the finish is vivid and lingering, it re-enforces the black and blue fruits and gives a touch of magic that will certainly make you want to have more, don’t miss this excellent wine, drink from 2014-2022.
($45 Est.) 94 Points, grapelive
2012 Cattleya, Syrah, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
Bibiana Gonzales Rave is a Colombian woman winemaker, you don’t hear that too often, and she is also extremely accomplished and talented in her craft, she has made wine in Cote-Rotie and now plies her trade her in California, making her wines under her own Cattleya label. Bibiana crafts small lot Chardonnay from the Russian River, a Pinot Noir from Carneros, and this glorious Syrah from Pisoni’s Soberanes Vineyard in the Santa Lucia Highlands. I should also mention she is the wife of Jeff Pisoni, and that is how she found out about the Soberanes site, and fell in love with it’s terroir and especially it’s Syrah. Her first vintage got a huge buzz in the geeky new wine world, and I couldn’t ever seem to get my hands on a bottle, so I was very excited to finally get a chance to taste her wine, and I can tell you it was not a disappointment, her 2012 Soberanes Syrah is fantastic, she certainly gives her husband a run for his money on quality and style, and that is saying a lot, Jeff Pisoni himself is one of California’s best young winemakers. Soberanes is the Pisoni family’s newest site and is located closer to Garys’ Vineyard, but at a slightly higher point in the Santa Lucia Highlands, it offers great exposure and distressed soils, it also has their top clonal selections in the vines, including Wente Chardonnay, Pisoni Clone Pinot Noir and Alban Clone Syrah, this might make Soberanes legendary in a few years when these vines get a bit more age on them, but regardless the potential is there and the quality is already stunning. The 2012 Cattleya Syrah, hand crafted with a long maceration time, and a precision controlled fermentation, cool for the extended soak and warmed when necessary to bring out subtle complexities really shows in this beautiful and aromatic wine, the wine is full of rich density, but delicate, this is a masterful example of the varietal and highlights Bibiana’s talents. The nose starts with violets, loamy earth, hints of wild game, briar and creme de cassis lead, then there is a dark palate of blueberry, boysenberry, loganberry and plum fruits with pepper, black olives, grilled herbs, meat and mineral notes. The layers are supported by pretty smoke and vanilla from the good use of French oak, the smooth and supple tannins melt into the wine and the fruit is lifted by acidity and the wine shows a vitality and vivid nature with a nice lengthy finish that lingers with kirsch, bitter chocolate, black licorice and dusty fruit essence. This wine should gain and develop in bottle, even though it is top notch now, also it will be hard to find as it was a tiny production, hence the price, but it is worth the search and the cost, drink from 2016 to 2022.
($70 Est.) 94 Points, grapelive
2008 Antiqv2s, Syrah, Pisoni Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
This intensely dark Syrah still has vibrant freshness and force, but has started to really come into it’s own, with a few years of bottle age allowing it to reveal glorious detail and class. Emmanuel Kemiji’s Antiqv2s label has been an underground secret for many years, while most Pisoni fans know his Miura wines, these tend to wrongly get overlooked, these Syrah wines, one from Garys’ Vineyard and one from Pisoni, crafted by Byron Kosuge, Kemiji’s longtime winemaker, are stylish and sumptuous Syrahs that are hedonistically full, but with terroir and refinement showing throughout. Sadly it looks like 2010 will be the last vintage of the Antiqv2s, and Kemiji will focus on his Miura label domestically, while he’ll continue making his Spanish wines. Emmanuel Kemiji, master sommelier, is a busy man, a perfectionist and all around great guy and if you get a chance or can find them, I highly recommend these Antiqv2s wines, and especially now that he has dropped the original $60 price recently to about $35 retail for them, that makes for a real great value. The 2008 Pisoni Vineyard Syrah is deeply purple, flowing with lush black fruits, earthy briar, black olives, mineral and white pepper spice while there is classic boysenberry and blueberry compote as the core. This wine is deep and has nice French oak shadings which are subtle to the taste, while camphor and char add to the background notes of cassis, cedar and truffle. This Syrah is delicious and ready to rock and roll, drink now and for next couple of years.
($35-60 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
2011 Wrath, Syrah, KW Ranch, Santa Lucia Highlands.
Wrath is a young label and is just starting to gain momentum, though they have been singled out by non other than Robert Parker as a winery to watch and he has graced them with some more than notable ratings, which have helped them massively I am sure. I have myself been much more skeptical and I wasn’t a huge fan at first, and I do have issues with their prices, so it was a pleasant surprise to find this Syrah, which offers top notch quality and relative value. Wrath wines are crafted by the hardworking and I must now say talented Sabrine Rodems, sorry I was late in my praise, she looks to be doing a wonderful job here. Wrath also has Byron Kosuge on their books to consult and give advice, which doesn’t hurt either. The 2011 KW Ranch Vineyard Syrah is a lovely and tasty wine, this vineyard is formerly the Fairview Ranch, a site that Big Basin used to make great Syrah in the past and it is very close to Garys’ Vineyard. The nose is perfumed with violets and dried floral notes, earthy spice, hints of meat and juicy red fruits lead the way, this pretty wine shrugs off the difficult vintage with ease, kudos to the farming and gentle winemaking here, this smooth medium weight Syrah has more than a few similarities to it’s French cousins with hints of camphor, pepper and hints of salad olives. Overall this wine oozes charm and it brightly focused, again it was a nice and welcome surprise, drink now and until 2016.
