This week we’ll take a closer look at a California wine region that has emerged as one of the world’s great pinot places. As more wines arrive from this unique and diverse region, we need to know which sub-regions are best for which grapes.
Try a new wine this week!
Anyone who spends much time perusing the aisles of their local wine retailer has seen an increasing number of wines from Santa Barbara County. Let’s take a closer look at this beautiful and diverse region, today one of the most important in California.
Santa Barbara Wine Country’s coastal valleys run east to west rather than north to south, like most of California’s wine regions, allowing ocean breezes to flow inland. The interior foothills are warm during the day and cool at night, while temperatures closer to the ocean enjoy a milder, more temperate climate.
Santa Barbara County has four main regions:
Santa Maria Valley is the northernmost appellation. Its most important grapes are the Burgundian varietals Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. It’s bounded by the San Rafael Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest to the east, and by the Solomon Hills and the city of Santa Maria to the west. Santa Maria Valley is home to Santa Barbara’s most famous vineyard, Bien Nacido. It contains over 800 acres, of which over 300 acres are planted to Chardonnay, more than 250 to Pinot Noir, and somewhat less Pinot Blanc, Syrah, Merlot and a smattering of less-known varietals. Five generations of the Miller family have raised grapes at this historic vineyard.
Los Alamos Valley lies between Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. It has warm days and very cold nights. It’s less known that its neighbors, because Los Alamos Valley is not an official appellation. So, you won’t see it on a wine label. “Santa Barbara County” is used instead.
Santa Ynez Valley is a long, east-west corridor, very cool temperatures on the coast and progressively warmer inland. Because of the diverse climate, several varietals do well there, from Pinot Noir in the west to more heat-loving grapes like Cabernet and Merlot in the east. Several Rhône and Italian grape varietals are also grown, mainly in the warmer, eastern areas.
Santa Rita Hills is actually within the Santa Ynez Valley appellation, although the grapes grown there differ in style from the ones in the warmer vineyards to the east. During the mornings, the area is shrouded by a layer of clouds and fog, which burn off by midmorning. This is followed by two or three hours of sunshine, then the ocean winds pick up, cooling temperatures back. Because of this maritime influence, the Santa Rita Hills appellation has become famous for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Many of Santa Barbara County’s wines are available locally. One that I tried recently that’s great for this time of year is Palmina’s Pinot Grigio. It’s crisp, refreshing, subtle and complex and not oaky. It retails in the $15 to $20 dollar range.