A Guide to Santa Barbara Wine

While Napa and Sonoma have plenty of street cred, some of California’s most exciting new under-the-radar wines currently come from the Central Coast region of Santa Barbara County. A low amount of annual rainfall here, along with the cooling influences of Pacific coastal breezes and fogs, accord grapes extensive time to attain ideal levels of phenolic ripeness and complexity throughout the growing season. Let’s explore the major grape varieties and regional AVAs of Santa Barbara together.

Santa Maria Valley

Located in the northern section of Santa Barbara County, the cool and fog-exposed Santa Maria Valley is an optimal place to grow Burgundian grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The famous Bien Nacido Vineyard – an excellent source for many of the top wineries – can be found here. While many wines from this AVA tend to display clean and concentrated fruit flavors balanced by a bright, refreshing acidity, some of the more innovative producers have succeeded in a multitude of styles. Rhône grapes like Syrah and Viognier also grow well in the Santa Maria Valley.

Santa Ynez Valley

The windy Santa Ynez Valley AVA is southeast of the Santa Maria Valley and maintains a variety of climates. Many of the vineyards here are planted on hillsides, where sunlight allows grapes to develop necessary levels of sugar and ripen evenly. Lower nighttime temperatures help to preserve acidity and encourage complexity. Red wines produced from Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon usually come from warmer parts of the valley, while Pinot Noir and Chardonnay do better in cooler areas. Within the Santa Ynez Valley, Ballard Canyon and the Los Olivos District recently became AVAs in their own right.

Santa Rita Hills

Wines from this cool-climate AVA are currently labeled as “Sta. Rita Hills,” due to objections from Chile’s Viña Santa Rita brand. Some of Santa Barbara County’s most celebrated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay bottlings begin here, where grape clusters receive extra “hang time.” The historic Sanford & Benedict Vineyard played a crucial role in securing the Sta. Rita Hills strong reputation. In addition to elegantly structured Pinot and Chardonnay, many fine examples of Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling are also grown here.

Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara

Established as an AVA in 2009, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara is located in the eastern portion of the Santa Ynez Valley and primarily planted Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. A position further inland leads to warmer days than its neighbors, though the area still feels the cooling effects of the Pacific fog. The resulting wines are fruit-driven and lushly textured, making them relative bargains among Cabernet-based blends. This small AVA is already attracting talented winemakers from other parts of California who recognize its untapped potential.

With its proximity to Los Angeles, Santa Barbara County gives visiting wine lovers a wonderful opportunity to experience a wealth of unique and interesting styles. Even if you can’t make the trip in person, the wines from this blossoming region are easily available and ready for you to enjoy today!


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