Located a half-hour north of the beautiful coastal paradise of Santa Barbara, the Santa Ynez Valley is arguably home to the purist east-west transfer flow of maritime winds on the West Coast from Chile to Alaska. Wedged between the Purisima Hills and the Santa Ynez Mountains ranges running north and south of the valley, the temperature rises by one degree each mile closer to inland. For that reason, cool climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are dominant on the western end of the appellation; warm climate Mediterranean grapes like Grenache, Syrah, and Sangiovese are concentrated in the middle zone; and hot climate grapes like Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon are planted more inland. Grape diversity at its finest.
Until the mid-1990s, much of the fruit from the Santa Ynez Valley was sold outside the county or used in Santa Barbara County blends. But over the past twenty years (and a little extra help from the film Sideways), the region has become the breeding ground for a new wave of young, gifted winemakers and boutique wineries that have begun to divide and conquer the unique areas inside the appellation, all with the ultimate goal of crafting specialty wines and a true sense of place.
Whites: Chardonnay is planted in the cool climate areas on the western edge of the appellation, especially in the sub-appellation of Sta. Rita Hills located between the towns of Buellton and Lompoc. In contrast, Sauvignon Blanc is more of a natural fit for the warm days, cool nights, and gravely soils on the eastern side of the appellation. Scattered throughout the region are newer plantings of French and Italian varieties like Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Pinot Gris/Grigio, Arneis, Malvasia Bianca, and Tocai Friulano.
Red Wines: For Pinot Noir grapes grown in the valley, the combination of cool climate, complex soils and high levels of calcium result in small clusters with tiny berries and thick skins, which can produce intense flavors, low pH, and high acid levels, that make the risks worth the rewards. Further inland, other impressive red varieties are of the Rhone persuasion. For Syrah, one of the hot spots is Ballard Canyon, where wines made with fruit from top vineyards like Stolpman, Lerner, Tierra Alta, and the Beckmen family’s Purisima Mountain Vineyard, have become the darlings of wine critics and sommeliers over the past decade. And at the eastern edge of the valley is Happy Canyon, a dynamic region which received appellation status in 2009. With gravelly, clay-based soils, serpentine cobbles, and high levels of magnesium, it makes for an ideal region to grow Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and other Bordeaux varietals.
White Wines: Buttery, oak styles of Chardonnay are not common in Santa Ynez Valley. Instead, there is a nice balance of young and perky Chardonnays that tend to be lean and minerally; others that are medium body with minimal oak; and the more full-bodied styles that are richer, rounder with deep flavors of apple, peach, tropical fruits, and citrus. The Sauvignon Blancs are diverse as well. Most are bright, fresh, and flavorful fruit flavors, with notes of melon, kiwi, passionfruit, lemon, lime, and grapefruit. As a pleasant alternative, the white Rhone varieties tend to be more fragrant, typically with flavors of white fig, peach, apricots, lychee, and exotic fruits.
Red Wines: Many of the Pinot Noirs from the region feature a plethora of berry and dark fruit flavors, including blackberry, strawberry, raspberry, cherry, pomegranate, red currant, and cranberry. Depending on the producer, secondary aromas and flavors often include cocoa, cola, mineral, earth, and subtle spices. But in each case, rest assured that the Pinot Noirs from the region offers a lot of complexity in the glass.
From the interior part of the valley, red wines made with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc are flavorful, elegant and engaging. Don’t be surprised if you find versions that will give wines made in Napa, Sonoma, and Washington State a run for the money. On the other hand, Syrah is just plain sexy, with deeply concentrated flavors of black fruits, blue fruits, mineral, roasted meats, savory spices, silky tannins, and the mysterious kinetic energy from the region.
Beyond making red wines, a smaller percentage of the grapes are used to make playful, refreshing, and stylish versions of rose or vin gris-style wines with fashionable pink hues.
Needless to say, the mixture of a distinctive growing condition and world-class fruit has opened the floodgate to making magnificent wines for the table. For bright, acid-driven white wines, think oysters, soft cheeses, salads with tangy citrus vinaigrette, or grilled chicken with fruit salsa. For richer styles of Chardonnay or Viognier, think lobster risotto, herb-roasted chicken or pork with apricot chutney. The wide range of red wines are perfect pairings with California cuisine, especially fresh salmon, Ahi tuna, pork, duck, or the classic Santa Barbara style of serving red meats slowly roasted over a hot oak fire and a side of beans with bacon.