10 Wines to Try in Santa Barbara County

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Check out our wine travel guide to Santa Barbara Wine Country

At 3,729 square miles in size, Santa Barbara County offers unique topography and climatic diversity that give birth to six AVAs (American Viticultural Areas): Ballard Canyon, Happy Canyon, Los Olivos District, Santa Maria Valley, Sta. Rita Hills, and Santa Ynez Valley. The distance between the grape-growing area and the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean is a key factor that shapes the characteristics of each AVA. The western areas are cooler, while the eastern reaches are warmer. The Santa Maria Valley lies to the north and the Santa Ynez Valley is further south. The grapes also show considerable vineyard-to-vineyard variation within each AVA.

Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are two varieties that are synonymous with Santa Barbara County. However, the county is not all about that. Santa Barbara County is among the world’s most versatile grape-growing regions with a wide array of microclimates. Rhône varieties have taken hold of the land, and the climate in Santa Barbara may be the best place for Syrah in California. The warmer area of Happy Canyon is a proving ground that Bordeaux varieties can flourish in this region. Italian and Spanish varieties such as Cortese, Barbera, Malvasia, Mourvèdre, Nebbiolo, Sangiovese, and Tempranillo can also be found in the county.

In this article, we spotlight 10 excellent examples of non-Chardonnay and non-Pinot Noir wines that are coming out of Santa Barbara County.
 

Exotic Wine Travel’s Picks: 10 Recommended Wines from Santa Barbara

Alma Rosa, Pinot Blanc, La Encantada Vineyard, 2013
Appellation: Sta. Rita Hills
Price: $28
Aged for 9 months in used oak. Filtered but not fined. This has an intensely floral aroma and persistent salinity. Flavors of white peach, honeydew, banana, honeysuckle, and citrus fruit. It has good weight in the mouth and the acidity rounds up this stunningly nervy wine.

Alma Rosa, Pinot Blanc, La Encantada Vineyard, 2013 wines from santa barbara

 

Ampelos, Grenache, Delta, 2012
Appellation: Sta. Rita Hills
Price: $37
Made from the fruit of the Ampelos Vineyard, which is sustainability-in-practice, organic and biodynamic certified. The grapes get extended hang time due to the vineyard location. Fermented with native yeast, the wine spent 33 months in 35% new French and American oak, and then bottled without fining and filtration. The purity of red fruit jumps right out without fanfare, but not in an overblown manner. There aren’t layers of complexity to ruminate over but the texture and lingering spicy, earthy notes can win many wine lovers over.

Ampelos, Grenache, Delta, 2012 wines from santa barbara

 

Dragonette Cellars, Rosé, 2015
Appellation: Happy Canyon
Price: $25
This is our favorite rosé wine during our recent tasting trip to the county. A blend of 80% Grenache, 18% Mourvèdre, and 2% Syrah. Fermentation is done with native yeast and temperature control. Malolactic fermentation is blocked and the wine is aged on the lees in neutral oak for five months before bottling. The result is a beautifully structured wine with vivacious fruit notes and a lengthy finish of flowers and pepper spice.

Dragonette Cellars, Rose, 2015 wines from santa barbara

 

Fiddlehead Cellars, Sauvignon Blanc, Hunnysuckle, 2010
Appellation: Happy Canyon
Price: $42
Only 164 cases are produced. Barrel fermented with blocked malolactic fermentation. Aged in new French oak for 10 months on the less. Additional four years of bottle aging before release. This Sauvignon Blanc is rich, loud, and eclectic, yet with enough restraint to appease most wine lovers. White peach, pear, lemon, toast, and a host of savory notes give this wine its unique personality, but it is the mouthfeel that stands out the most—rich and smooth to the point of being custard-like, with the perfect acidity to provide freshness. This is a good interpretation of Bordeaux-styled Sauvignon Blanc and a real treat.

Fiddlehead Cellars, Sauvignon Blanc, Hunnysuckle, 2010 wines from santa barbara

 

Grassini, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013
Appellation: Happy Canyon
Price: $65
The 2013 Grassini Cabernet Sauvignon is a blend of 90% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Petit Verdot. The grapes are 100% estate fruit from the Grassini Family Vineyards. Aged for 22 months in 50% new French oak and 50% seasoned French oak. This wine has all the elements of a great Cabernet Sauvignon. Notes of dark fruit, licorice, pencil shaving, and chocolate caramel fill the palate, followed by chewy tannins that lead the intense flavors down the throat. A boisterous wine that moves gracefully across the mouth and leaves a lasting impression.

Grassini, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2013 wines from santa barbara

 

J.Wilkes, Pinot Blanc, 2004
Appellation: Santa Barbara County
Price: Unavailable
At the J.Wilkes tasting room, a small collection of library wines is available for purchase and, sometimes, for tasting. We had the chance to taste a few of the older vintages and this 2004 Pinot Blanc stood out in particular. After all, it is not often that one comes across a Pinot Blanc that is more than 10 years old. The grapes for this wine are sourced from the Bien Nacido Vineyards. The bouquet is mostly driven by a mix of petroleum and chamomile, and the palate flashes out stone fruit and citrus flavors. This wine has definitely put on some weight over the years but remains fresh and easy to drink. While you may not find the same wine in the same vintage, it will be worthwhile to seek out a J. Wilkes Pinot Blanc with a bit of age.

