Grapes of cool
The wind-chilled, fertile Santa Lucia Highlands are home to top-notch pinot noirs
The Blue Grand Canyon is a reservoir of such cold that it is like that block of dry ice offstage during the school play, ready to engineer a fog. It's a cool place to grow grapes. (Rick Tuma illustration)
It's not that we don't want to; we merely don't think about it. But where and how grapes grow matter more to making wine what it is than nearly anything else.
I thought about this when I saw a rendering of — and read about — what's nicknamed the Blue Grand Canyon, the globe's fourth-largest underwater canyon that hides beneath the surface of Monterey Bay, yards off a coastline that opens into the massive Salinas Valley of California, one of the more fertile crop-growing districts of our country.
They grow grapes there, wine grapes, and lots of them.
The Blue Grand Canyon is a reservoir of such cold that it is like that block of dry ice offstage during the school play, ready to engineer a fog. No coastal mountains impede the already chilly winds that wend over it. It's a cool place to grow grapes.
A slice of it, the Santa Lucia Highlands, nestled into the foothills on one side of the valley, has become home to some terrific cool-climate grapes and their wines, with nearly half the vineyards in pinot noir and just over a third chardonnay.
The appellation is aptly named "Highlands" because the better vineyards find themselves facing the southeast, up 40 to 1,200 feet off the valley floor and composed of loamy soils chunked with limestone.
Sounds a lot like Burgundy and the wineries there are quick to note that. Everyone outside Burgundy models their pinot noir and chardonnay after those from Burgundy, or tries to.
The Burgundian mime is there in Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noirs, especially in their brooding aromas, but I also find them very American, with an intensity of fruit and color that Burgundians might envy.
It is as if the Santa Lucia Highlands were in a cooled-down version of the Columbia Valley of Washington. There, impressively long, light-filled growing seasons augment color saturation in the skins of merlot and cabernet sauvignon (basically, the grapes tan a lot). You cannot see through a Columbia Valley cabernet.
Santa Lucia is light-filled as well (the name, in fact, says so), but all that cold, birthed in the womb of the Blue Grand Canyon, also retains fruit acidity and gives the resultant wines crispness, verve and cleansing finishes, all devoutly wished for — but seldom achieved — in red wines.
Better yet, the Santa Lucia Highlands house many exceptional vineyard sites and now, vintage after vintage, these are proving their idiosyncratic terroirs. That, above all, will be their best Burgundian take.
For example, take a gander at — and a good sniff and sip of — the three current releases of pinot noir from Lucienne winery; all 2010s, all $50 a bottle, all Santa Lucia Highlands appellation. Marvelous wines, the lot of them, and each as similar and as different as three sibs of the same parents. Three vineyard sites, three pinot noirs; Burgundy-like.
You'll find the Lone Oak Vineyard pinot the lightest, simplest and most straightforward of the trio, but its purity of expression (especially its "lifted," very forward aromas) make for a very lively personality. The Smith Vineyard offering ratchets up the fruit concentration over the Lone Oak and adds full-on layers of brown spice and vanilla. It's a very pretty wine, enticing and comely.
Of the three, the Doctor's Vineyard is the darkest and most concentrated, trading red-cherrylike pinot character for what approaches black cherry or blackberry (there's its "American" side). It's a chewy wine, quite a mouthful for a pinot, stolid.
What's very pleasant about all three of these Lucienne wines, over and above their fine winemaking, is their commonly tangy, refreshing acidity. Perfect pinot.
Another notable Santa Lucia Highlands winery, Talbott, sports its own trio, but all three from the same stellar Santa Lucia vineyard, Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. You'll find the 2010 Talbott Pinot Noir Sleepy Hollow Vineyard ($35-$40 to be the most layered of the three, with a dark cherry core accented by mocha and wood; the 2010 Talbott Pinot Noir Logan ($20-$25) like beet juice-tinged red cherry, with silky tannin and an earthy note; and the 2010 Talbott Pinot Noir Kali Hart ($18-$20), the least interesting but most currently accessible of the three, juicy, black-cherrylike and soft.
A couple of other Santa Lucia Highlands pinots to recommend: 2009 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Las Alturas Vineyard Santa Lucia Highlands ($40-$45) is meaty and brooding, with dark cherry fruit accented with whiffs of sarsaparilla. The 2010 Sequana Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands ($32-$35) is notable for its scents of rose and sandalwood laid over flavors of black cherry and strawberry fruit leather.
If your wine store does not carry these wines, ask for one similar in style and price.
Bill St. John has been writing and teaching about wine for more than 30 years.