John Szabo’s Vintages Preview for February 18th 2012: Santa Barbara; Terroir Reflected, Austrian Values; Top Ten Smart Buys
The February 18th Vintages release features the self-explanatory theme of customer favorites, a sort of greatest hits of LCBO-Vintages wines. Names like La Crema, Duckhorn, Dominus, d’Arenberg, Pirammima and Allegrini are likely familiar friends on the shelves. It’s interesting to note that fully 1/3 of the thematic favorites are from California, a reflection of the current wave of popularity on which the Golden State is surfing. But rather than bump boards with the crowds in Napa and Sonoma, I surf a less well known beach, in a report on my own little ‘sideways’ journey to Santa Barbara County. Skip to the Top Ten Smart Buys.
The mini theme is a focus on terroir, a comparison of the articulation of different places by the same winemaker. Forget the rather pointless side by side of the Champy wines (go for the cheaper 2009 CHAMPY SIGNATURE PINOT NOIR BOURGOGNE AC, a much better wine, not to mention value, at $21.95), and skip the showdown between the two 13th Street Rieslings (the 2010 OLD VINES RIESLING VQA Creek Shores, Niagara Peninsula $23.95 is a top smart buy this week, the June’s Vineyard is not).
If you’re really after a compelling side by side, pick up the three 2009 Chardonnays made by Thomas Bachelder (ex. Clos Jordanne, Niagara) and get to work:
Bachelder’s take is a textbook reflection of regional character: same grape, same vintage, same winemaker, but… The Bourgogne is the tightest and leanest of the three, the Oregon the fleshiest, fruitiest and most ‘new world’, with the Niagara version sitting comfortably between the two. The latter was also my preferred, offering the best of both fruit and minerality, but I’ll leave your opinion up to you. Interestingly enough, last week I moderated a panel of winemakers that included Isabel Meunier, who heads winemaking at the Oregon outpost of Evening Land Vineyards, a company which also has operations Santa Barbara, California and in Burgundy (she was Bachelder’s assistant at Clos Jordanne, too). With her experience in these four chardonnay-focused regions, her descriptions of typical wine styles at the event were the mirror image of what Bachelder delivers. Looks like there might be something there.
Search the site for more than a dozen recently reviewed Austrian wines, including the always excellent Schloss Gobelsburg and their 2009 Kammerner Renner Grüner Veltliner Kamptal, a superb value at $31.00, and a terrific single vineyard 2009 Rudolf Rabl Grüner Veltliner Käferberg Kamptal Reserve $24.95, both available directly from their respective agents, by the case via the consignment program.
While Napa and Sonoma may be household names wherever serious wine lovers reside, there are some 500 kilometers stretching from the Golden Gate to the suburbs of Los Angeles that merit a great deal more recognition. Known as the Central Coast and encompassed in an official AVA of the same name, these are some of the original vineyards of California, planted by Franciscan monks in the late 1700s as they moved north along El Camino Real, now better known as the iconic highway 101.
The Central Coast is, as you’d expect, a broad and sprawling area that covers a dramatic range of growing conditions. But the region’s potential comes into greater focus when examining the several dozen smaller sub-AVAs contained within, which more directly reflect specific climatic conditions. In early December I went on my very own Sideways adventure up the coast from LA to San Francisco along with Montreal Gazette Columnist Bill Zacharkiw to check in on this dynamic stretch of grape growing land (minus the convertible). We planned to focus on three of the Central Coast’s most promising regions: Santa Barbara, Paso Robles and The Santa Cruz Mountains. Here are some of the highlights, along with some recommended wines currently available in the market, including a few from the Vintages February 18th release.
Santa Barbara gained a huge surge in popularity thanks to the 2004 film Sideways, which follows two dysfunctional characters on a road trip through the County. One of the leads, Miles, is a pinot noir fanatic, and he’s come to the right place: pinot noir, along with chardonnay and syrah, are Santa Barbara’s greatest strengths – a quarter of Santa Barbara’s acreage is devoted to pinot. We stayed a night in the surreal town of Solvang, a Danish settlement straight out of a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale complete with windmills and a disproportionate percentage of blond hair, blue eye citizens. Our purpose was to visit Sideways’ ground zero, the Hitching Post Restaurant, a mile down the road.
