Santa Lucia Highlands: Cool-Climate Excellence in 2021


The 2021s from the Santa Lucia Highlands build on a theme of excellence seen throughout California in what has turned out to be a largely impressive vintage in many appellations. Readers will find numerous compelling wines to explore, but many of the best wines are not always the usual suspects.

Picking up coverage of the Santa Lucia Highlands this year is bittersweet, more bitter than sweet if I must be perfectly honest. The loss of Josh Raynolds earlier in 2023 is still very much felt by our entire team and by me personally. Josh was the sort of person who seemed to know everything about everything. He is still sorely missed. As we thought about how to best reassign Josh’s regions for now, I decided to revisit the Santa Lucia Highlands. It’s a region I have spent quite a bit of time in, as I covered the wines during my time at The Wine Advocate and in the early days of Vinous. More recently, Alessandro Masnaghetti and I authored a new map of the AVA that is the most accurate visual representation of the region and its vineyards. So, I approached these tastings with a mixture of loss and excitement of rediscovery. What I found in the 2021s is a set of rich, deeply layered wines that showcases the region to its maximum potential.

Vineyards in Santa Lucia Highlands’s North Bench.

The Santa Lucia Highlands: A Brief Overview

The Santa Lucia Highlands (SLH) is a small AVA that is just 18 miles from north to south and one mile wide, with only a few local wineries. Perhaps for that reason, the SLH gets lumped together with other larger regions in what is often referred to as California’s “Central Coast.” I have never understood this broad ‘denomination’ as it includes all of Santa Barbara County (which is itself very diverse), Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, along with the smaller micro-appellations around these areas. The differences among these areas were evident as soon as I started spending time in this part of California, which is why Vinous has always published separate articles for each region, something I am happy to see has increasingly become the norm at other publications as well.

The Santa Lucia Highlands is a narrow strip of vineyards with strong coastal influences and a unique microclimate. © 2023, Vinous.

Nestled in Monterey County, one ridge away from the Pacific Ocean, the SLH offers a unique set of features that in turn shapes the wines meaningfully. The AVA is distinguished by cool climate, with considerable ocean influence, a long growing season and temperatures that remain quite moderate during that period. The SLH is also very dry, which makes it an unusually arid coastal region. Annual rainfall is only 12-14 inches, as opposed to the 30 or more that are typical in many other appellations that excel with cool-climate varieties. Big Sur and the mountains surrounding it absorb most of the annual rainfall, while also sheltering the Santa Lucia Highlands from the elements.

Traditionally, the SLH has been portrayed as a stretch hillside of vineyards that moves south to north, which is an easy trap to fall into, as the mind’s eye can be deceiving. In reality, the appellation develops south to north, but at a 45-degree angle that has meaningful implications for proximity to the ocean and how the land itself is shaped.

The AVA can be divided into two distinct benches. The North Bench is marked by generally soft slopes, gentle hillsides and more uniform terrain than the South Bench, where the land features greater contrasts in elevation, more rugged terrain and less access to water. Evening fog rolls in earlier in the afternoon in the north and retreats later the following morning, meaning temperatures are typically cooler on the North Bench and warmer on the South Bench.

Taking a closer look at the AVA's benches, vineyard sites and main soil types.© 2023, Vinous.

In its early days, the Santa Lucia Highlands was best known for Riesling. Today, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah are the main players. The appeal of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir require little explanation. Mer Soleil, the Wagner family’s Chardonnay, is the most visible Santa Lucia Highlands wine. Pinot Noir in many guises is not too far behind, aided by several top sites such as Pisoni, Rosella’s and Sierra Mar that sell fruit to many wineries.

I have long believed Syrah is the most exceptional variety in the Santa Lucia Highlands. My tastings this year only served to reinforce that view. One of the main challenges for many regions in California are heat spikes that often arrive around Labor Day. Those spikes can be especially challenging for Pinot Noir, which is often close to being fully ripe at that time and has fragile skins that can be easily affected by adverse conditions. Syrah ripens much later and has thicker skins, so it can sail through Labor Day heat events without suffering at all. Unfortunately, Syrah remains a hard sell in the market. That’s unfortunate, as SLH Syrahs are often exceptional.

Pisoni Vineyard, located in the Santa Lucia Highlands’s rugged South Bench, is one of the region’s most iconic sites.

The 2021 Growing Season & Wines

The 2021 season got off to a late start. Even before that, some growers worked to set up their vineyards for success. “The 2020 fires were very dramatic,” Gary Franscioni explained. “We knew we weren’t going to pick anything. Even so, we started dropping fruit in September and October so that the vines could head into dormancy with as little stress as possible.” Vines tracked 2-3 weeks later than normal throughout spring and summer, hitting all major markers – budbreak, flowering, set and veraison – behind schedule. Rainfall was lower than average to average at best, but much of it arrived very early in the season and within a condensed time frame in which moisture was likely not fully absorbed. As a result, canopies were smaller than usual. Even so, yields were more or less in line with norms. “It was a very even year,” Jeff Pisoni relayed. “We kept waiting for heat spikes to arrive, but they never did.” Harvest started in mid-September.

In tasting, the 2021s show remarkable consistency and excellence. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah are all notable. I found some of the Syrahs to be stunning, but the best Pinots aren’t too far behind. The 2021s are aromatically expressive, deep and beautifully layered, all hallmarks of an outstanding year. Moreover, the wines are incredibly expressive of site, something I always look for in regions that focus on vineyard-designate wines. Two thousand twenty-one is a vintage that readers can purchase with confidence. The wines have enough charm to be accessible young, but also the stuffing to develop well in bottle for years to come.

I tasted all the wines in this article in our New York City offices in September and October 2023.

© 2023, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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