Santa Lucia Highlands


So, My Readers, today I present the annual “50 Great Wines” in the edition for 2012. Why 50? It’s a nice comfortable round number, but it also makes me work hard to determine those 50 great selections.

I reviewed 642 wines on this blog in 2012, so 50 choices represent only 7.78 percent of the wines I reviewed. Wines that I rated as “Exceptional” automatically make the cut. In 2012, I ranked 16 wines “Exceptional,” or only 2.5 percent of all the wines I reviewed. How did I ascertain the other 34 wines? That’s where the task got difficult. I read all the reviews of wines that I rated “Excellent” and wrote down the names of 68 that seemed promising, but of course that was already way too many wines; I had to eliminate half of that list. I went back through the reviews and looked for significant words or phrases like “an exciting wine” or “a beautiful expression of its grapes” or “epitomizes my favorite style” or “I flat-out loved this wine,” terms that would set a wine apart from others in similar genres or price ranges, even though they too were rated “Excellent.” By exercising such intricate weighing and measuring, by parsing and adjusting, by, frankly, making some sacrifices, I came to the list of wines included here, but I’ll admit that as I went over this post again and again, checking spelling and diacritical markings and illustrations, there were omissions that I regretted. You get to a point, however, where you can’t keep second-guessing yourself.

Notice that I don’t title this post “50 Greatest Wines” or “50 Best Wines.” That would be folly, just as I think it’s folly when the slick wine publications select one wine — out of 15,000 — as the best of the year. The wines honored in this post are, simply, 50 great wines, determined by my taste and palate, that I encountered and reviewed in 2012. Some of them are expensive; some are hard to find. You’ll be pleasantly surprised, though, at how many of them are under $40 or even in the $20 range; the price of a wine can be immaterial to its quality, and I mean that in both the positive and the negative aspects. Where I know the case limitation, I make note. With wines that are, for example, chardonnay or pinot noir, you can count on them being 100 percent varietal; in other cases, I mention the blend or make-up of the wine if I think it’s necessary.

