A few weeks back, I was treated to an enlightening appellation-specific tasting of Santa Lucia Highlands wines courtesy of the host, Hahn Family Wines. Santa Lucia Highlands sit on the southeast facing slopes of the Santa Lucia mountain range, on one side of the plentiful Salinas Valley. I made the somewhat significant trek down there with my trusty vinopanions, the Brix Chicks‘ Liza (Twitter) and Xandria (Twitter). I hadn’t been down in the area since I was but a wee lad, noshing with me folks, so it was a treat to see the Valley again. It was in all of its late Spring splendor and we enjoyed taking in the bountiful scents of the fruits and vegetables growing near the highway.
While grapes were grown here as far back as the 18th century by the incoming Spanish missionaries, the appellation began to take a more formal shape with the vineyard plantings in the 70’s. These were led by Nicky Hahn of Smith & Hook and now also Hahn Family Wines, Paraiso, Estancia and the McFarland family with their Sleepy Hollow Vineyard. The appellation is characterized by these sloping vineyards with varying elevation, good draining sandy loam soils and good early morning sunlight with a very significant maritime influence in the form of maritime fog and breezes. All of these culminate in warm days and cool nights, allowing for the the fruit to take its time to reach full maturity, yet cooling off well enough at night to maintain food-friendly acidity…what does this sound like to you? Yep…Pinot & Chard!
The SLH appellation has been growing in notoriety as a Pinot-haven for most of the last decade. Indeed, soon after being drawn up by Nicky Hahn and then approved as an appellation in 1995, the area exploded in popularity for its Burgundian varietals. It was the year 1997, and Wine Spectator‘s Per-Henrik Mansson gave an extremely elite 100 point rating to the 1990 Talbott Sleepy Hollow Vineyard Chardonnay during a back-vintage tasting. Now there are a number of famous vineyards that also include Garys’, Rosella’s, Pisoni and Mer Soleil (Caymus). The SLHWA has an outstanding website that contains much of this information in many great, interactive settings including the map shown below…its’ a must-see and a good model for other appellations.
From the moment that we pulled into the Hahn Estates front entrance, I knew that the Hahn and the SLHWA knew what they were doing. We had multiple ushers guide us up the long driveway to an open parking space. As soon as we got out, the final usher was very friendly and pointed us to where we would need to check in to the event. The friendly ladies handling the guest list were also quite friendly and obviously happy to be helping out for the day. The tasting event handbook while nicely small and not too much to hang onto all day, was packed full of very useful information and much more than I’ve ever seen at *any* wine event that I’ve attended. The informative AVA map covered a full page and pointed out all of the member vineyards. All and I mean *all* of the event’s wines were not only listed, but also gave their vintage and price, quite handy when you’re trying to rapidly type in as many tasting notes into your Centro as I usually am wont to do…no need to write out the whole name of the wine! Lastly, all of the members of the appellation were also listed, with a good opening letter by the Board President, Dan Lee. This was definitely the most organized larger tasting that I’ve ever attended.
After all of that, it was finally time to try some wines! I started out right near the entrance, with a very new wine label, Wrath Wines. Coincidentally, this particular wine was tied for my favorite of the day. The label was started a couple years back by the Thomas family, who purchased the venerable San Saba Vineyard in 2007. With Brian Overhauser the accomplished house chef pouring that day from a decanter, the wine was doing phenomenal, despite being so young. The ’07 Wrath SLH Doctor’s Syrah was quite good, showing the potential of the appellation for more good cool-climate Syrah to come out of this area. It featured spicy blue fruit with cracked black pepper in the nose, followed by already silky tannins, good blue/black fruit in the mid-palate and a charred blue fruited finish. This was right up my alley!
I continued to make my way around the busy tent during this hottest part of the day. I swung by the Paraiso table to taste through their entire collection of wines, where we had stopped on the way to get directions from the helpful tasting room gal. I found the ’05 Eagle’s Perch Chard to be quite good, along with their ’07 SLH appellation Estate Pinot, but the others were bigger and more powerfully styled Pinots than I prefer. Two weeks later we would be back down in this area, however and I enjoyed a number of their other wines (to be continued…).
I reconnected briefly with Liza and Xandria right around the time that I found the two Hahn tables, one for Hahn Estates SLH wines and one for their high end Lucienne wines. I had the wonderful chance to taste the ’06 Lucienne Pinots at the 1st Bloggers’ Forum at Hahn earlier in the year and I was pretty excited to try the ’07s, that were yet to be released. Both were also doing nicely, though definitely in a young stage, with still integrating, toasty oak. The tannins and mouthfeel were just as silky, with the depth of fruit that I have now come to expect from this label. Quite good!
Here at the Lucienne table I was delighted to find a number of great Hahn folk, including Nicky Hahn, himself! I had a chance to chat a little with him as he poured me some of his wine and also reconnect with Bill Leigon (Twitter), President of Hahn Family Wines. I also met the newest member, Philip Woodrow (Twitter), the new Director of Marketing Communications.
I decided to mosey along a little more after finishing up with the Hahn peeps. Near their area was the Martin Alfaro table, where Richard Alfaro was pouring through an outstanding lineup of Pinots. I liked them all, for their medium-body, great acid and tannic structure and bright red fruit and earthiness. Good stuff, the whole lot and quite an eye-opener as to this long-standing family producer’s quality.
I began to walk here and there, hitting a single wine at each table as I tried to continue to get a good feel for what this appellation can offer. I had two great Chardonnays from Mer Soleil, the famous SLH single varietal producer, owned by Caymus. The Silver was unoaked and just a racy, minerally, citrusy fruited wonder, while the barrel fermented Estate Chard showed juicy tropical fruit and more creamy undertones, but still retained a good edge of acid.
I also decided that it was time to finally have some food, after having not eaten for virtually the entire day. We moved off towards the edge of the plateau upon which the tasting tent sat and enjoyed the afternoon breeze and incredible view. As we ate some tasty cheese and other nibbles, one of my favorite wine peeps walked up, Andy Mitchell, Director of Vineyard Operations at Hahn. We excitedly discussed the event that was coming up in two weeks and the topic of my next post, the first ever Bloggers’ Block Vineyard planting (more to come…)! Around this time the event was winding down, but not without that integral part of the Highlands…bagpipes!
Unfortunately, it was time to heed the music and head off back to the Bay. Liza, Xandria and I bid all of our new wine friends goodbye and tried to track down as many people as we could from Hahn and the SLHWA to deeply thank them for their outstanding hospitality and the chance to attend such a great wine event. While I found many of the Pinots in more of a bigger and fuller style than I normally prefer, I found a great number of incredible wines and really enjoyed almost every single vinous drop. I can’t wait to see how this appellation will continue to develop and mature, particularly the Syrahs.
Feel free to peruse the reviews below of all of the wines that I tried that hot, yet wonderfully breezy day above the stunning Salinas Valley. All of these Santa Lucia Highlands appellation wines have been tagged with “SLH2009Fling” if you would like to list them in your own WineLog. If you too, attended the tasting that day, please leave a comment and let me know about your own favorites of the day!