Minerality at the Margins: Chardonnay in the Northern Sta. Rita Hills

February 17, 2014

california wine vines“I’ll go out on a limb and say the Sta. Rita Hills is a Chardonnay AVA that’s famous for Pinot Noir.”  Wes Hagen is not one to mince words, particularly when it comes to his beloved Sta. Rita Hills.  Hagen’s Clos Pepe vineyard has become highly sought-after for Pinot Noir, so his statement may come as a bit of a shock.  However, after years of tasting Chardonnay from the Sta. Rita Hills, particularly its Northern half, I am inclined to agree with him.  These are unparalleled expressions of the grape, distinctly different from the south of the appellation, channeling a saline minerality rarely found outside of Chablis, yet with a presence of fruit and power that could come from nowhere else.  This week I spoke to several producers of Chardonnay from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills to find out what makes this part of the AVA so special.

The Northern Sta. Rita Hills corresponds roughly with the path of Route 246, which is essentially one giant wind tunnel that opens up to the Pacific.  As one heads west, the temperatures get cooler and the wind gets more extreme, making for subtle but noticeable differences from vineyard to vineyard, and very severe conditions overall.  In fact, Chardonnay often struggles to ripen here, a rarity for sunny California.  “We’re not guaranteed full ripeness in any vintage,” says Hagen.  “It is these on-the-edge appellations that produce world-class wine.”  Indeed, wines grown in marginal climates, such as those from Chablis or Germany’s Mosel River Valley, have an intensity and depth that can only come from challenging conditions.  The battered vines in this part of the region are better for their hardship, with a complexity borne from struggle that is readily apparent in the bottle.

Elder Sandy Loam
Elder Sandy Loam

The marine influence carries over into the soils, which are comprised of sand and sandy loam.  Much like Burgundy, the heavier soils are favored for Pinot Noir, while the leanest, sandiest blocks are comprised mainly of Chardonnay.  The Tierra and Elder series are dominant, with minor amounts of the extremely sandy Arnold and Corralitos soils.  This stands in contrast to the Southern Sta. Rita Hills, which has more clay, shale, and diatomaceous earth, and seems to produce Chardonnay with more weight and power.  Bryan Babcock, one of the area’s pioneers, sees significant difference in the flavor profile between the two: “I find the Chards in the southern half, most of which are growing on more fertile soils, to be fruitier in an apple-y or tropical way. In the northern half, along Highway 246, growing in more sandy soils, I find the wines to have more minerality. They are often more steely, mossy/wet stream bed, or broth-y, even to the point sometimes of having a bit of aspirin character.”  Tyler Thomas, a Sonoma transplant who was recently appointed winemaker for Dierberg, finds a similar soil-driven intensity unparalleled in California, saying “in the North Coast I used to seek out Chardonnay vineyards I thought would give us mineral character; almost a citrusy-saline nose with an electric mouthfeel.  I didn’t realize I just needed to source from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills.”

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One of the biggest questions with Chardonnay, particularly in an area such as this that produces fruit with an already distinctive character, is how to best capture it in the cellar.  From stainless steel to full barrel fermentation in new oak and everything in between, producers have explored the fruit from every possible angle.  Greg Brewer has crafted Chardonnay from numerous sites in the region for two decades, and while he does utilize some neutral oak in his programs, stainless steel is the chosen medium for what are, in my opinion, his top expressions of place: Melville’s Inox and his own Diatom label.  “The flavor profile we typically see has citrus character such as lime, lemon, meyer lemon, and yuzu,” says Brewer.  “There also tends to be oceanic/saline characteristics, particularly texturally.  Frequently, the sandier the parcel, the more crystalline and precise the resultant wine is.”  Without the support of oak, these wines are incredibly intense, bordering on austere, even at alcohols that can climb into the 16s.  Clos Pepe’s “Homage to Chablis” bottling, also rendered in steel, has this same stark character; one can taste the punishing wind and the sea air in every sip.

For those winemakers seeking a bit more textural breadth while still capturing the distinctive character of the fruit and the site, oak is utilized. “The growing conditions, certainly if you compare them to Chardonnay outside of the Sta. Rita Hills, lend more European lines to the wines, and it sets them up for a very strong and integrated expression of malolactic fermentation, lees character and new cooperage if the winemaker chooses the full elevage route for the maturation of the wine,” says Babcock.  His “Top Cream” bottling is a great example of this, beautifully integrating this approach into a wine that is still very much driven by place. The team at Liquid Farm, one of the new critical darlings of the region, utilize mostly neutral oak in their renditions from the area.  “We are White Burgundy freaks,” says co-owner Nikki Nelson.  “We wanted to support something that was domestically grown that really hit home to the energy, minerality, ageability and overall intrigue that the best wines of Chablis and Beaune deliver. The best place for us to do that was undoubtedly the Santa Rita Hills.”  They also choose to blend sites from the North AND South of the appellation, and the components that each brings to the blend are readily apparent.  The flesh and more tropical/stone fruit character of the South makes for a beautiful contrast to the North’s sea salt and citrus notes.  The result is almost like a marriage of Chablis and the Cote de Beaune, while still remaining uniquely Californian.

