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Top wines of Santa Barbara: New reviews

A brief guide to Santa Barbara, where Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Rhône varieties have made a case for elevating this California region to the wine world's top table...

Santa Barbara County contains a couple of slightly different sub-regions.

Closest to the ocean is the very chilly Sta Rita Hills AVA in Santa Ynez Valley, which faces the Pacific and therefore has greater exposure to morning fog and afternoon wind.

In Sta Rita Hills, the generally wines have a high acid signature, as well as the precision, density and structure that one might associate with Chablis; albeit without the laser-sharp, deeply chalky, oyster-shell character of the best wines from that French region. Some wines have also been noted for a saline character, linked to vineyards’ proximity to the ocean.

The most famous vineyard, Sanford & Benedict, can make wine that’s more like Meursault, depending upon when vintners pick.

Cathy Huyghe wrote in Decanter magazine in 2013 that ‘the defining geographical feature of Santa Barbara County is its transverse mountain range – the most significant along the entire western continental edge, from Alaska to Patagonia – which imparts a wide range of micro climates and specific growing regions.

‘This runs from from colder climates in the west, loved by Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, to Happy Canyon in the far east, mostly the home of Cabernet Sauvignon blends.

‘The county’s varied geography determines its varied grape profile; one foot can stand in a vineyard of sandy soils while the other stands in clay topsoil and about 100m of limestone underneath.’

Santa Barbara County AVAs

Santa Maria Valley AVA

About 275km north of Los Angeles, the Santa Maria Valley was an early hotbed of indie winemaking talent, including Jim Clendenen, who started Au Bon Climat in 1982.

Dozens of now-famous southern Central Coast winemakers learned their craft by working under Clendenen, a renegade who himself had apprenticed in Burgundy. Santa Maria boasts two of the most famous vineyards in California – Bien Nacido and Solomon Hills.

Like Sta Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley is also windswept, but it is not as cool – and is warmer in many areas than the Santa Ynez Valley.

Sta Rita Hills AVA

If there was a Vosne-Romanée of California, the Sta Rita Hills (slightly closer to Los Angeles than Santa Maria) would be it. The sheer number of gorgeously rich, texturally long wines from this small place is astounding. Sta Rita Hills is extremely cool, perched as it is close to the coast and fully exposed to the Pacific.

Santa Ynez Valley AVA

Santa Ynez Valley acts like a funnel drawing cool temperatures along an east-west corridor that begins close to the coast and becomes progressively warmer inland.

Due to this large range of temperatures, a number of different grapes thrive in the valley. The best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines tend to come from cooler sites, predominantly closer to the coast, with Rhône and Italian varietals prospering further inland.

Ballard Canyon AVA

This is the new AVA on the proverbial block in Santa Barbara, approved in 2013, and it lies in the heart of Santa Ynez Valley covering around 7,800 acres (just over 3,100 hectares).

For the reasons noted above, Rhône varieties tend to perform well here and so it’ll come as no surprise to hear that Syrah and Grenache are the most widely planted varieties, with Viognier also featuring strongly, according to the official Ballard Canyon AVA website.

However, you can also find Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc.

Winemakers often talk about the importance of diurnal range and Ballard Canyon can have relatively large temperature swings. According to Jonata winery’s Matt Dees, afternoons can be intense but the temperature drops by between 5°C to 10°C almost immediately as the ocean air breezes in.

Top Santa Barbara wines

Including new wines tasted in September 2018 by Stephen Brook



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