Masterclass: Wines of Santa Barbara County

Look at a map of California’s coastline and you’ll notice that its north-south direction switches to an east-west orientation at Santa Barbara. Thanks to this marked topographic shift (the longest such east-west orientation from the Aleutian Islands to Tierra Del Fuego), mountain ranges traverse east-west and valleys open directly to the Pacific Ocean, receiving the full force of its maritime wind and fog. The result is one of the coolest and driest winegrowing regions in California, with one of the longest growing seasons. No fall rains mean no mildew, making possible long hang times. All these factors suit the region perfectly to growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

As I learned at a recent Guild of Sommeliers masterclass focusing on 15 wines from top producers in Santa Barbara County taught by master sommeliers Matt Stamp and Brian McClintic (of Santa Barbara’s Les Marchands wine bar), of the 20,000 acres in Santa Barbara County devoted to growing wine grapes, some 4,800 are planted to Pinot Noir, 6,800 to Chardonnay, and 1,400 to Syrah. The county’s many different microclimates enable the growing of several different grape varietals, but Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah represent the county’s focus. 

The five federally recognized AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) within Santa Barbara County are Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. (There’s a petition pending for a sixth AVA, Los Alamos Valley.) These are young wine regions: Santa Maria Valley, the northernmost appellation in Santa Barbara County and, since the 1980s, home to Au Bon Climat and Qupé, was granted AVA status just 34 years ago in 1981. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the two varietals grown in its foggy, windswept, and cool climate. Santa Ynez Valley, a climatically diverse and extensive east-west AVA established in 1983, has very cool coastal temperatures that warm as one moves inland. Pinot Noir does well in the cool western part of the valley, while Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot thrive in the warmer east. Located farthest west within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is the AVA of Sta. Rita Hills (granted AVA status in 2001). Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grow exceptionally well in its extremely cool, ocean-influenced climate. Ballard Canyon is the youngest AVA, having received its AVA status in October 2013. Syrah and other Rhône varietals such as Grenache and Viognier grow well in its moderate-to-warm climate. The easternmost AVA, established in 2009, is Happy Canyon. Situated above the fog line and with less coastal influence, the climate is too warm for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Sauvignon Blanc grow very well here.

The Wines

We tasted through two white flights and two red. Though our focus was Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, we tasted a few other varieties as well, beginning with the first flight. I’ve included very brief tasting impressions of the wines.

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Flight One:

Tatomer “Kick-On Ranch” Riesling 2012 (Santa Barbara County)

Lieu-Dit Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Grassini Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (Happy Canyon AVA)

Tatomer’s flagship 100% Riesling was classically dry, with very little botrytis influence but with a bitterness that Matt said was a result of skin contact. Of the two Sauvignon Blancs, Lieu-Dit’s had pronounced fruity aromatics of passionfruit, grapefruit, and currant, while Grassini’s aromatics were of sweeter citrus fruits; peachy, creamy.

Flight Two:

Liquid Farm “Golden Slope” Chardonnay 2012 (Sta.  Rita Hills AVA)

Sandhi Chardonnay 2012 (Sta. Rita Hills AVA)

Chanin “Los Alamos Vineyard” Chardonnay 2013 (Santa Barbara County)

Tyler “Bien Nacido” Chardonnay 2013 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Of these four wines, the Sandhi had the most new oak (20%), but it was unnoticeable! Grapes were whole-bunch pressed, giving a much cleaner, less phenolic juice. This is a beautiful wine! Liquid Farm’s “Golden Slope” went through 100% malolactic fermentation and was round, creamy, and leesy. The Chanin was extremely aromatic and floral; broad, big. In contrast, the Tyler was leaner in style, showing a strong sulfite character.