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In the coming decades, I would not be surprised to see the Sta. Rita Hills subdivided further as our knowledge and experience with the site character here becomes more developed.  This is not to say that one part of the appellation is better than another; rather, the goal is to better understand the subtle nuances of soil and climate that are distinct within the region.  Chardonnay from the northern Sta. Rita Hills is a great jumping-off point because its voice is already so distinctive and has been captured so vividly by its practitioners.  Over the next few months we’ll be exploring other facets of the Sta. Rita Hills and learning more about its sense of place.  In the meantime, grab a plate of oysters and some Northern Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay; it’ll blow your mind.

Special thanks to Hollie Friesen for the photos

Purchase select Chardonnays from the Northern Sta. Rita Hills:

Fred Brander and the Birth of the Los Olivos District AVA

February 9, 2014

photoFred Brander begins his discussion of the Los Olivos District not by reeling off statistics or carting out maps, but by walking out of his cellar with 4 bottles.  2 are unlabeled, 2 are in brown bags.  Brander comments as he pours a first taste from one of the bags, “This is a producer I really admire… I think it’s a good example of someone making more balanced Cab here in California.”  Its notes of cedar, ripe blackcurrant, and cassis, along with a prominent signature of American oak, place it squarely in Califonia; it turns out to be Ridge’s iconic estate bottling from Monte Bello Vineyard.  Next he pours the two shiners: one is a barrel sample of his young vine Cab, meticulously planted 5 years ago with an incredible array of rootstocks and clones (12 combinations in total); the other is a barrel sample of his old vine Cab, own-rooted, planted in the mid ‘70s.  Though young, there is already an intense, gravel minerality to both, along with all that exuberant young fruit.  He proudly informs me that the alcohols are in the mid to low 13s.  We finish with the other brown bag, which has harder tannins, just-ripe plum, and a finish filled with notes of sharpened pencil.  We are clearly in Bordeaux here (it turns out to be a Pessac-Leognan from Chateau Haut-Bergey), though the leap from the Santa Cruz Mountains or the Los Olivos District to the Old World is, refreshingly, not a huge one.  His point is clear: this area is capable of site driven, balanced wines that can stand toe to toe with the benchmarks of the world.

A Master of Wine candidate and one of Santa Ynez Valley’s pioneers, Brander tastes blind like this just about every day, comparing his wines with other producers from around the world, seeking out new ideas, constantly thinking about how to improve his wines, his vineyard, and our growing region.  His latest passion is the birth of the Los Olivos District AVA.  The idea that this part of the valley may be worthy of its own AVA first arose over 10 years ago, when the Sta. Rita Hills became official.  “Sta. Rita Hills was the first to differentiate itself, and they did it based mainly on climate, which made me want to look further into the Santa Ynez AVA and see what made us different here besides the fact that we’re warmer.  As it turned out, the area that we are now defining as the Los Olivos District has very distinct and uniform soil and climate.”

Fred Brander tasting room
Fred Brander in front of his iconic tasting room

The soil in the Los Olivos District is part of the PositasBallardSanta Ynez association, which consists of alluvial soils and lots of gravel, in many ways reminiscent of Bordeaux’s Left Bank.  It is distinct from the limestone of Ballard Canyon or the serpentine and chert of Happy Canyon, the two AVAs that bookend the region, and its mineral presence is readily apparent in the area’s wines.  For Brander, this soil, and its uniformity throughout the District, is the most compelling reason for the creation of the AVA.  “The weakness in California AVAs is that they’re frequently not as specific with soils.  Even in Napa, where you have so many sub-AVAs, there is uniform climate within them, but there are often varied soils.  That is one of our big strengths here, that we have such uniformity.”  Starting at the 1000-ft. elevation mark (above this the soil shifts into a different, sandier soil series) in the San Rafael Mountains and sloping gently down to the Santa Ynez River, one also finds great consistency of temperature and topography.  “The climate is consistent, the topography is consistent, the soils are consistent, and I think these factors make a very strong case for this deserving its own AVA.”

gravelly loam that defines the Los Olivos District
A closeup of the gravelly loam that defines the Los Olivos District

Brander has become famous throughout the world for his various expressions of Sauvignon Blanc, which for me capture a minerality and purity rarely found outside of Sancerre.  Many producers within the District also channel this more restrained style, which is a wildly different expression from the rich, musky, tropical style found in Happy Canyon, one that I also love for very different reasons.  “Climate is a big factor.  Here in Los Olivos we have cooler temperatures, less of a diurnal shift, and the wines tend to have lower pH and more malic acid than Happy Canyon.  This area, in my opinion, is more conducive to making a fresher style of Sauvignon Banc, unoaked.”

