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:

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