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Spotlight on the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA was established in 1991. Commercial wine grape cultivation there started in the early 1970’s. Today, there are 45 vineyards and just over 6,000 acres under vine. The primary wine grapes grown in the Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. They account for 80% of plantings. After that come Riesling, Syrah, Pinot Gris and Viognier. There are 13 or more other varieties grown, but none comprise as much as 60 acres.

Location

The Santa Lucia Highlands are located in Monterey County on the eastern side of the coastal Santa Lucia Range. This gives the AVA a long and narrow, north-south orientation, just 15 miles east of the ocean. SLH vineyards are on the west side of Foothill Rd., either on the hills themselves or the benches tucked up against them. The vineyards range from 300 to 1,400 feet in elevation.

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA overlooks the Salinas River Valley and Highway 101. The valley runs southeast from Monterey Bay, allowing a substantial influx of cool air and fog. There is also a much smaller wind gap, through Carmel Valley which opens to the ocean below the bay. The fertile valley floor is planted with a wide variety of vegetables, including lettuce, tomatoes, spinach, broccoli and more.

To the south of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is the Arroyo Seco AVA, also in Monterey County. In July, 2006 the TTB realigned the border between these two AVAs slightly. The result was a transfer of 200 acres from Arroyo Seco to the Santa Lucia Highlands. The petition for change was made on behalf of E. & J. Gallo. There were three purposes for the change: making the Arroyo Seco AVA boundaries more similar to those of the original Arroyo Seco land grant, making the boundaries align with land ownership lines and to unite the Olson Ranch vineyards in one AVA. The majority of the Gallo-owned Olson Ranch had been in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Now they all are. [Note: the TTB documents mispell "Olson" as "Olsen."]

slh-location
The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Monterey County. Map by Mike Bobbitt & Associates.

Climate

The Santa Lucia Highlands offer a long growing season with plentiful sun. Cooling breezes and fog from Monterey Bay moderate vineyard temperatures though. With just 2286 degree days, the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is a Region I, the coolest classification on the Winkler-Amerine heat summation scale. In terms of degree days, the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is midway between Burgundy (1982) and the Russian River Valley (2580).

Pinot Noir and Chardonnay achieve excellent ripeness, due in part to the long Santa Lucia Highlands growing season mentioned above. The growing season can be understood through the monthly distribution of degree days. They range from approximately 180 in April to roughly 400 each in July, August and September, declining to 280 in October. Burgundy, farther north and with a continental climate, has a short growing season. It doesn't begin accumulating degree days until May (140), reaches a strong peak above 500 in July and August and then drops to less than 100 in October.

One could say the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA also has a long growing day. Daily temperatures are moderate during the ripening season. The average swing is just 18°F with highs consistently below 80° and lows above 60°. This allows phenolic ripeness to develop almost 24 hours per day. Thus, full flavor ripeness can be achieved with relatively low sugar levels as compared to regions with a more extreme diurnal variation. For example, the Russian River Valley AVA reaches 83° in the late afternoon but drops all the way down to 50° in the early morning. Those lows phenolic ripening to just 16 hours per day.

Wines and Wineries

The Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is widely respected for high-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit. There is some truly great Syrah grown there as well. That said, the area may still be better known through some of it's top vineyards than as an overall AVA. The names Garys' Vineyard, Pisoni Vineyard, Mer Soleil Vineyard and Sleepy Hollow Vineyard have, among others, been featured on bottles from top wineries up and down the state. And, while there are many excellent vineyards in the AVA now, there are still relatively few wineries physcially located there.

Here's a selection of noteworthy labels producing wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands:
August West
Bernardus
Capiaux
Hope & Grace
Kosta-Brown
Lucia
Mer Soleil
Miner
Miura
Morgan
Novy
Patz & Hall
Paul Lato
Peter Michael
Pisoni
Sequana
Siduri
Talbott
Testarossa

Details

Latitude: 36.46° to 36.33°

Altitude: sea level to 2,100', vineyards from 300' to 1,400'

Climate:
Coastal/Mediterranean, 2286 degree days

Annual Rainfall: 13 inches

Soils: The most common soil in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA is Chualar Loam (fine, alluvial loam derived from a variety of rock types, well-drained and typically found on slopes) at roughly 2,800 acres. There are approximately 1,000 acres of Arroyo Seco Gravelly Sandy Loam (coarse and gravelly calcareous loam, well-drained} and 500 acres of Placentia Sandy Loam (fine, granitic alluvial soil, moderate to well-drained). The balance is an assortment of 25 different soils.

Vineyard Acres: 6,100

Primary Grape Varieties: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay

AVA Organization: Wine Artisans of the Santa Lucia Highlands

A Selection of Significant Vineyards

Boekenoogen Vineyard - This vineyard was planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 1998 on what had been the family's cattle ranch since 1870. Their winery, completed in 2007, is on site.

Doctor's Vineyard - Owned by Hahn Estate, the vineyard includes 193 acres of Pinot Noir (Calera, 115 and 113 clones). There is 46 acres Syrah, mostly at the western (highest) end of the vineyard and 4 acres of Malbec near a small, central reservoir.