While Sauvignon Blanc in a more precise style may be a defining expression for the AVA, for the most part the area’s varietal identity is still being sussed out.  “Rhone and Bordeaux varieties are certainly the two main groups that are planted, along with some Spanish and Italian varieties, and I think all of those have been successful,” says Brander.  “I’ve even tasted some Rieslings and Pinot Grigios that have been very good.  Chardonnay can also be viable in a style reminiscent of classic Napa, picked early with blocked malo.”  For my palate, which leans unabashedly Eurocentric, I find particular interest in the Bordeaux and Italian varieties coming from the District.  There is a freshness and balance in these wines, be it Cabernet Sauvignon or Sangiovese, which is distinctive and highly mineral, with a different character than that found in Happy Canyon or Ballard Canyon.

The Los Olivos District AVA is currently in the process of establishing its growers’ alliance, an important step for solidifying the community that will advocate for this region on a large scale.  “The AVA has the greatest number of wineries, i.e. winemaking facilities, within an AVA within Santa Barbara County.  We also have the history: the earliest vineyards were planted within the boundaries of the AVA, and we also have Ballard as the first township in the Valley, along with Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Solvang.  It’s more reminiscent of Europe’s appellation model where you have little towns inside them.”  Brander goes on to share that the next step in the AVA process is for the petition to come up for public comment, which will likely occur this summer.  If all goes according to plan, it should be finalized and approved by the end of 2014.

A map of the pending Los Olivos AVA
A map of the pending AVA

Santa Barbara County has seen an explosion of AVAs in the last 10 years, though unlike many areas established through the AVA system, which seem to have marketing as their raison d’etre, the division of our growing region has been firmly rooted in science and site character, with the goal of giving consumers an idea of the style and sense of place in the bottle. “If we can subdivide the Santa Ynez Valley into the AVAs needed to fill out the puzzle, I think it’s better off for the consumer,” says Brander.  “Besides this AVA, we need AVAs to demarcate the areas north of us, like Foxen Canyon and Los Alamos.  But I think we’re certainly advancing the ball more than we were 15 or 20 years ago.”  The Los Olivos District certainly has my vote, and I look forward to seeing the further discovery and refinement of this AVA in the coming decades.

Purchase Brander’s top Estate bottlings:
2014 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2016 Sauvignon Blanc

Making Old Bones: Jurassic Park’s Chenin Blanc Renaissance

February 2, 2014

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It was nearing dusk when I met Ryan Roark on Zaca Station Rd.  “Follow me…”, and up a winding gravel road we went, deep into the Firestone property.  As the road turned to dirt, we passed a simple wooden sign: “Jurassic Park Industrial Complex”.  Rolling slowly past oil derricks, around a bend in the road, we finally came upon the dramatic hillsides of one of Santa Barbara County’s hidden gems: Jurassic Park’s old vine Chenin Blanc.

In my mind I had imagined this place to be flat; for a commercially challenging grape like Chenin Blanc to survive so long here, I figured it must come from land no one prized all that highly.  What I discovered instead was steep slopes and intriguing soils.  The fact that this hadn’t been grafted over to one of Foxen Canyon’s more prized grapes, like Syrah or Grenache, was proof that someone saw something very special in these vines.  As it turns out, Firestone had kept this fruit alive as a blending component for their program through the years.  It really wasn’t until 2008, 26 years after it was planted, that a critical mass of winemakers suddenly started clamoring for this fruit.

I recently spoke with several of the producers crafting Chenin Blanc from this site about the different approaches and influences each brings to his expression, and felt the palpable excitement for Jurassic Park.  “I make this wine as an homage to my grandparents; they loved wines from the Loire,” says Habit’s Jeff Fischer.  Planted in 1982 by legendary farmer Jeff Newton (Coastal Vineyard Care), on its own roots, these vines thrive in the sand and sandstone (Arnold series to be exact) that make this vineyard so distinct.

Jurassic Park's eastern block
Jurassic Park’s eastern block
Jurassic Park's western block
Jurassic Park’s western block

Walking the rows, I observed distinct soil differences between the western and eastern sides (separated by a dirt road in the center).  The Western half appears to be more purely sand; walking up these steep inclines after a recent rain, my shoes continually sunk several inches into the soil.  The Eastern half, while still very sandy, had much more apparent chunks of sandstone, rockier in general, with perhaps a bit more loam.  “There are definitely some soil differences,” says Roark, “though I don’t know if they’re necessarily that apparent in the wine.”  Indeed, the aromatic profile of Chenin here seems to share a common thread among these producers, with their own personal stylistic choices creating the major differences.

