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Ballard Canyon AVA and must try wines

Get the low-down on the Santa Barbara County region where Syrah is taking centre stage. Plus Matthew Luczy's top ten Ballard Canyon wines.

Ballard Canyon is working towards establishing itself as the capital of Syrah production in California. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate the western side of Santa Barbara County while Syrah waits in the wings, but in Ballard Canyon the Rhône variety takes centre stage.

Syrah makes up 50% of the appellation’s planted acreage, and following the official formation of the AVA in 2013, a custom bottle with the words “Ballard Canyon” surrounding the shoulder was created exclusively for estate-grown Syrah. ‘The Ballard Canyon Bottle is my baby,’ says Pete Stolpman, President of The Ballard Canyon Winegrowers’ Alliance. ‘It is our symbol to the world that we are an AVA dedicated to this grape.’

Located directly in the centre of the east-west positioned Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon occupies a unique north-south orientation. There is an impressively consistent Pacific breeze which drops the temperature 10-15 degrees right at midday, as well as massive diurnal shifts of up to 40 degrees once night time falls. Sand is a common soil type in the heart of the appellation, a major factor contributing to the elegance and “pretty” nature found in many of the resulting wines. Clay is also prominent, while limestone is found in the northern section.

The Syrahs from Ballard Canyon are typically more lifted and bright than the dense and supple examples found elsewhere in California. Stolpman’s Estate Vineyard and Purisma Mountain Vineyard in the middle of the appellation produce bright, pure and floral expressions with a granular tannin structure. Larner Vineyard sees more maritime fog later in the day, and one often finds a more savoury character from its fruit. Roussanne and Viognier produce remarkably focused and precise wines which are, more often than not, more lively and energetic than their old-world counterparts.

Maintaining perspective of the infantile nature of any multi-generational project is crucial to its long term success, and Ballard Canyon displays a healthy mix of “Rhône varietals or bust” trailblazers mixed with outside-the-box experimenters. Beyond Syrah, a wide swath of grapes are planted, nowhere more-so than at the Jonata estate.

The forward-thinking relative of Napa’s Screaming Eagle, their holdings include varieties from the Rhône, Bordeaux, Italy, and even a nursery of selections from Santorini. When the property was purchased in 1999, neighbouring producers suggested that “historically speaking”, Ballard Canyon was planted to Syrah so Jonata should follow suit.

‘I’m a history guy,’ says Matt Dees, Jonata’s winemaker since the inaugural vintage, 2004. ‘If the Romans built your terraces, or the Crusaders brought your grapes back home, that’s “historically speaking”. If Charlemagne owned your vineyard, that’s “historically speaking”. If your neighbours planted five years before you did, that’s not history. We have a couple hundred years to go. We planted the whole Noah’s Ark of grapes, because who’s to say?’

As often happens when newly formed appellations are off the ground and beginning their ascent, dogmatic thinking from long-established regions can be pervasive. Shortly after acquiring their 600-acre estate, Jonata brought in a managing director from “a first-growth in Paulliac” to take soil samples and recommend what grapes should be planted and where. He told them to plant asparagus.

Clearly opinions and outlooks have changed, and the establishment of the Ballard Canyon AVA is another step in the right direction for Santa Barbara County wine country.

Providing more nuanced identities for its multitude of microclimates will only help to elevate the region on the world stage, and validates those that first recognized the special nature of this place.

Top 10 Ballard Canyon wines to seek out

Wine scores and tasting notes available for Decanter Premium members

See also

Santa Rita Hills AVA and must try wines

Santa Maria Valley AVA and must try wines

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