Coming in a few days: “25 Great Bargains of 2012.”
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Amapola Creek Cuvée Alis 2009, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County. 55 percent syrah, 45 percent grenache. 95 cases. Exceptional. About $48.
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Archery Summit Looney Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Ribbon Ridge, Willamette Valley, Oregon. Excellent. About $85.
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Black Dog Cellars Chardonnay 2010, Sonoma Coast. Excellent. About $25.
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Bonny Doon Bien Nacido Vineyard X Block Syrah 2007, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Barbara County. 573 cases. Excellent. About $42.
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Champagne Françoise Bedel Entre Ciel et Terre Brut. Excellent. About $75.
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Biondi-Santi Brunello di Montalcino 2005, Tuscany, Italy. 100 percent sangiovese. Exceptional. About $149.
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Chalone Estate Chenin Blanc 2011, Chalone, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $25.
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Chamisal Estate Pinot Noir 2010, Edna Valley, San Luis Obispo County. Excellent. About $40.
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M. Chapoutier Chante-Alouette 2007, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne grapes. 350 six-packs imported. Exceptional. About $92.
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M. Chapoutier De L’Orée 2008, Hermitage blanc, Rhone Valley, France. 100 percent marsanne. 40 six-packs imported. Exceptional, About $190.
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Cima Collina Tondre Grapefield Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $48.
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Etude Pinot Noir 2009, Carneros. Excellent. About $42.
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Ferrari-Carano Prevail West Face 2007, Alexander Valley, Sonoma County. 61 percent cabernet sauvignon, 39 percent syrah. Excellent. About $55.
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Foley Rancho Santa Rosa Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Rita Hills, Santa Barbara County. Excellent. About $40.
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Foursight Charles Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County. Excellent. About $46.
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Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir 2009, Russian River Valley, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $42.
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Dr. Hermann Erdener Treppchen Riesling Kabinett 2009, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $23.
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Hidden Ranch 55% Slope Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Sonoma County. Excellent. About $45.
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Kelly Fleming Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Oakville District, Napa Valley. 540 cases. Excellent. About $30.
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Domaine Michel Lafarge Meursault 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $44-$48.
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La Follette Van Der Kamp Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Sonoma Mountain. 429 cases. Excellent. About $40.
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Lasseter Enjoué 2011, Sonoma Valley. 73 percent syrah, 24 mourvèdre, 3 grenache. A superior rosé. 570 cases. Excellent. About $24.
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Champagne David Léclapart L’Amateur Premier Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut, non-vintage. Exceptional. About $83.
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Lenné Estate Pinot Noir 2008, Yamhill-Carlton District, Willamette Valley, Oregon. 491 cases. Excellent. About $55.
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Chateau La Louvière 2009, Pessac-Lèognan, Bordeaux, France. 85 percent sauvignon blanc, 15 percent semillon. Excellent. About $42.
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Manzoni Vineyards Home Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. 494 cases. Excellent. About $26.
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Max Ferd. Richter Veldenzer Elisenberg Riesling Kabinett 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $19.
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Mayacamas Chardonnay 2009, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $30.
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McCay Cellars Jupiter Zinfandel 2009, Lodi. 449 cases. Excellent. About $28.
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Domaine Pierre Morey Pommard Grands Epenots Premier Cru 2009, Burgundy. Excellent. About $85.
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Newton “The Puzzle” 2008, Spring Mountain District, Napa Valley. 42 percent merlot, 36 cabernet sauvignon, 14 cabernet franc, 6 petit verdot, 2 malbec. Excellent. About $80.
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Nicolas Joly Clos de La Bergerie 2009, Savennières-Roches-aux-Moines, Loire Valley, France. 100 percent chenin blanc. 580 cases. Exceptional. About $45-$60.
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Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, Monterey County. Exceptional. About $42.
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Pfendler Pinot Noir 2010, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County. 250 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Phifer Pavitt Date Night Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. 372 cases. Exceptional. About $75.
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Piocho 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. From Margerum Wine Co. 58 percent merlot, 22 cabernet sauvignon, 18 cabernet franc, 2 petit verdot. 570 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Quivira Fig Tree Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma County. 862 cases. Excellent. About $22.
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Sea-Fog Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Napa Valley. 380 cases. Excellent. About $25.
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Shafer Hillside Select 2007, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $225.
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Shafer Merlot 2009, Napa Valley. With 7 percent cabernet sauvignon and 1 percent malbec. Exceptional. About $48.
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Signorello Estate Cabernet Sauvignon 2009, Napa Valley. With 12 percent cabernet franc. 381 cases. Excellent. About $75. Date on label is one year behind.
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Robert Sinskey Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2011, Los Carneros. Another superior rosé to drink all year. Excellent. About $28.
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Spotted Owl Chardonnay 2010, Mount Veeder, Napa Valley. Inaugural release of this winery’s chardonnay. 120 cases. Exceptional. About $45.
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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars S.L.V. Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, Napa Valley. Exceptional. About $125.
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St. Clement Oroppas Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Napa Valley. With 10 percent merlot, 2 petit verdot and 1 cabernet franc. Excellent. About $55.
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Domaine André et Mireille Tissot La Graviers Chardonnay 2010, Arbois, France. 552 cases. Excellent. About $26-$30. Label is two years out of date.
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Tudal Family Winery Clift Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2008, Oak Knoll District, Napa Valley. 295 cases. Excellent. About $50.
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Tenuta di Valgiano 2008, Colline Luccesi, Tuscany. 60 percent sangiovese, 20 merlot, 20 syrah. Excellent. About $55-$60.
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Vieux Télégraphe “La Crau” 2009, Chateauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone Valley, France. 65 percent grenache, 15 mourvèdre, 15 syrah 5 cinsault, clairette “and others.” Excellent. About $85.
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Villa Huesgen Schiefen Riesling Trocken 2010, Mosel, Germany. Excellent. About $35.
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One of the criteria for the Wine of the Week, besides being a good example of a wine in its style, quality and price, is availability. Obviously it would not do to recommend a bottle to my readers as the Wine of the Week and conclude by writing, “Oh, by the way, only 137 cases were produced, so good luck, suckers!” As much, then, as I would like to have made the Morgan Double L Vineyard Riesling 2011, Santa Lucia Highlands, a Wine of the Week, I could not in good conscience do that, considering the minuscule amount of the wine there is. If, however, you run across the Morgan Double L Vineyard Riesling 2011, do not hesitate to buy as much as possible. This is the second vintage for the winery’s venture into the riesling grape. The color is pale straw-gold; enticing aromas of ripe pears and peaches offer hints of lychee and apricot nectar and, after a few minutes in the glass, orange zest and orange blossom, lightly traced with cloves. The wine is clean, fresh and lively — no oak is involved — silky and supple, delicately sweet initially but succumbing to a cool bracing breeze of damp limestone and savory salt-marsh elements. Then, to complete the progress of its tasty yet spare citrus and roasted pear flavors, comes a finish imbued with flint and the slight bitterness of grapefruit pith and apple skin. 10.5 percent alcohol. The vineyard is certified organic. Winemaker is Gianni Abate. We drank part of the bottle one night with turkey and dressing and gravy leftovers and another night with pasta in a carrot greens-and-almond pesto with diced yellow peppers. Production was 210 cases; see, I told ya. Excellent. Abut $22, and Worth a Search.