Tasting with owner Frank Ostini turned out to be a real treat: not only were the food and ambience anything but Hollywood, but the wines, mainly several cuvees of pinot noir, turned out to be some of the finest of our journey. Check out the 2008 HITCHING POST HOMETOWN PINOT NOIR $26.95 for a taste of how poised and balanced west coast pinot can be, and look out for the even better 2007 Hitching Post Perfect Set Pinot Noir $70.00 (10 cases coming to the Classics Catalogue May 1, 2012) – this was perhaps the finest pinot encountered on our journey.
What makes Santa Barbara, and it’s sub-AVAs, the Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley, Santa Rita Hills and Happy Canyon, a particularly suitable spot for Burgundian grapes is the result of a queer geological phenomenon. A tectonic event during the formation of the coastal mountain range caused this piece of the continental shelf to split and rotate 90º, so that the normally north-south range was oriented east-west instead.
Whereas most of the rest of the California Coast is somewhat protected from direct ocean influence by the Coastal Range, the Santa Maria and Ynez valleys experience the direct cooling effect of ocean breezes. Curiously enough, the growing season is unseasonably cool; the warmest month on average is October. Throughout the summer, the North Pacific High – a high-pressure system as regular as a Swiss train out of the northwest that pushes strong winds, and in turn causes an upwelling of frigid deep ocean water right off of the coast – acts like the ultimate summer air conditioner. The high breaks down around October, reducing the cooling influence of the Pacific.
As one would expect, the cooling effect is most dramatic in the west end of the valleys nearest the coast: according to local winegrowers, the average temperature rises about 2ºC for every 2.5kms moving inland. This makes the Sta. Rita Hills, the western sub-AVA of the larger Santa Ynez Valley AVA, the coolest in the county and the source of finely etched pinots, chardonnays and Rhône-like syrahs.
Happy Canyon AVA on the other hand, the furthest inland on the east side of Santa Ynez about 60kms from the coast, is the warmest, and the only reliable source of fully ripened Bordeaux varieties. The difference in temperature between Happy Canyon and the town of Lompoc at the western edge of viable viticulture can be as much 10-15ºC during an average summer’s day.
The Santa Maria Valley AVA, the northernmost in Santa Barbara, takes in all of these extremes and is thus a candidate for further sub-division in the future. The renown of vineyards like the 800 acre Bien Nacido, origin of fruit for several of the county’s top wines, and the success of larger operations like Cambria (part of Kendall-Jackson) have already established the Santa Maria Valley as a serious source of wine.
But of course it’s not just about the complex soils and high-pressure systems. Fine wine requires a culture of making wine, and the spirit of innovation is alive and well in the county. Few are the grand château; flash is traded for practical exigency, and nowhere more obviously than the Lompoc Wine Ghetto. The Ghetto is a collection of functional winemaking facilities in an industrial park on the outskirts of Lompoc. Romantic it is not, but it’s home to some of the region’s best known and emerging labels such as Evening Land, Palmina, Flying Goat, Fiddleheads and Ampelos. There’s a decidedly single-minded focus on making great wine, and especially on expressing the variations afforded by the diverse growing regions. Tasting in most cellars in Santa Barbara requires patience and the desire to sift through minor variations on the theme of pinot or chardonnay as articulated by vineyard site, as all wine lovers love to do.
Generally speaking, the wine style of pinot and chardonnay is a little tighter and firmer than Napa or Sonoma, and a little fleshier and softer than Oregon. But soon enough the wines will come to speak for themselves rather than via comparison I suspect. Here are some wines from the area to consider for your own sideways adventure (available from their respective agents):
2009 CAMBRIA PINOT NOIR, JULIA’S VINEYARD SANTA MARIA VALLEY $31.95
2008 KENNETH VOLK SANTA BARBARA COUNTY PINOT NOIR $36.95
2008 KENNETH VOLK SANTA BARBARA COUNTY CHARDONNAY $27.95
2009 CAMBRIA CHARDONNAY, KATHERINE’S VINEYARD SANTA MARIA VALLEY $28.95
2009 THREE SAINTS PINOT NOIR SANTA MARIA VALLEY $24.95
And if only to prove that Santa Barbara makes top notch Rhône-style blends, don’t miss the exceptional 2009 Beckmen Cuvée Le Bec Santa Ynez Valley $26.95 available through Abcon International. Beckman is a biodynamically farmed operation in the Santa Ynez Valley. I remarked on a special smell here in the vineyards: very pure, unapologetically natural. Le Bec is a blend of grenache, syrah, mourvèdre and counoise, with a very pretty, markedly floral, spicy character, and juicy, natural acidity – absolutely delicious and dangerously drinkable.
From the February 18th, 2012 Vintages release:
John Szabo, Master Sommelier