Wine & Beer

Many Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir wines too ripe and heavy

Laurie Daniel
Laurie Daniel

The Santa Lucia Highlands appellation is Monterey County’s most celebrated location for wine, and its reputation was built on rich, dramatic pinot noir. Pinots from producers like Pisoni, Roar, Siduri and Testarossa are highly sought after.

I taste pinots from a few producers in the appellation on a regular basis, but it has been a few years since I had attended the annual tasting held by the Santa Lucia Highlands Wine Artisans. More than 30 wineries were represented at the tasting in Carmel Valley, and most of them make pinot noir, so it was an opportunity to get a wider view of what’s happening in the appellation. Most pinots were from 2013 and 2014.

There’s little question that fans of ripe, bold pinots will love these wines. But I was dismayed by how many of them were ripe and heavy, without much freshness or charm. And this from an appellation that’s marked by its moderate climate.

The Santa Lucia Highlands is an 18-mile-long strip of land that climbs up the western edge of the Salinas Valley into the lower slopes of the Santa Lucia Mountains. Temperatures vary along the length of the appellation: The northern end is just 16 miles from chilly Monterey Bay, so it’s colder and foggier than the south. Afternoon winds from the bay whip down the valley most afternoons and cool the entire appellation. A number of winemakers have told me that the grapes have such high acidity that they have to wait for levels to drop before they pick.

Maybe some of them shouldn’t have waited so long. Admittedly, 2014 was a warmer vintage. But wineries like Morgan, Testarossa and McIntyre managed to make pinots that are lively and balanced. What happened elsewhere?

Among the highlights from the 2014 vintage were the spicy 2014 Morgan “Twelve Clones” Pinot Noir ($34) and the more powerful 2014 Morgan from Garys’ Vineyard ($60); the structured yet pretty 2014 McIntyre Estate Pinot Noir ($42); and the lively, spicy 2014 Lucia Pinot Noir ($45). The 2014 Testarossa Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($45) is plump and lively, while the same winery’s 2014 from Dos Rubios Vineyard ($64) is more structured.

A few wineries were showing 2013 pinots. The 2013 August West Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noir ($32) exhibited nice freshness, while the 2013 August West Pinot Noir from Peterson Vineyard ($45) added a touch of forest floor to its pretty fruit. The 2013 Wrath Pinot Noir from Boekenoogen Vineyard ($49) has ample bright fruit and a subtle leafy note, and the 2013 Wrath McIntyre Vineyard Pinot Noir ($49) is quite aromatic and supple.

As you can see, a lot of Santa Lucia Highlands pinot noir, especially the single-vineyard bottlings, have gotten very pricey. But there are still some decent values to be had, like the 2013 Talbott “Logan” Pinot Noir ($28), a structured wine with spicy raspberry and cherry flavors, and the 2014 Luli Pinot Noir ($25), which displays pretty strawberry, cherry and spice, along with firm tannins.

Pick of the Week

Eberle 2014 Cotes-du-Robles ($28) Mourvedre and grenache dominate in this Rhone-style red blend from Paso Robles. The wine is lively, spicy and easy to drink, with strawberry and raspberry fruit and fine tannins.