After tasting the Theopolis Vineyards 2015 Yorkville Highlands Pinot Noir, I was absolutely curious to try Theodora’s take on the grapes from Santa Lucia Highland. While both Yorkville and Santa Lucia are mountainous regions whose climates and terroir are affected by their proximity to the ocean, my lone experience with the Yorkville expression of Pinot Noir could not have been more different than my multiple experiences of the grapes from SLH. So to taste the juxtaposition from this talented winemaker was both a treat and an educational experience.
Hahn is a household name. And it should be, as the Hahn family were basically the founding vintners of Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highland AVA. Nicolaus (Nicky) and Gaby Hahn purchased their plot of SLH and planted their first vines in the 1970s, celebrating their first vintage in 1980, and in 1991 “Nicky led the charge to establish SLH as an American Viticultural Area.” Today the Hahn estate includes 650 acres of sustainably farmed vineyards.
Though you may find these wines at your local shops, you should know that Hahn is still a family owned and operated winery, with Nicky and Gaby’s son Philip at the helm. And it’s that personal, familial touch that makes these oh-so-accessible wines oh-so-special.
The Santa Lucia Highlands can create some interesting wines — from almost meaty Pinot Noir, to downright angry Syrah. The Hahn SLH Chardonnay hails from higher elevation vineyards that reach, at top level, 1,200 feet and are planted atop sandy loam soils. Sitting neatly above the fog line and amongst the well-draining soil, the Chardonnay receives ample amount of sunlight and receive just enough water to force the vines to work. The result is good, fully ripened fruit bursting at the seams to become wine. But the expression in that wine, well, that depends on the winemaker…
Known for their cool-climate Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays harvested predominantly from Monterey County’s Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, Hahn Family Wines is probably most commonly associated with their casual, supermarket-find wines — the ‘SLH’ and eponymous ‘Hahn’ labeled wines. But what many don’t know is that the still family-owned vineyard and winery takes great care to sustainably manage their four SLH estate vineyards — and with Paul Clifton at the winemaking helm, also produce limited releases of beautifully refined single-vineyard Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
I recently had the pleasure of spending a few days in Monterey County, diving deep into the unique terroir of the Santa Lucia Highlands, and getting to know more about the Hahn family legacy and — of course — their wines.
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.