2018 Santa Lucia Highlands: What a Difference a Year Makes


The Santa Lucia Highlands’ picture-perfect growing season of 2018 stands in sharp contrast to the heat-influenced 2017 vintage, where growers were forced to make numerous vineyard decisions to compensate for potentially high sugars and plunging acidity levels. Budbreak began in the third week of March, so on a “classic” schedule, and the region enjoyed a cool spring, with slightly less than normal but adequate rainfall. The fruit set perfectly according to all reports, while the summer months brought typical warm days and cool nights, which kept the vines’ maturation process on a smooth, steady curve. There were no heat issues, thus no risk of sugars rising ahead of pace and, even better, fall was quite cool, which took pressure off of growers who weren’t forced to make last-minute decisions under hot conditions, which has often been the case in recent vintages across California and, in fact the entire west coast.

Thanks to the clement summer and ideal fall weather, harvest was able to commence at the farmer’s leisure, with most vineyards picked between the third week of September and the second week of October. The unhurried pace of harvest ensured time for careful thought in the vines and at the sorting table (not that there were really any unhealthy grapes to throw away in the first place). The fruit that went into the crusher was impeccably clean and perfectly ripe, according to the winemakers’ standards.

The end result, which is what matters the most, is wines of distinct energy and fine definition, with expressive fruit, well-integrated tannins for the red wines and relatively uncommon nerviness for the whites.

Make no mistake, the 2018s are loaded with fruit, but the flavors are fresh, mostly suggesting a red and blue style for the Pinot Noirs and citrus to orchard fruits for the Chardonnays. The 2018s have power, too, which is typical for this region, but that power is mitigated by juicy acidity, which makes most of the wines very approachable already. Their balance, though, suggests the 2018s will be ideal cellar candidates. I wonder if some of my drinking windows are on the conservative side. Better safe than sorry is always a good rule to follow.

The Santa Lucia Highlands are home to a number of superb vineyards, some of them shown above in an excerpt from our forthcoming map The Vineyards of the Santa Lucia Highlands by Antonio Galloni and Alessandro Masnaghetti, ©2020.

The Santa Lucia Highlands Style

While the cooling ocean winds that flow into the Santa Lucia Highlands every afternoon, like clockwork, coupled with the predictably cool to cold nights ensures fresh fruit, conditions differ from those in many sites down south, in coastal San Luis Obispo and, especially, the western end of the Sta. Rita Hills. Those vineyards get almost direct blasts of cold air from the ocean and the resulting wines typically reflect that, meaning distinct red fruit character and, usually, lower alcohol levels. Compared to those renditions of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the wines here are brawnier and display a more full-throated expression of the varieties, even in a cool vintage like 2018. The same can be said when comparing Santa Lucia Highlands Pinots and Chardonnays to those of most of the Willamette Valley, where the emphasis is usually more on red fruit and spice. For lusty, often extravagantly fruity renditions of the Burgundy varieties, the Santa Lucia Highlands is tough to beat.

I’ve had great luck aging both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from here, such is the depth of fruit coupled with energy that the best wines possess. That’s especially true for cool years such as 2018, where there’s no presence of overt ripeness (rarely an issue here, anyway) or excessive alcohols. Not that the wines are ever skinny, mind you, far from it. The fleshiness and concentration of the best Santa Lucia Highlands wines often makes them deceivingly cuddly on release but a few years of patience rewards with slowly increasing savory character, while the fruit always stands out.

The Scarcity Factor

With rare exception none of the best, single-vineyard wines from the Santa Lucia Highlands are made in large quantity. Indeed, many of them are made in tiny lots of five barrels (fairly often less than that) as they mostly come from small, carefully tended blocks. Prices are on the high side as well. In fact, the average prices of Santa Lucia Highlands Pinot Noirs place them among some of the dearest in the New World. There are basically no entry-level, $25 or under bottlings because of the cost of farming the hillsides and the predictably high cost of grapes that make their way to the market. Demand is huge for that fruit, with many top producers from Napa and Sonoma jockeying for access to it, especially from the most esteemed vineyards of the region. Supply meets demand. 

Unfortunately, after 15 years of annual visits to the region, I was unable to make the journey this year, for obvious reasons, so I tasted the wines here in New York in September. The wines were shipped via cold chain and arrived in perfect shape, always a great relief at this time of year.

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