A trip to the Monterey Peninsula would not be complete without an excursion to the nearby wine country of the Santa Lucia Highlands. I had done the research, but it wasn’t until we actually touched down in San Francisco that our group was able to come together and figure out which day was going to work with our schedule. So I was in baggage claim, propping up suitcases and golf clubs and coats and purses with one arm, when I made the call to David at Hahn Winery, hoping he could offer us a full-fledged tour that involved more than just a tasting. David did not disappoint.
It may be due to the relative newness of the vineyards here and also to the “boutique” nature of quite a few of them, but a number of wineries in the SLH are not set up to accommodate winery tours or even tastings, instead locating their tasting rooms in places like the nearby town of Carmel Valley (not to be confused with the well-known coastal village Carmel-by-the-Sea, where you will also find an abundance of tasting rooms.). Hahn stands out for its ability to offer a variety of tours, along with an amazing view and, most of all, a well-rated selection of wines.
David said he would customize something to fit our wishes. So with that assurance, we piled our luggage into the rental car and set off for the peninsula.
Two days later we were headed to the highlands, cutting through the early morning fog on deserted highways in the rolling farmland of Salinas Valley. The Santa Lucia Highlands produce some of the finest terroir-driven Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs around and yet the wines of Monterey AVA and its sub-appellation, Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, are often unexplored by the casual wine drinker outside of California. That is changing. Monterey County was voted one of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 10 Wine Destinations of 2013, the heart of which is SLH. And it seems that with every passing year, the Santa Lucia Highlands piling up more awards and praise.
The irrigation sprinklers were still flowing as we turned off the main highway. In many ways, the scenery evoked the same feeling I remember from traveling through the Northern Rhone. Farms along the fertile valley floor, not much in the way of commercial and retail development, vineyards planted in the granitic soil found at the higher elevations.
But in the Northern Rhone, grapes are grown at an almost surreal gradient on the slopes found along the Massif Central. Here in the Santa Lucia Highlands, vines are planted along the much kinder terraces of the Santa Lucia Mountain Range at anywhere from 40 t0 1,200 feet above sea level. And whereas cultivated vines have been grown in the Northern Rhone since Roman times or earlier, the evolution of the Santa Lucia Highlands into a full-fledged wine region is far more recent. Though Spanish settlers were growing grapes here as early as the 1790s, modern, wide-spread wine grape-growing only began in earnest in the 1970s. Before then the land here was primarily used for farming row crops and for ranching.
After a bit of confusion, when it seemed that our GPS was giving us an ultimatum–either head up the driveway to a winery with a totally different name or venture down a skinny dirt trail that ran alongside a tiny wood frame house and ended up in an empty field–we decided to give David a call.
He quickly put us back on track, and within minutes we came upon the distinctive tasting room sign, featuring the familiar Rooster that graces the label of many Hahn wines. (Hahn is the family name as well as the German word for rooster.) The Hahns grow over 1000 acres of grapes in Monterey County. Swiss-born Nicky Hahn was a driving force behind the creation of the SLH appellation in the early 1990s. Their other labels include Smith & Hook, Lucienne, Cycles Gladiator and Huntington Wine Cellars.
The Santa Lucia Highlands are a long, thin sliver of land, located between the Santa Lucia and Gabilan mountain ranges. These two ranges form a narrow pass leading inland from the Pacific Ocean, a perfect pipeline through which comes morning fog followed by sun and afternoon breezes that dry the grapes. These, along with the cool summers and mildish winters here, help to ensure a longer growing season.
Cabernet Sauvignon was one of the original grapes introduced to the Santa Lucia Highlands, but over the years, Hahn and others winemakers here concluded that the weather and terrain were not conducive to growing Cabernet. Today, Hahn produces its Smith & Hook wines using grapes from nearby appellations better suited to growing Cabernet. The 2012 vintage is sourced from San Antonio Valley, Arroyo Seco and Paso Robles AVAs.
Smith & Hook wines were the first that the Hahns produced, taking the name of the former Smith and Hook Ranches, two adjacent properties on which the Hahns planted their first vineyards. The bottling still takes place at their SLH winery, and we were lucky enough to visit on a day when the bottles were being filled and packed for distribution.