($39 Est.) 92 Points, grapelive
Chardonnay & Other Whites
Chardonnay is the main and most planted grape in the SLH, it accounts for the most sales and while the mainstay of budget wines, it can be exceptional when done right. Historically it was the Chardonnay that first caught people’s attention to the area, though that was before the AVA was conceived, and wines like Talbott’s Sleepy Hollow were the kings of the region. Today there are dozens of artisan producers making world class Chardonnay here, though I again must warn that from I saw from early samples, 2012 will be a vintage to be very selective in purchasing, lots of these wines showed a total lack of character, and more disappointing was the number that had ugly veggie notes, plus a few that were cloyingly sweet. Also, very worryingly there seems to be pricing madness in SLH Chard too, with lot’s of mediocre or worse wines priced at eye popping levels, but seriously there is a huge disconnect from reality and value in price for quality here. Across the board things need massive step up to on terms with the rest of the wine world. Producers like Bernardus, Morgan, Talbott and Mer Soleil as well as small artisan guys need to up their game, they have the terroir and vines to do it, let’s hope they turn it around. Exceptions were the Roar and Lucia wines, these were definitely standouts. As for other whites, the Rhone varietals are looking good with Viognier and in some cases Roussanne doing very well here. There was a good showing from Pinot Gris, with Puma Road’s off dry style being one of the best, I think it will be worth watch this grape here, and maybe someone will go for something a bit more exotic, who knows. The biggest surprise here came in the form of Riesling, once almost wiped out, it seems to be making a comeback of sorts with at least four or five decent examples to be found and one really shockingly good in a dynamic and dry style.
2012 Lucia, Chardonnay, Soberanes Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
Jeff Pisoni smiles when asked about where the old Wente Clone cuttings came from, I suggest his connections and his past experience at Peter Michael might be involved, but he winks and says nothing more, what is certain is that he has made a darling of a Chardonnay in 2012 from the youngest of the Pisoni Crus, Soberanes and that this is a Chardonnay to search out. Each vintage brings new challenges and solutions, but it also puts experience and knowledge in the bank, and with each year Jeff Pisoni brings more and more to the table, this is a talented winemaker and his wines reflect that, and he has well and truly come out from his dad’s huge shadow and is becoming a legend in his own right, his dad is unbelievably proud these days. The 2012 Soberanes Chardonnay is focused, well crafted and judged, giving depth and richness along with drive and finesse, it shows peach, white flowers, honeyed pear and zest lemon layers with a clarified cream like texture plus hints of brioche, vanilla, saline, mineral and golden fig. Only a slight tropical note and baked apple linger and the vivid acidity holds everything in check. This is a lavish and pleasing Chardonnay, best from 2014 to 2018.
($53 Est.) 93 Points, grapelive
2012 Roar, Chardonnay, Sierra Mar Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands.
This vintage is showy and expressive with loads of pear and pineapple to go along with lemon curd and yellow apple fruits. Roar’s Sierra Mar like Soberanes is a work in progress just starting to mature into a Cru site. While not as classy and refined as Rosella’s can be, the latest Sierra Mar looks set to be a winner and is certainly one of the best wines so far from the vintage. Roar also does a tiny amount of Viognier that is well worth checking out, this is suburb operation fun by Gary Franscioni, with his son Adam and while Ed Kurtzman has left as winemaker there is a real excitement for the future with the young and talented Scott Shapely, who will put his mark on the wines beginning with the 2013 vintage, he worked with Adam Lee of Siduri, and Wells Gutherie (of Copain) while at Roessler. Roar’s first winemaker was Adam Lee, so there is a full circle of talents and subtle transitions happening here, which I think is a good thing and I am looking forward to seeing the up coming releases. The lush and plush 2012 Chardonnay has plenty to like and should gain over the next few years in bottle, look for butterscotch and a creamy texture to develop, but most people will drink this over the next 12 months.
($45 Est.) 92 Points, grapelive
2012 Nacina, Riesling, Tondre Grapefield, Santa Lucia Highlands. (By Tudor)
While most know and acclaimed for his Pinot Noir, Dan Tudor is now staking out a claim to be the regions best Riesling maker, and I must say the new Tondre Riesling is a stunner, it was a huge surprise and for me, by far and away the best wine ever from the Tondre site! While I’ve had some green meanie issues from Tondre Pinots, I’ll have to admit this Riesling is pretty damn good. I tasted this wine following an extensive tasting of some of the finest Rieslings from Germany, Austria and the Finger Lakes in New York State, so with a huge palate of experience and a slight prejudice I had to eat crow, I honestly found this Nacina Riesling amazingly competent and enjoyed the bracing acidity and crisp dryness. This brisk white delivers zesty citrus, loamy earth, mineral and sour green apple up front and has a layer of lime, grapefruit and melon with hints of tropical essences and verbena. One of the best California Rieslings out there, bravo, drink now.
($20 Est.) 92 points, grapelive
2013 Lucy, Rose of Pinot Noir, Santa Lucia Highlands (Pisoni Family)
The Lucy Rose was made to give money to breast cancer research, at least one dollar for every bottle sold, that alone makes you want to get a few bottles, but the Pisoni Family Rose is, regardless of great cause, a super delicious pink wine crafted from estate grown Pinot Noir. This is one of my favorite domestic Rose wines, and this new 2013 vintage, which is soon to be released is one of the best yet, it is bright, fresh and has lots of style and energy. The 2013 Lucy shows a hint of sour cherry, sweet herbs, spice and mineral along with a touch of floral before a blast of citrus, red peach and watermelon. With a bit of air some lovely strawberry comes through and the wine settles down and tastes a bit more like a chilled Pinot Noir along with a subtle richness. This pink is a wine to drink and enjoy young, with it’s vivid flavors, vibrant color and easy to love style the Lucy is a winner all round. Drink over the next 12 months, look for it to be hitting the shelves between Feb 15 and March 2014, and don’t miss it.
($18 Est.) 90 Points, grapelive