A sample for review.

The influence of geography and geology on vineyards, grapes and ultimately a bottle of wine is inestimable. In fact, geology and geography form the Alpha and the Omega of the biological foundation and agricultural process that in collaboration with weather — born itself of geographical and stratospheric principles — pump life into dormant vines, unfurl the leaves and encourage the buds, plump the grapes and bring them to fullness so they may be harvested and turned into wine. It’s not a magical or miraculous occurrence; aside from weather, which is the most variable factor in the tapestry, the elements of geography and geology change little over hundreds of thousands of years. (Global warming and climate change are different issues.)

Monterey County nestles against the Pacific Ocean, slanting to the southeast away from Monterey Bay, where it begins. You might picture, if you will, a flat valley, the Salinas Valley, the runs from the northwest to the the southeast between mountain ranges, the Santa Lucia Range to the west and the Galiban and San Benito ranges to the east. The Salinas Valley, a broad flatland, acts as a wind tunnel, drawing wind currents down from Monterey Bay, home to one of the world’s unique oceanographic features, the so-called Blue Grand Canyon, a name trademarked by the Monterey County Vintners and Growers Association. Whatever it’s called, this two-mile-deep (from the surface of Monterey Bay) and 60-mile-long trench in the ocean floor, located less than 100 yards off the coast, generates a colossal amount of cold air that influences the climate of Monterey’s vineyard regions as far south as San Lucas, where the Salinas Valley peters out. As you can see from this relief map, most of Monterey County — the county line is pink — is mountains; the Salinas Valley spikes down between the ranges. The light green area toward the bottom, surmounted by what look like bunny ears, is the San Antonio Valley. (Map from landwatch.org)

The entire valley and the foothills of its adjacent mountain ranges are filled with fog from early morning to late morning or early afternoon, when rising temperatures click on the wind tunnel effect and winds of up to 30 miles per hour begin to churn from the bay down through the valley. The resulting Thermal Rainbow — another trademark — regulates temperatures from the bay, where it’s coolest, down through the Salinas Valley all the way to the Hames and San Antonio AVAs, where the temperature is the warmest, sometimes to a differential of 40 degrees. In the cooler areas, pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah and riesling vines flourish; farther south, the vineyards hold cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel and some Rhone Valley grape varieties. The climate of the Central Coast and Salinas Valley is characterized as Mediterranean, meaning dry summers and cool, wet winters, though “wet” is a relative terms for a region where the rainfall averages 17 inches annually, and that’s between November and April. (The image above shows the Panorama Vineyard at the western edge of Arroyo Seco AVA, looking toward the Santa Lucia Range.)

Monterey County is an American Viticultural Area, so designated in 1984, but that doesn’t mean that you can plant grapes anywhere in the county and expect to say so on the label. The Monterey AVA is restricted to the narrow, central part of the county as well as an arm that reaches to the coast around Carmel. Lying along or within the Monterey AVA are eight smaller appellations, some of which are much better known than others: Chalone (1982), high above Soledad in the Gabilan hills below Pinnacles National Monument, home to one winery, Chalone Estate, and two other vineyards, 300 acres planted; Carmel Valley (1983), with five wineries and 300 acres of vines; the crowded Arroyo Seco (1983), with 37 wineries and vineyards and 7000 acres of vines; the seldom seen San Lucas (1987), home to eight vineyards that total 8,000 acres; the increasingly prestigious Santa Lucia Highlands (1991), with 29 vineyards and wineries and 5,900 planted acres; the also seldom seen Hames Valley AVA (1994), with eight vineyards totaling 2,200 acres; San Bernabe (2004), whose raison d’etre is 4,300 acres of vines owned by Delicato Family Vineyards; and the vast and largely empty San Antonio Valley (2006), which boasts three wineries and another vineyard totaling 600 acres.