Garys’ Vineyard - The 50-acre Garys' Vineyard is in the middle of the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA. It's operated by the Gary Franscioni (Roar Wines) and Gary Pisoni families — thus Garys' not Gary's. Planted in 1997, it's holds Pinot Noir (Pisoni clone) and Syrah on Arroyo Seco Sandy Loam.

Lone Oak Vineyard - A 146-acre vineyard in north-central SLH owned by Hahn Estate. It includes 98 acres of Chardonnay, 28 acres of Pinot Gris and  20 acres of Pinot Noir on Chualar Loam.


McIntyre Vineyard - The oldest Pinot Noir vines in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA are found in McIntyre Vineyard's 80-acre certified-sustainable plot. They are 37 acres of own-rooted "Heritage clone" Pinot planted by the McFarland family in 1973. Steve McIntyre bought the land in March, 1987. Now there are also 10 acres of clones 115 and 777 Pinot Noir as well as 13 acres of Chardonnay clones(96 and 76). McIntyre vineyard lies in the central portion of the AVA, immediately adjacent to Foothill Road.

Mer Soleil Vineyard - Named for the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA's two hallmark characteristics — sea and sun — the Mer Soleil Vineyard lies at the northernmost extent of the appellation. Its owners, the Wagner family (Belle Glos, Caymus, Conundrum, Meiomi), believe that Chardonnay couldn't ripen any farther north in the valley because the cold Monterey Bay's influence would be too great. The vineyard was founded in 1988 and consists mostly of Chardonnay but also features white Rhone varieties.

Paraiso Vineyard - Paraiso Vineyard is one of the largest in the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA at 400 acres, 254 under vine. It is located in the southern portion of the appellation, downhill and east of the Pisoni Vineyard. Founded in 1973 and is certified sustainable. It's varietal mix is Pinot Noir (117 acres), Chardonnay (66), Riesling (43), Syrah (19), Souzao (7), Roussanne (1) and Viognier (0.5).

Pisoni Vineyard - The reknowned Pisoni Vineyard, first planted with 5 acres of Pinot Noir in 1982, now consists of 45 acres made up of several blocks with differing aspects, altitudes and viticultural regimes interspersed among unaltered acreage. At 1,300 feet it is the highest vineyard in the AVA. It is also the second-furthest south. The soil is decomposed granite with some gravelly loam, hard to plant but well-draining. The Pisoni vineyard includes Pinot Noir (some own-rooted), Chardonnay and Syrah. There had been Cabernet Sauvignon as well, but that was recently transitioned to Chardonnay
.
Rosella’s Vineyard - 50 acres planted in 1996 on Arroyo Seco Sandy Loam. Almost entirely Pinot Noir (Pisoni and Dijon 777) with a bit of Syrah, it's located between the Lone Oak and La Estancia vineyards, just north of Garys'. Operated by Gary Franscioni.

Sierra Mar Vineyard - Sierra Mar is located at 1,000 feet elevation, six miles south of the Garys' Vineyard. It was planted in 2007 to Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Viognier on decomposed granite and gravelly loam by the Franscionis.

Smith & Hook Vineyards - A 254-acre vineyard tandem owned by Hahn Estate. It is planted to Pinot Noir (134 acres) Chardonnay (57), Malbec (29), Merlot (21), Syrah (10) and Grenache Noir (2). The Hahn Estates winery and tasting room is within the Smith Vineyard.

Sleepy Hollow Vineyards - The Sleepy Hollow Vineyard is actually three separate parcels (West, South and North), all owned by Talbott. They total 565 acrea and are all located in the northern part of the Santa Lucia Highlands. The North block is 115 acres, stretching from River Road to the base of the hills. It is almost entirely Chardonnay planted on Chualar  Loam, but there is a little bit of Pinot Noir too. The Talbott Winery is located in this block as well. The West block is immediately south of the North and somewhat larger. It reaches farther into the hills but only halfway to the road. The West block is about 60% Pinot Noir, 35% Riesling and 5% Chardonnay. The South block is a short drive down River Road. It's slighly larger than the West block and nearly evenly split between Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Soberanes Vineyard — A new, 35-acre vineyard operated by the Garys'. Planted in 2008 it includes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah, the latter sourced from John Alban. The soil is Arroyo Seco Sandy Loam.

Tondré Grapefield - Founded in 1997, it includes seven blocks and a total of 100 acres all devoted to Pinot Noir.
 

Tasting Rooms within the AVA

Boekenoogen - The winery is open for tasting, noon - 4pm, Saturdays and Sundays.

Hahn Estate - Open daily.

Manzoni - Open Friday - Sunday, 11am - 5pm

Paraiso - Open daily from 11am to 4pm and until 5pm on weekends.

Pessagno - Open daily from 11am to 4pm and until 5pm on weekends

Talbott Vineyards - The winery tasting room is open Thursday through Monday.

Wrath - Open Friday - Monday, 11am - 5pm.

Accommodations

There are motels very near the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA in the towns of Gonzales and Soledad. However, many people prefer to stay in the much larger town of Salinas, 27 miles north, or at one of the many resort hotels around Carmel-by-the-Sea, 34 miles to the west.


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This article is original to NorCalWine.com. Copyright 2011 NorCal Wine. All rights reserved.