I feel like Monterey is one of the most under-rated AVAs in California. In fact I just got into a heated discussion with someone about whether or not the minutiae of the appellations (in regards to soil, climate, etc) vary as greatly as the famed Napa Valley. Not really a fair question — two different regions with two completely different things going on geographically. Take the Santa Lucia Highlands — most notably affected by its proximity to the Monterey Bay and Pacific Ocean. And while they’re no Mayacamas Mountains, the vineyards of the Highlands, planted along terraces of the Santa Lucia mountain range, can reach to as high as 3,000 feet in elevation. Thus it seems obvious to say that vineyards planted way up high facing the water are going to have their own unique microclimate compared to those even just a few hundred feet below them facing the opposite direction. So are their as many variances in Monterey’s SLH as the craggy mountain rages of Napa? Probably not. It’s a smaller appellation, but the variances here are no less important.
Fun Fact: The Santa Lucia Highlands is home to one of the vineyards named a California “Grand Cru” by Wine Enthusiast Magazine, recognizing that this location can produce some of the highest-quality wine grapes.
The Santa Lucia Highlands in particular is quite a cool climate, encouraging both early bud break and a late harvest. Thus, it is best suited for the grape most planted to it — Pinot Noir, who requires such a lengthy growing season. It’s also the ideal climate to produce some of the most structurally sound Chardonnay, whose ease of growth in various climates and soils is commonly misunderstood. Here, the grape has time to fully develop its sugars as well as its tannins, and when a winemaker from the SLH chooses to age on the lees, lengthening skin contact, it can be a thing of beauty once the wine is developed and ready to drink.
Of course, as mentioned, vines are planted on a slope, and for that reason the soil types vary by elevation. The combination of soils include sandy loam, gravel, and granite — meaning the majority of the land is well-drained, forcing the vines to work for their nutrients. What this means is that resulting grapes will be a bit denser, skins a bit firmer, and wines more hearty than those found in warmer climate or nutrient-rich soils.
A Taste of Monterey:
Testarossa 2014 Cuvée Los Gatos Chardonnay
Hahn SLH 2015 Chardonnay
Red Stitch Single Vineyard Pinot Noir
Mer Soleil Santa Lucia Higlands Reserve Chardonnay 2014
Hahn Wines 2015 SLH Pinot Noir