The Santa Barbara County Appellation

Jul 12, 2016
The Santa Barbara County Appellation

Santa Barbara County Wine
As a wine region, Santa Barbara County offers an impressive range of wines in distinctive styles, and from a wealth of various grape varieties. The region also carries fantastic long-term potential for continued evolution of both style and quality.
Current Santa Barbara winemakers represent a third wave of influence through the region. Modern vines were first planted in the region in the late 1960s. The first vineyards of Santa Barbara County were planted in an incredible mix of varieties. Riesling, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir grew next to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, among others. It was a style of planting common throughout the state of California as people learned what varieties grew best under what conditions. By the 1990s, appellations were being defined, and people had identified general growing guidelines like Cabernet and other Bordeaux varieties needed to be further inland, while Burgundian varieties could ripen closer to the coast.
Today, wines of Santa Barbara County benefit from the work of those previous decades as well as from ongoing experimentation and fine-tuning that continue to push forward quality.
As a growing region, Santa Barbara County offers incredible geographical complexity. Comprehending the wealth of environmental, geological, historical, and climatic influences factoring into winemaking in the region is no small feat. The diversity of growing conditions in Santa Barbara County is unique in the state of California, including within the rest of the Central Coast.
While much of California’s Central Coast offers warmer overall temperatures, Santa Barbara County differs. Santa Barbara County stands as the only region on the western coast of North or South America with a transverse mountain range. The coastal mountains of Santa Barbara County sit open-mouthed to the cooling influence of the Pacific Ocean, making the region uniquely influenced by a maritime climate. As a result, much of Santa Barbara County hosts genuinely cool climate growing conditions.

The Turn of the Coastal Range
Santa Barbara County represents the only place in North or South America where the Coastal range turns fully from a north-south orientation to an east-west one, called a transverse mountain range. Other major wine growing regions along the western side of the
two continents tend to be shielded from ocean influence by the Coastal range. In a few areas, low spots in the mountains allow some marine influence to reach inland through the mountain gap. Santa Barbara County instead hosts a direct maritime influence with a daily influx of fog and cold ocean wind. As a result, vines receive a daily cooling influence of
morning fog, and then a second cooling influence of afternoon wind.
The transverse range creates open-mouthed valleys that run from the Pacific to the warmer inland portions of the county along the San Rafael Mountains. As temperatures rise during the day, cool air from the ocean is pulled east over Santa Barbara County. The valleys effectively act as funnels bringing maritime influence from the Pacific inland in a daily
breathing pattern of fog and wind. Westerly winds start daily just after lunchtime, so that even on warmer days vines are cooled by the breeze. As inland temperatures cool through evening, fog sets in all the way to the far eastern side of the county, again bringing cooler maritime temperatures to the vines.
In Santa Barbara County, the closer you get to the ocean, the cooler the
temperatures. On average, temperatures increase one degree Fahrenheit per mile traveled east (though of course geographical variation creates more subtle differences in specific locales).
Santa Barbara County receives very little rain. The Sierra Madre and San Rafael Mountains shield Santa Barbara County from storms to the north in a rain shadow effect. Warm storms from the south do occasionally reach Santa Barbara, though they are uncommon. As a result, Santa Barbara County hosts what is essentially a cool desert climate.
While it is possible to dry farm in the county, sites must be carefully selected to do so. In St Rita Hills, for example, some people have been able to dry farm along the Santa Ynez River. In Santa Maria Valley, some have been able to dry farm in areas with mixed loam.

Soil Variation
Soil types vary significantly through the County with a full range from beach-type sands or sandy loams, abundant clay or clay loams, to unconsolidated rocky soils the result of mountain erosion, as well as rocky shale or Diatomaceous Earth. Limestone and chalky bands also paint through sections of the county visibly appearing in swaths of Ballard Canyon, for example.

Even within single AVAs very different soil types appear, sometimes side-by-side. In St Rita Hills, for example, sandy loam appears predominately on the northern side while shale and diatomaceous earth appear in the southern sections. St Rita Hills, in fact, is one of the few regions in the world to have vineyards planted in diatomaceous earth.
The soil variation of Santa Barbara County supports a huge range of planting choices and wine styles.

Santa Barbara County Grapes
The reality of grape growing in Santa Barbara County is admirably varied. The region as a whole carries impressive, bright acidity through the wines, meaning even naturally richer profile grapes grown in the warmer inland temperatures offer the promise of mouthwatering freshness.
Taking a simple one-hour drive west to east through any portion of the County will result in significant viticultural change. At the far western portions of SBC even cool climate grapes like Riesling, Gruner Veltliner, Pinot Noir or Chardonnay can struggle to ripen. Cool climate Rhone varieties do beautifully through the area, as do warmer style Rhone wines further inland. At the far Eastern sides of the County, Bordeaux varieties prosper, with most appearing through Santa Ynez Valley, though some are also grown in Rancho Sisquoc at the far eastern side of Santa Maria Valley.
The viticultural variation of Santa Barbara County offers growers and winemakers the opportunity to work with a wide range of wines within a relatively short distance, a situation unique in the state. In few other winegrowing regions are winemakers able to work with such an impressive range of varieties and styles in such compact driving proximity.