For his Habit wines, Jeff Fischer strives to capture the minerality of Jurassic Park: “I love the high acidity, and like to pick on the early side.  I have been making it entirely in stainless steel, fermenting cold, and aging on the lees.”  This comes across in the wine, which marries the weight and aromatics of lees contact with beautiful salinity and very precise, just-ripe fruit character.  There’s a varietal and site-driven profile in his wine that reminds me of the drier expressions of the grape from Vouvray or Montlouis.  Fischer has worked alongside Ernst Storm, winemaker for Curtis, for his first few harvests, and says he has been inspired by Ernst’s history with the grape.

Facing east
Facing east

Born and raised in South Africa, Storm grew up around Chenin Blanc (Steen as it’s known in Afrikaans), the flagship white of his home country.  As winemaker for Curtis, he has had the opportunity to work with this fruit in the Curtis and Firestone programs for several years now, and will be releasing the first Jurassic Park Chenin under his eponymous label this spring.  “With 30 plus years in vine age, the roots have penetrated deep into the ground, giving us fruit that opens up to one more dimension.  I am a big fan of a style where the juicy acid is balanced by the added texture from ‘sur lie’ aging.”  Storm points to the sandy soil here as being a big factor in the unique character of the wines, one whose challenges are worth the risk. “The sandy soil controls the vigor naturally, and with a minimal, sustainable farming approach, the vineyard consistently yields fruit with a lot of natural acid, juicy flavors and added depth. However, it is quite apparent that the fruit is Nitrogen deficient due to the locality and vine age, so paying close attention to the fermentation needs is imperative.”

Ryan Roark built his label around the Chenin Blanc from Jurassic Park, discovering it while working at nearby Andrew Murray, and seems to have undergone the most radical shift in his winemaking approach of all the producers I spoke with.  Inspired by time spent working in the Loire Valley, Roark’s style has moved closer and closer to his greatest source of inspiration, Savennieres.  Savennieres, whose wines are frequently (and positively) described as smelling of wet wool and cheese rind, produces incredibly distinctive and long-lived Chenin.  To achieve an expression of the grape that hews more closely to this influence, Roark has moved to neutral barrel for aging.  Sulfur is utilized only when absolutely necessary, fermentations are performed by indigenous yeast, malolactic fermentation is allowed to occur, and there is great acceptance and encouragement of microbial development.  His 2012 was the first wine to prominently showcase this shift, and his 2013 in barrel really displays the cheese rind/wool aromatics of great Chenin.

Chenin Blanc
Facing west

Mike Roth, who recently left his post at Martian Ranch to launch his own label Lo-Fi, also derives inspiration from Savennieres.  His Chenin captures this richer, powerful expression of place with those same intriguing non-fruit characteristics.  While the argument could be made that these renditions are more style-driven, I still find the same thread of minerality and sense of place in these wines, channeling a different facet of site that is still unmistakable.

“I think I pick Chenin riper than anyone out there, probably a week later than everyone else.”  This is how Nick DeLuca begins his discussion of the Chenin Blanc he crafts for his Ground Effect label.  Granted, in this case, ‘ripe’ is only 22.8 brix, with intense acid.  DeLuca also takes the unique approach of blending his Chenin Blanc, typically with nontraditional grapes, giving it the proprietary name ‘Gravity Check’.  His 2010 saw it joined to Viognier from elsewhere on the Curtis property.  The 2011 was accompanied by Pinot Gris and Albariño from Edna Valley’s Paragon Vineyard.  And the 2012, his best yet, marries 87% Chenin Blanc with 13% Riesling from Area 51, another vineyard on the Curtis property.  Yet it is the Chenin in each vintage that has been dominant and readily apparent, its intense minerality being framed by the various accompanying grapes.  “There’s an earthiness to Jurassic Chenin, and it really comes out as the wine ages.  I opened up a 2010 a couple weeks ago, and it’s roasted without being roasty.”  Nick elaborates further that this roasted character is along the lines of hickory or BBQ smoke.

32-year-old Chenin Blanc grape vines
32-year-old Chenin Blanc

Other producers I spoke with identified the minerality here as being like sea salt or saline.  Without a doubt there is that oceanic influence in the wines, whether it is the roasted, almost peaty character that comes out with age, or the more precise, inorganic earth of young releases.  However one wants to describe it, this is the mark of a great site, where the soil and climate speak clearly through whatever stylistic choices a winemaker chooses to make.  Time will only tell if these wines will make old bones, but given the overwhelming passion devoted to the site and how to best express it, I have no doubt we’ll be happily sipping 2013 Jurassic Park Chenin Blanc in 2030, reminiscing about simpler times, savoring this time capsule in a glass.

Purchase select Jurassic Park Chenin Blancs:
Roark 2014
 Ground Effect 2014 ‘Gravity Check’

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