My concern today (and in a subsequent post), after this introduction, is Santa Lucia Highlands, a long, narrow and increasingly populated AVA that over the past two decades has built a solid reputation for wines made from (especially) chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. SLH perches along the eastern terrace of the Santa Lucia Range, on the west side of the Salinas Valley, looking across to the distant Chalone AVA and Pinnacles National Monument (see accompanying image, from santaluciahighlands.com). From any vantage point or dizzy coign, the valley spreads northwest and southeast in a fertile quilt-like patchwork of various intense green hues, the country’s abundant basket of lettuce, cabbage and other leafy vegetables, that would not be possible without irrigation. SLH benefits from its semi-lofty placement on the escarpment — vineyards go from about 300 to 1,400-feet-elevation — where morning fog from Monterey Bay brings moisture and late morning sun and afternoon winds dry the grapes; the cool winds also slow photosynthesis, ensuring a long, even ripening of the grapes. Soil is primarily fine alluvial sandy or gravelly loam.

I’ll look today at SLH products from two young (or youngish) winemakers, Sabrine Rodems at Wrath Wines (she also has some Monterey AVA wines) and Chris Weidemann, who owns Pelerin Wines. A post coming next week (at a rough estimate) will discuss Figge Cellars, Tudor, Boekenoogan and Hahn Estate’s Lucienne single-vineyard pinot noirs. All of these wines were tasted on a sponsored trip to Monterey during the second week of September.
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Sabrine Rodems is fast-talking, brash, opinionated, animated, funny and sincere and totally dedicated to making authentic wines with balance, integrity, grace and no small measure of power. As winemaker for Wrath Wines — formerly San Saba Vineyards –she produces very limited quantities of chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, pinot noir and syrah under three labels: Ex Anima Wines, Winemaker Series and Single Vineyard Series.

The Wrath Ex Anima Sauvignon Blanc 2011, Monterey, practically climbs out of the glass with its brash bright notes of green apple, grapefruit and gooseberry and hints of fresh-mown grass; made all in stainless steel, this is very clean, crisp and tart, with appealing personality and mineral grip. 12.9 percent alcohol. Very Good+. About $19. The Wrath 3 Clone Chardonnay 2010, Monterey, goes the whole route: barrel-fermentation, 10 months in “40 or 50 percent” (Rodems said) new French oak and full malolactic; almost miraculously, the result is not overwhelming richness but exquisite balance, lovely heft, density and texture, reams of spice-infused apple, grapefruit and pineapple scents and flavors heightened by a trace of jasmine and deepened by shimmering limestone and flint minerality. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.

The Ex Anima Pinot Noir 2010, Monterey, aged 10 months in a combination of stainless steel tanks and two-to-four-year-old French oak; no window-dressing here, this is all pinot noir purity and intensity, cleanness and freshness, with clove-and-cola- inflected raspberry and red currant scents and flavors, a sleek satiny texture and invigorating acidity that cuts a swath on the palate. 13 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $25. Rodems makes a pinot noir from the Boekenoogan Vineyard (about which more later); the version for 2010, Santa Lucia Highlands, reveals a bit more obvious hand with oak, but the wine is essentially well-balanced, smooth, suave and polished. 14.5 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $49.