David took us through one of the barrel rooms which was filled with Chardonnay. The life of each French oak barrel is about five years, after which they tend to lose their ability to impart flavor, aroma and other positive qualities to the wine.
A special barrel that is fitted with a plexiglass head allows the winemaker to monitor the fermentation process and to know when batonage, or the stirring of the lees, should take place. That’s when some very strong, gymnastic soul climbs among the barrels, opens the bung hole at the top of each and every one, and uses a long steel arm, or baton, to stir the contents of the barrel, incorporating all the solids (the lees) that result from the fermentation process back into the evolving Chardonnay, adding richness and complexity.
Hahn’s most distinctive estate wines are those bottled under the Lucienne label. David showed us the Lucienne room which houses four stainless steel fermentation tanks and a single row of barrels which were painted red between the bilge hoops, denoting the pinot noir inside them. The wines of Lucienne Vineyards are made from the premium first run of juice. This is the free-run juice that comes forth from the grapes voluntarily without the need for pressing and has different color, aroma and body characteristics than pressed juice.
Lucienne produces single vineyard designate, small production wines. The best way to get them is to order them through the Hahn website, because they are difficult to find outside of California.
We headed for the tasting room, following the path that leads past the production offices of Hahn, which are housed in the renovated stables from the former horse ranch.
We stopped for a moment to examine some of the original Cabernet vines that are still growing beside the tasting room. The grapes from these are used to make Cabernet jelly that is available onsite. (Hahn has its own chef and keeps a well-stocked kitchen garden of vegetables and herbs used to create dishes for private dinners and tastings.) Other of these sturdy old vines were cut back and used as root stock, onto which have been grafted some of the pinot noir vines that are grown here today.
Back in the tasting room after our tour was done, we started with a pour from the 2012 SLH Chardonnay. It displayed aroma and flavors of toffee, butterscotch, peaches and pears. A well-balanced offering that was not over-buttery.
We then sampled the 2012 SLH Pinot Noir, the 2013 Central Coast GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre), and the 2012 Lucienne Pinot Noir, Lone Oak Vineyard.
We found these to be notable, enjoyable wines, especially when you keep in mind that each is in the under-$40 price range. The Lucienne, however, stood out well above the rest of the group. The lush fruit was there, but with an earthier, spicier complexity that I find to be missing from many New World Pinot Noirs.
We carried our glasses outside to the patio, which offers some of the best views in the Santa Lucia Highlands. From here you can see across the vineyards all the way to the Salinas Valley and the mountains beyond.
After purchasing our favorite bottles to enjoy later, we thanked David and the rest of the staff at Hahn, then headed down the tree-lined drive back to the main road and on to the peninsula.
What a great trip! The people at Hahn were terrific hosts, and we hope to return soon. There’s so much to explore in this wonderful up-and-coming wine region.
OUR PINOT NOIR PICKS FROM THE SANTA LUCIA HIGHLANDS & BEYOND:
Finding a New World Pinot Noir to love can be hit or miss. I like the uses for Pinot, since it pairs well with the kinds of foods I eat often. But it seems that the market is currently flooded with a good bit of very unremarkable Pinot Noir wine–the kind that is overly fruity and sweet (i.e., notes of Fruity Pebbles and cherry popsicle). I am partial to the French Burgundy style that seems a little leaner and more complex. If your tastes run along the same lines as mine, you might enjoy giving these well-rated offerings from the Monterey and Santa Lucia Highlands AVAs a try:
2009 Lucia Pinot Noir Santa Lucia Highlands, around $40 (From the well-known Pisoni family, this is their “sister” label. One of my favorites of the trip, though I may be extra partial to it because we sampled a glass while sitting on the patio, watching the sun set over Spanish Bay. I’m sure that it’s still just as wonderful without the bonus of a great view!)
2012 Boekenoogen Santa Lucia Highlands Estate Pinot Noir, $39 (A showstopper during our last big dinner of the trip, Roy’s at Pebble Beach.)
2012 Bernardus Monterey County Pinot Noir, $24 (Bernardus also produces a well-rated group of single vineyard designate Pinot Noirs from the Santa Lucia Highlands.)
2012 Lucienne Pinot Noir, Lone Oak Vineyard, Santa Lucia Highlands, $50 (A beautiful, velvety pinot. Medium-bodied with a hint of spice and a dry finish.)