This report looks at new releases from California’s Santa Barbara County, with a focus on the newly bottled 2016s. The 2016 vintage is another terrific year for Santa Barbara County (and California in general) and the wines are layered and textured, yet also deep, concentrated, and balanced. While most are drinking nicely today, the top wines have the depth and structure – as well as the overall balance and purity – to evolve gracefully. The 2016s are unquestionably a step up over the more angular, foursquare 2015s. Readers can find the report on the 2014s and 2015s HERE.
Looking at the 2016 growing season, the vintage presented few difficulties and the majority of winemakers I spoke with commented that the vintage was easy, if not perfect. The last year in a sequence of drought years, there were no dramatic weather events, the temperatures were warm but not overly hot, and a gradual Indian summer allowed winemakers to harvest at will.
Rest assured, easy is not always best when speaking of wine, yet 2016 is certainly one of the standout vintages in the past decade, surpassing 2015, 2014, 2012, and 2011. The wines are supple, generous, and beautifully balanced, with both terrific purity of fruit and sound underlying structure. There are some similarities in style to 2014, which was a charming, forward vintage, yet the 2016s have another level of depth and richness, while still possessing plenty of upfront approachability. These are terrific wines that speak clearly of their region and site, and will evolve gracefully going forward.
While the Pinot Noirs and Syrahs are standouts in the vintage, there is a bevy of brilliant Chardonnays and Bordeaux blends coming from the region as well. Thankfully, I’m finding fewer and fewer enamel stripping, overly acidic Chardonnays today and winemakers have started to refine and settle in on a preferred style. The 2016s Chardonnays are rounded and beautifully textured, yet still show freshness and purity, with clearly defined site-specific characters. The top Chardonnays from Santa Barbara County are a match for the best of Burgundy, and at a tiny fraction of the price. The region is also seeing a huge influx of top talent and investment focused on making world-class Bordeaux blends, mostly from the Happy Canyon region. This is one of the most exciting new developments in the region and there are a bevy of incredible Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends in this report that are well worth your time and money.
I wrote a summary of the different region of Santa Barbara County last year, and I think it’s worth repeating here. Santa Barbara County is a huge, diverse region that delivers everything from crisp, refreshing whites, savory Pinot Noirs, peppery Syrahs, and concentrated, structured Rhône and Bordeaux variety blends. Given this incredible diversity, it’s critical that consumers understand the different regions and what each delivers. I do my best in the reviews to point out the vineyards and regions of each wine.
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY AVA
Looking first at the high-level Santa Barbara County AVA, an all-encompassing AVA that consists of six smaller sub-AVAs: Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara.
Each region has a distinct climate, driven mostly by its distance from the Pacific Ocean, as well as a focus on different varieties.
SANTA MARIA VALLEY
The Santa Maria Valley AVA is in the northern part of Santa Barbara County and is a west to east- running valley influenced heavily by the Pacific Ocean. The prime grape varieties here are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, yet there’s a number of brilliant Rhône variety blends as well.
The key vineyards are Bien Nacido, Solomon Hills, and Sierra Madre, with other notables including Riverbench, Le Bon Climat, Dierberg and Cambria.
While it doesn’t have its own AVA, the Los Alamos Valley lies just to the south of the Santa Maria Valley, to the north of the Sta. Rita Hills, and has several notable vineyards. This region is slightly warmer than both Santa Maria Valley and Sta. Rita Hills, yet cooler than the Santa Ynez Valley.
STA RITA HILLS
The Sta. Rita Hills AVA lies south of Santa Maria (and the Los Alamos Valley) and is a west to east- running valley open to the Pacific on its western edge. This is a cool, marine-influenced region that warms the further east and inland you go. It’s primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay territory, yet it’s possible to ripen Syrah (and even Grenache) on its eastern edge.
In general, the Pinot Noirs from the Sta. Rita Hills show a savory, structured style (especially when compared to examples from the North Coast and Santa Lucia Highlands), with loads of spice, red fruits, and dried herbs character.
Notable vineyard sites include: Babcock, Bentrock, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Dierberg, Eleven Confessions Vineyard, Fe Ciega, Fiddlestix, Hilliard Bruce, John Sebastiano, La Encantada, La Rinconada, Melville, Mt Carmel, Radian, Rita’s Crown, Sanford & Benedict, Sea Smoke, and Turner.
Located east of the Sta. Rita Hills is the Ballard Canyon AVA, a tiny appellation covering roughly 550 acres mostly planted to Rhône Varieties. This north to south-running valley starts at an elevation of just over 500 feet above sea level in the south and tops out at 1,165 feet at its northern border. The soils are limestone dominated near the bottom (Kimsey Vineyard) and become more and more sandy as you progress up the valley.
Notable vineyard sites include: Jonata, Kimsey, Larner, Rusack, Harrison Clark, Tierra Alta, Purisima, and Stolpman.
LOS OLIVOS DISTRICT
The Los Olivos District AVA is a newly created AVA that stretches from the eastern edge of Ballard Canyon to the western edge of Happy Canyon. It’s slightly warmer than the Ballard Canyon AVA, and cooler than the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara region located to its east. This region specializes in the Rhône varietals of Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvèdre.
The notable, rolling hillside vineyards include: Camp Four, Fox Family Vineyard, Honea, Tensley, and Williams-Dore.
HAPPY CANYON OF SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
Lastly, the Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara County AVA is located on the eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA and is the warmest sub-AVA of the region. This is Bordeaux Variety territory and is primarily planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot, with a small amount of Sauvignon Blanc.
Notable vineyard sites include: Dierberg Star Lane, Grimm, Grassini, McGinley and Vogelzang.
*All maps were provided by the Santa Barbara County Vintners Association and can be found at http://www.sbcountywines.com/ava-maps.html