When identifying the key elements that make fine Pinot Noir anywhere in the world, growers and producers of the best wines tend to start with enraptured discussions of their sense of place – the spot in the world, region, vineyard, hillside and even row of vines that create the potential for making magical wines. The litany can be heard from the Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy, to the Central Otago region of New Zealand, to the Dundee Hills and other viticultural areas in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and the Russian River Valley in California. The sense of place includes the terroir, as the French call it, where cataclysmic changes, sometimes over millions of years, have created the perfect spot for growing this fickle grape (Burgundy sat under a shallow sea in the Jurassic era, which contributed to its ultimate quality).
To that, add the influence of weather, vineyard practices and winemaking philosophy. With the latter, the goal for producers of the finest Pinot Noir is to allow the wines to sing for themselves in harmony, without too many distracting voices from the potential supporting players of oak aging, acid adjustments and alcohol boosts (adding sugar, or chaptelization). This takes us to a relatively new area just inland from Monterey Bay in Northern California, Santa Lucia Highlands.
The first modern plantings began there in the early 1970s. Success led to new plantings in 1980s and 1990s. The twelve mile- long, raised benchland above the Salinas River received approval as an official American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1991.
The winemakers of the Santa Lucia Highlands are enthusiastic about their sense of place. To quote from their literature: “For the SLH, that sense of place stems from its elevated, mountainside perch and its close proximity to the cold waters of Monterey Bay.”
Their vineyards stretch along the Santa Lucia mountain range above the Salinas River Valley. The winemakers talk about the cooling influence of nearby Monterey Bay. Fog and wet winds create a cool climate and long growing season, which the winemakers believe helps the Chardonnay and even the difficult Pinot Noir grapes grow to the desired ripeness. During a recent trade tasting in San Diego, a dozen wineries showed off their latest creations. Many of the wines exhibited distinct varietal personalities, with hints of earth, minerals and black fruit in the background. Some of our favorites during the tasting:
· Hahn, 2010, SLH Estate Chardonnay, $25. Big oaky nose (28 percent new oak); vanilla; fruit; round, ripe, long finish.
· Hahn, 2010, SLH Estate Pinot Noir, $35. Cherries and wood in the nose; mid-body; soft velvet finish.
· Lucienne, 2009, “Doctor’s” Pinot Noir, $50. Burgundian in style; smoky, stemmy, earthy nose; round, ripe, good fruit, long finish. Tied for first in our scoring.
· Pessagno, 2010 Lucia Highlands’ Vineyard Chardonnay, $22. Light oak nose (40 percent new); varietal subtleties; crisp, good acids; balanced finish. Food wine.
· Pessagno, 2009 Lucia Highlands’ Vineyard Pinot Noir, $28. Complex, stemmy nose (30 percent whole clusters in fermentation); mid-body; good balance of acids and tannins; a distinct style; rustic.
· Pessagno, 2009 Four Boys Vineyard Pinot Noir, $55. Big stemmy, earthy nose (La Tache clones in the vineyard); big body (14.9 alc.); a mouthful; needs some time.
· Testarossa, 2010 “Doctor’s Vineyard” Pinot Noir, $59. Stemmy, smoky, tobacco and wood nose (40 percent new oak); decent tannins; a bit soft for its age; nice finish.
· Testarossa, 2010 “Fogstone Vineyard” Pinot Noir, $59. Stemmy, varietal nose; round, ripe, mid-high viscosity, long velvety finish. First place tie for our favorite of this tasting.
· Testarossa, 2010 SLH Pinot Noir, $39. Blend from Doctor’s, Dos Rubious and Fogstone. Gamey, earthy nose; vanilla (40 percent new oak); mid-body; soft, fruity, lighter style. Drinkable now; food wine.