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Santa Maria Valley AVA and must try wines

Matthew Luczy takes you through the Santa Maria Valley - the first region in Santa Barbara County to receive AVA status - and picks some of its top wines...

About Santa Maria Valley

In 1981, Santa Maria Valley became the first region in Santa Barbara County to receive AVA status, and the second in the state behind the Napa Valley.

Jim Clendenen and Adam Tolmach founded Au Bon Climat the following year, with Tolmach starting work on The Ojai Vineyard a year after that. These cornerstone producers would go on not only to make some of the longest-lived wines in the region, but also contribute greatly to the impact of Santa Barbara County wines on a global level.

Most importantly, they would serve as mentors for the next generation of winemakers, extending their sphere of influence far beyond what they started. Santa Maria Valley is the northernmost region of Santa Barbara County, and Santa Maria itself being an agricultural hub, the area has a rural, sprawling feel. The daytime temperatures are warmer than that of the Santa Rita Hills, owing to the more intense winds found further south.

The maritime effect is still very much present, with consistent morning fog and afternoon winds helping regulate temperatures. ‘The Pacific acts as a giant swamp cooler’, says Gavin Chanin, who started as an intern of Jim Clendenen’s before starting Chanin Wine Co. in 2007. ‘We get an average of 600 more hours of sunlight each growing season than Burgundy, and are still able to retain acidity.’

Santa Maria Valley wines

The sprawling, 900-acre Bien Nacido Vineyard is a cornerstone of the appellation, and the source of some of the most revered wines in region. It also functions as a microcosm of Western Santa Barbara County as a whole; the soils are a mixture of gravel, sandy loam and alluvial, planted predominately to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, and serves as a benchmark for all three.

Experimental varieties such as Nebbiolo and Tocai Friulano make an appearance as well, and it is this kind of diversity that I find quite healthy. It could prove useful in opening the door for a more clear-headed conversation as to what varietals can feasibly coexist in the face of evermore challenging weather conditions all over the world.

The Chardonnays in Santa Maria Valley are energetic, tropical and floral, with old-vine bottlings from the Bien Nacido Vineyard being particularly memorable.

Pinot Noirs tend to show a lifted, herbal, savoury character. In addition to the old-vine blocks from Bien Nacido, other sites of note are Presqu’ile and Dierberg.

Santa Maria Valley Syrah can be a real standout, and The Ojai Vineyard’s Solomon Hills Special Bottling is the greatest example in the region, and one of the best in the state.

The momentum put into place by the classic, old-guard producers who got this region off the ground has done nothing but increase, due in no small part to the exceptional talent of their proteges. These students have not only focused the winemaking practices they were taught, but now have the added privilege of planting further greatness in the vineyards for generations to come.

Santa Maria Valley wines to try:


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