Finally, the Wrath Fairview Vineyard Syrah 2009, Santa Lucia Highlands, offers all the blackberry and blueberry fruit, baking spice and black pepper and potpourri you could ask for in a supple package bolstered by plenty of dusty, briery tannins and earthy graphite-like minerality. 14.6 percent alcohol. Excellent. About $35.
__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________ Sometimes you encounter wines that seem such an embodiment of grace and elegance, purity and integrity that you would like to drink them forever. It’s fitting that the labels of Chris Weidemann’s Pelerin Wines feature the profile of an elderly pilgrim depicted as if part of an ancient mural; that sense of classical decorum and timelessness is intrinsic in Weidemann’s wines, all of which carry the Santa Lucia Highlands designation. He specializes in chardonnay, pinot noir and red and white Rhone Valley grape varieties and produces about 2,200 cases annually.

The Pelerin Paraiso Vineyard Les Tournesols 2010 is a blend of 58 percent viognier and 42 percent roussanne grapes; the wine spent six months in neutral oak barrels, that is, barrels used several times before. What a completely lovely, perfectly balanced wine, with notes of jasmine, fig, melon and roasted lemon and a hint of lime peel and limestone; audacious acidity and a firm but limpid limestone element support a structure and texture of beguiling shading and dimension. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2014. Excellent. About $27. The Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Chardonnay 2010 offers a bright gold color and grapefruit-pineapple scents and flavors that hint at the tropical without falling into the trap of overstatement or ungovernable ripeness; it’s a beautifully balanced and harmonious chardonnay, smooth, subtle and supple but with an edge of spice and flint, ginger and quince that raises the level of discourse a notch or two. 14.4 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Excellent. About $42.

People often say, “Words fail,” an assertion I find ridiculous, because words and language are adequate for all purposes; it’s not the words that fail, it’s us and our imaginations. So, words don’t fail at the prospect of describing the Pelerin Sierra Mar Vineyard Pinot Noir 2009, but they certainly stand rather awe-struck. Not that there’s anything super-dimensional about the wine; just the opposite, and if you’re weary of pinot noir wines from California that push the limits with extraction and richness and ripeness and alcohol, then this pinot noir is what you have been longing for. The fruit profile is red and blue, as in red currants and plums and blueberries with a hint of the tartness of cranberries and notes of cola and cloves; supple, satiny, yes, but spare, elegant and understated, except for the essential crisply-etched acidity that plows a row on the palate and a seemingly fathoms-deep element of graphite-like minerality and earthy briers and brambles, all this panoply subdued in honor of divine harmony. 14.5 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 or ’15. Exceptional. About $42.

Finally, the Pelerin Paraiso Vineyard Les Violettes Syrah 2008 is a model of balance, purity, intensity and utter drinkablility, yet behind that sapid facade, with its tasty black and blue fruit flavors, lingers a savory bastion of tar and tapenade, leather, black pepper and graphite. 14.3 percent alcohol. Now through 2014 to ’16. Excellent. About $36.
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Morgan Winery was not on the agenda for the small group that I traveled around Monterey County with in the middle of September, but keeping with the spirit of that trip and with the day we spent in the Santa Lucia Highlands appellation, I’ll make the Wine of the Week the Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir 2010, the grapes for which were drawn from the winery’s own Double L Vineyard — 56 percent — and from several other vineyards in Santa Lucia, including Tondre Grapefield and Gary’s. The winery was founded by Dan Morgan Lee and Donna Lee in 1982; winemaker since 2005 has been Gianni Abate. The wine is named for the 12 original pinot noir clones in the Double L Vineyard, though now there are 14.

The Morgan Twelve Clones Pinot Noir 2010 offers a seductive color of medium ruby-cerise with a touch of magenta at the rim; the bouquet is a welter of cloves and sassafras, spiced and macerated red and black currants and cherries with a back-note of plum and deeper hints of briers and brambles The wine aged 10 months in French oak, 36 percent new barrels, the rest one- and two-years-old, and you feel that wood slightly in the wine’s subtle and supple nature, because this is, above all, beautifully balanced and integrated, though clean acidity cuts a swath and keeps this pinot noir bright and lively, while a satiny texture wraps all elements. Black and red fruit flavors are buoyed by a hint of graphite minerality and potpourri; the finish is long and packed with spice and foresty touches and just a hint of oak’s austerity. 13.9 percent alcohol. The winery made 10,000 cases, so there’s plenty to go around. Now through 2014 or ’15, with roasted chicken or grilled salmon, or, what the hell, a grilled cheese sandwich. Excellent. About $32.

A sample for review.

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