SBCW1
Flight Three:

Martian Ranch Gamay 2013 (Santa Barbara County)

Au Bon Climat Pinot Noir “La Bauge Au Dessus” 2012 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Whitcraft Pinot Noir “Pence Ranch—Mt. Eden Clone” 2013 (Santa Ynez Valley AVA)

Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noir “Machado” 2012 (Sta. Rita Hills AVA)

Martian Ranch’s Gamay was fresh and clean, with good acidity and “lots of carbonic pop!” in Matt’s opinion. The Whitcraft and Brewer-Clifton Pinot Noirs were both pressed 100% whole cluster and both had no new oak. Whitcraft’s ABV was a low 12.2; good acidity; tart and lean. Brian told us that Greg Brewer wanted his Machado Pinot Noir to taste “like a red bouncing ball” and, in fact, the wine had a lift and a bounce; fruit forward (riper than Whitcraft); terrific balance of ripeness and restraint. Au Bon Climat’s Pinot was aged in 50% new French oak (yet the wine was balanced); zesty, forward red fruit; spicy; unfiltered.

Flight Four:

Ojai Syrah “Solomon Hills” 2011 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Stolpman Syrah 2012 (Ballard Canyon AVA)

Qupé Syrah “Bien Nacido” 1999 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Clendenen Family Nebbiolo Riserva 2004 (Santa Maria Valley AVA)

Three delicious Syrahs! The Qupé is from the oldest planting in Santa Maria (“X” block in the Bien Nacido vineyard), planted in 1981; the vines look like trees. The Ojai was densely concentrated, zesty, spicy, fresh, and invigorating, while the Stolpman was a bit riper and rich and belied its 14.1 ABV. The Clendenen Family Nebbiolo Riserva represents the experimentation going on right now in Santa Barbara County winemaking. At 10 years old, and having spent 5 years in barrel, this wine is still young! Floral (roses), tar, earthinesss, and nice acidity. In Matt’s opinion, this wine is like Barolo Riserva and belongs in the conversation of Piedmont Nebbiolo. I agree!

The Guild of Sommeliers

GS_logoAn international membership organization of sommeliers, wine industry professionals, and wine enthusiasts, the Guild of Sommeliers provides members with rich opportunities for learning and networking. Members receive access to in-depth masterclasses (this is instruction at a very high level) such as the one I’ve written about here, taught by master sommeliers in cities around the country, articles, podcasts, discussion forums, online study guides, maps of the world’s wine regions, and job postings. Please support this wonderful organization by becoming a member! Visit guildsomm.com for more information.

World of Pinot Noir

image001Pinot Noir lovers, take note! Four of the producers whose wines we tasted in this masterclass—Sandhi, Tyler Winery, Au Bon Climat, and Brewer-Clifton—are participating in World of Pinot Noir, a two-day celebration of our beloved grape, and will be pouring their wines on March 7 at the Saturday Pinot Noir by the Sea Tasting at Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara. As of this posting, some tickets remain for this event, which showcases more than 120 producers. In addition, World of Pinot Noir features a Friday Pinot Noir by the Sea Tasting, at which approximately 100 winemakers (a different roster from the Saturday event) will pour their wines. Food pairing seminars pair Pinot Noir with chanterelles from the Santa Rita Hills and local uni from the Pacific Ocean. Five-course gourmet dinners highlight local cuisine and the wines of attending winemakers. On Saturday night Jim Clendenen of Au Bon Climat—Pinot Noir and Santa Maria Valley pioneer—will be honored at a special Rockstars of Pinot Noir dinner. Visit wopn.com for details and tickets.

Copyright © 2015 by Carol Hartland

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One thought on “Masterclass: Wines of Santa Barbara County

  1. Just wanted to let you know how much I love your wine blogging, Carol. I learn so much each time! I knew nothing about California’s wine regions and that some are so new! Plus, reading about the geo/climate differences and how they are compatible with certain varietals and influence their flavor was so interesting. Your knowledge is very impressive! Keep up the good work. I’m going to check out the resort where the Pinot event is happening so I can have a sense of how great it is going to be!

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