Growing Regions of Santa Barbara County
Santa Barbara County is currently home to two large appellations – Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley. Between Santa Maria and Santa Ynez Valleys sits the Los Alamos Valley, a unique viticultural region not currently recognized as an official appellation.
Within the Santa Ynez Valley reside four sub-appellations, including the newly minted Los Olivos District. Such a concentration of recognized viticultural areas speaks to the diversity of the region.

Santa Maria Valley
Furthest north in Santa Barbara County, Santa Maria Valley is one of the cooler appellations of the county. Santa Maria Valley also proves to be one of the most agriculturally diverse regions in the United States, with a wealth of fruits and vegetables grown on the valley floor near the banks of the river. Vineyards, on the other hand, hug the hillsides bordering the valley on the north and south.
Soils of Santa Maria Valley range from sand and sandy loam in the west and southern hills, to alluvial stones along the river itself, and Elder series with colluvial soils formed through erosion from the San Rafael Mountains to the north.

Santa Maria Valley is known primarily for its Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah, but growing conditions in the Valley support an impressive range of varieties including cool climate Grenache and Mourvedre, Riesling, and even Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon further inland.

Los Alamos Valley
The Los Alamos Valley includes a collection of rolling hills that create unique microclimates and aspects within the larger valley. The soils of Los Alamos are generally well drained, though varied, and the region hosts generally moderate temperatures. As a result, Los Alamos Valley is well suited to growing a range of varieties.
The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay common to Santa Barbara County also find their home here, along with a mix of Rhone varieties, both red and white, and a small selection of Italian cultivars. In the coolest sections of Los Alamos Valley, closer to the ocean, there are also small plantings of Riesling. Los Alamos Valley is not currently recognized as an official appellation.

Santa Ynez Valley and its Sub-Appellations
Santa Ynez Valley is bordered by the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south, with the Santa Ynez River running the length of the valley. The Santa Ynez Valley includes a varied landscape with a series of hills and canyon formations that create unique microclimates and aspects.
The Santa Ynez Valley includes significant variation in daytime temperature with the warmest portions at the far eastern side able to ripen Bordeaux varieties, both whites and reds. The far eastern side of Santa Ynez Valley has been circumscribed as the appellation Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Sitting approximately half way across the length of Santa Ynez Valley sit Ballard Canyon, and the newest appellations of the region, the Los Olivos District, just slightly to the east.

St. Rita Hills
The St. Rita Hills appellation sits nestled into the rolling hills at the far western boundary of the Santa Ynez Valley. As a result, the Sta Rita Hills receive the most direct ocean influence of the Santa Ynez sub-appellations. However, parts of the St Rita Hills reach high enough elevation to sit above the fog line.
Soils vary through the St. Rita Hills. In the northern half, along the Highway 246 corridor, vineyards grow predominately in high drainage sandy loam. In the southern portion of the Hills, soils change by elevation. Along the valley floor, rich organic loam is devoted to row crops of vegetation and fruit. Shale, chert, diatomaceous earth, and sedimentary soils appear in the slopes and higher elevations of vineyards through this area.
St. Rita Hills is known for its Pinot Noir, but also grows Syrah and Chardonnay, with some small plantings of various other varieties including Grenache, and Gruner Veltliner.

Ballard Canyon
In the heart of Santa Ynez Valley sits Ballard Canyon. The moderate temperatures of Ballard Canyon welcome regular morning fog, though the north-south orientation of the Canyon mean most sites are more protected from direct wind. The area’s sloped vineyards predominantly grow Rhone varieties, most especially Syrah. However, a mix of Italian cultivars is also grown through the Canyon, and in the warmer spots Bordeaux varieties also do well. Soils in Ballard Canyon include sandy loam in the western most portions, and mixed loam in the eastern, with a band of limestone running between the two.

Los Olivos District
Newest of the sub-appellations of Santa Barbara County, the Los Olivos District describes an alluvial plain formed by the Santa Ynez River, showcasing some of the most consistent soils of the region, and moderate temperatures. The District sits firmly between Ballard Canyon AVA to the west, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA to the east.
Currently, the Los Olivos District grows a mix of Mediterranean varieties, doing particularly well with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc, among others.

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara
Furthest east in the Santa Ynez Valley sits Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Even with its warmer temperatures, Happy Canyon still receives the daily roll of ocean fog from across the valley. The appellation reaches into the edges of the San Rafael Mountains, celebrating rolling terrain and warmer temperatures than the rest of the Valley as a result.
Soils of Happy Canyon include a mixture of sandy loam, clay loam, as well as both red and yellow chert and serpentine stones. The Canyon also includes significant elevation variation between vineyards. Currently the appellation predominately grows Bordeaux varieties, with some Rhone reds as well.

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