J.Wilkes, Pinot Blanc, 2004 wines from santa barbara

 

Kaena, Hapa Blanc, 2014    
Appellation: Santa Ynez Valley
Price: $30
An interesting blend of 60% Roussanne, 20% Grenache Blanc, 10% Sauvignon Blanc, and 10% Riesling. The flavors are as interesting as the blend—notes of petroleum, melon, apple, lemon, mint, and an underlying sweet meatiness. The mouthfeel is round and only slightly oily. It would seem Rousanne might not get along well with Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling but the amalgam is, in fact, a lovely white that’s both savory and refreshing.

Kaena, Hapa Blanc, 2014 wines from santa barbara

 

Palmina, Nebbiolo, Santa Barbara County, 2009
Appellation: Santa Barbara County
Price: $40
The Nebbiolo grapes are sourced from four different vineyards in the county. Fermentation occurred with native yeast. The wine is aged for one year in French oak and three years in cask, then bottled without filtration. Steve Clifton makes a few different single-vineyard Nebbiolo wines but this entry-level bottling is enough to blow us away. It has everything that we love about a great Nebbiolo—rose, red fruit, tar, licorice, earth, and savory flavors wrapped in a tannic structure and energizing acidity. A powerful Nebbiolo yet it is immediately approachable and inviting. To us, this tastes like something between a Langhe Nebbiolo and a Barolo from La Morra.

Palmina Nebbiolo Santa Barbara County 2009 wines from santa barbara

 

Stolpman, Roussanne, 2014
Appellation: Ballard Canyon
Price: $28
A blend of 88% Roussanne and 12% Chardonnay. Fermented and rested in new 500-liter barrel. Bottled without filtration. This wine shows off the oily, elegant weight of Roussanne and the acidic perkiness of Chardonnay. Modestly aromatic with flavors of sweet cedar, ripe apple, melon, hydrangea, and a mineral backbone. It’s drinking well now but has a few years of aging potential.

Stolpman, Roussanne, 2014 wines from santa barbara

 

Zaca Mesa, Estate Syrah, 2012
Appellation: Santa Ynez Valley
Price: $25
A vibrant bouquet of black and blue fruit, mocha, and underlying dried flowers. Tart, juicy and precise, with notes of dark fruit, black pepper, and juniper on the palate. Acidic spine and ripe tannins bolster the structure. This estate Syrah is a screaming value.

Zaca Mesa Estate Syrah 2012 wines from santa barbara


 

Sipping Santa Barbara Out Now!
Sipping Santa Barbara - Recommended Wines and Producers - Book Cover

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wes hagen

Charine and Matthew have captured Santa Barbara Wine Culture with passion and aplomb, making recommendations that are amazingly sympatico with my local favorites. As a Santa Barbara winemaker since 1994, I offer enthusiastic praise for ‘Sipping Santa Barbara’ and would offer it to friends and family as a one-stop guide for planning and executing an amazing trip to one of the most underrated and bucolic wine regions on planet earth. If this publication doesn’t get you fired up for a trip to our Wine Country, nothing will!

Wes Hagen
Winemaker & Raconteur / J. Wilkes Wines, Santa Maria, CA
matthew kaner

Being from Santa Barbara, I have a lot to say when the topic of Santa Barbara wine producers comes up in conversation. Sipping Santa Barbara is going to be the primary source document I recommend everyone pick up when desiring to learn more about Santa Barbara Wine Country. From the formative producers to the most important newcomers, Charine Tan & Dr. Matthew Horkey paint a full picture of the diverse winegrowing that happens from the Southern tip to the Northern most point of Santa Barbara County.

Matthew Kaner
Wine Director & President / Will Travel For Wine, INC // Covell Wine Bar // Augustine Wine Bar // Dead or Alive Bar // AM/FM Wines // Good Measure (opening July 2017)


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Featured photo courtesy of Fiddlehead Cellars
The ideas expressed in this article are personal opinions and are not associated with any sponsors or business promotions.

Charine Tan
Charine Tan
Globetrotting Wine Geek & Brand Strategist
http://wwww.exoticwinetravel.com

4 thoughts on “10 Wines to Try in Santa Barbara County

  1. I have found that Byron Winery through the years has produced some good single vineyard Pinot .Noir. Also find that lighter oak Gainey Chardonnay has been pleasant.

    1. We agree about Byron. There are excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines all over the county. We wrote this article with wines from other varieties to show the diversity of SBC.

    1. Hi Carol! Good to hear from you. Just checked out your website; nice one. Santa Barbara is indeed a treasure trove of diversity and surprises. Do let us know what you think of the Stolpman Petite Sirah.

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