What do you think of when we say “California wine?” The cult Cabernets of Napa Valley? The Sinful Zinfandels of Lodi? The sparklers of Los Carneros? California is legion with legendary, high profile wine regions, but some of our favorites reside in the undersung appellation of California’s Central Coast. Not familiar? Read on for 5 of our favorite factoids about this deliciously diverse region.
It’s the longest California AVA
The American Viticultural Area is the stateside equivalent of France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, and seeks to classify wines by style, variety, and region. These areas are grouped according to geographic boundaries and distinctive growing conditions. Unique combinations of soil types, climates and elevations allows us to group these areas together stylistically as well as regionally.
California’s Central Coast stretches from the San Francisco in Northern part of the state all the way down to Santa Barbara county in the South, spanning some 250 miles of coastline and 100,000 acres of vines. We know what you’re thinking Dryncers ”How could a region that large maintain ANY stylistic consistency?”. The one thing that all of these regions have in common is their proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Thus, they all feel its cooling influence.
It’s not such a new wine world
The first vines in Santa Barbara were planted in the late 18th century by Spanish missionaries who sought to grow sacramental wine. However, thanks to the 3 consecutive punches to the US industry—Phylloxera disease, the Great Depression and Prohibition—the region wasn’t associated with fine wines until the 1970s (don’t worry, the vines that the missionaries originally planted were nothing to write home about).
Santa Barbara is the Coolest
Oh, the wonders of the micro-climate! No need to check a map, Santa Barbara county is indeed located in the southernmost part of the state, yet the AVAs within the county—Santa Rita Hills, Santa Maria Valley, and the Santa Ynez Valley—boast some of the coolest temperatures in California. The secret, according to Laura Booras, General Manager of Riverbench Wines, is Santa Barbara’s “unusual orientation. The valleys in the county sit between two mountain ranges which run East to West instead of the more typical North to South, funneling in cool ocean air and breezes.”
They grow way more than Pinot
Santa Barbara is famous for its Pinot Noir, made famous by the film Sideways (AKA the film that created a generation of Merlot haters). The Pinots from this area are fleshier and fruitier than their French and Oregonian counterparts, creating wines that are spectacular even when young. And like a slightly safer version of Bonnie and Clyde, Pinot Noir rarely goes anywhere without its partner in crime Chardonnay! The Central Coast is no exception to this rule. The cool climates of Santa Barbara allow for the creation of lean, elegant, and smoky Chardonnays with generous minerality and complexity.
Yet these two are just the start of the grapes that thrive here.Thanks to the great diversity of soil types (clay, loam gravel, limestone etc), the Central Coast has something for everyone. For example, warmer areas of the Santa Rita Hills, Santa Ynez Valley and Paso Robles kill it with Bordelaise the varieties. The outcome is beautiful fruit that shows more restraint than their neighbors to the north in Napa.
Other warm weather varieties fare equally well in the area. The Syrah here is plush, jammy, ripe, and even more elegant when blended with Grenache and Mourvèdre. This holds true for white varieties as well: Viognier, the darling of the Northern Rhone appellation of Condrieu, has found a home away from home in the Santa Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley. The pairing was so perfect that even “The King of Condrieu”, wine-maker Yves Cuilleron, decided to partner with Morgan Clendenen of Cold Heaven Cellars, known now as the”Queen of Viognier”, to produce a stellar example of this grape variety that combines Rhone and Californian grapes.
Santa Barbara is more Northern Italy than Northern CA
Are you ready to have your mind blown?
Some growers in the Central Coast are now experimenting with Northern Italian grape varieties that are rarely seen outside of their home country, including Arneis, Pinot Grigio, Friulano, Refosco, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, and Sangiovese. These grapes will thrive because, according to Steve Clifton, wine-maker at Palmina Wines, the AVAs of Santa Barbara are mirror images of the wine regions in Northern Italy.
The wines of Piedmont owe much of their character to the cool weather among the Alps and the warmth of the Mediterranean, just as the Central Coast is greatly influenced by the cool breezes of the Pacific Ocean and the warmth of nearby desert winds. It is this tension and interplay of warm and cold that produces such stellar wines. Furthermore, Point Conception, the area where the Santa Barbara Channel meets the Pacific Ocean, marks the point at which the Alaskan and Chilean currents meet. The joining of these currents results in a fog bank that often blankets the vineyards, much like it does in the Piedmont. Looking for proof of the fog factor? Nebbiolo, the rockstar grape behind Barolo, Barbareso and Langhe wines, takes it’s name from the word “nebbia,” which is Italian for fog.
So there you have it: 5 enlightening and inspiring facts about one of our favorite wine regions. Now go get your sip on!
Writer Amy Ullman is the irrationally exuberant founder of Wine for Rookies. She received a Bachelor of Liberal Arts from Harvard University in 2009 with concentrations in Economics and French. She holds the title of Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers, a Certified Specialist of Wine through the Society of Wine Educators, and is currently working on her Diploma of Wine and Spirits via the Wine and Spirits Education Trust.