California, Santa Barbara County: The Good News Keeps Coming
August 28, 2015
The good news just keeps coming in with Santa Barbara County’s 2013 vintage. Growers enjoyed ideal growing conditions with a long, even summer, no real heat spikes and nearly perfect weather through harvest. The net result is a vintage absolutely loaded with outstanding wines.
On average, yields were up 20-30% over 2012, which was already a massive vintage, so growers clearly continue to push huge crop loads. While I heard different stories regarding berry sizes (huge, tiny, etc.), the common theme was a huge crop that continued to size from fruit set to verasion. Adam Tolmach at Ojai calls the vintage ?generous and easy? and Matt Dees at Jonata went as far as calling 2012 through 2014 dream vintages. When the vines will have to pay for the consecutive drought years and huge yields is yet to be determined, but time will tell. I spoke with numerous growers who said the vines looked exhausted this year (2015).
Looking at the wines, the 2013 Pinot Noirs offer pretty, forward and supple textures, with beautiful purity of fruit and already hard-to-resist profiles. Justin Willett of Tyler Wines said that his Pinot Noirs showed great right from the gate and that the vintage is all about texture. Victor Gallegos at Sea Smoke said 2013 blew him away and that he was shocked at the concentration he was able to get from the larger yields. While the vast majority of wines I tasted were already showing beautifully, given how the 2012s continued to firm up and put on weight and density, I suspect the best 2013s will be even better in a year or two and drink well for at least 4-6 years thereafter.
One worrisome trend for Pinot Noir is the push toward numerous single-vineyard releases, whether warranted or not. Not every part of each vineyard is unique enough to warrant a vineyard designate and I tasted more than a few lineups of single-vineyard releases where the wines were indistinguishable. This push toward more and more single-vineyard bottlings has less to do with highlighting a specialterroir and everything to do with the market-driven reality of selling wines via a mailing list and to distributors who always want a new wine.
As for the Chardonnays, most come from the cooler Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Maria Valley, and as such are more Chablis-like than Montrachet-esque. However, the style du jour seems more a winemaker decision than a true representation of the region. Winemakers continue to shy away from truly rich styles of Chardonnay in favor of the more racy, lively examples of the variety that, in this reviewer’s opinion, come up short on the depth and richness Chardonnay, at its best, can offer. No doubt, the top wines have beautiful purity and engagingly edgy profiles, yet they still take a back seat to the richer, more substantial efforts from California’s North Coast. Nevertheless, not everyone is following this trend and I highlight a boatload of outstanding Chardonnays in this report that are well worth your time and money.
In a similar vein, it is more and more apparent that while the trend toward harvesting before grapes are fully ripe and fixating on low alcohol can produce good wines – at times even outstanding wines – it rarely produces a truly great wine.
As for the Rhône varieties, Syrah continues to shine and dominate the top-tier wines from Santa Barbara County. Syrah in particular excelled in 2013 and the wines have awesome purity, depth and concentration. The 2014s might be even better. Great Grenache is rare in Santa Barbara County and few growers and winemakers have figured this variety out. Given what Manfred Krankl and John Alban are able to accomplish, it’s safe to say world-class Grenache is 100% possible from California.
What You Need To Know About 2013
This terrific, warm, dry year resulted in a huge amount of high-quality wines. There is a lot of wine out there so you can afford to be selective.
Looking ahead at the 2014s
Another drought year, 2014 was one of the earliest vintages on record and is yet again a bumper crop. The Pinot Noirs I was able to taste from barrel will certainly be on par with the 2012s and 2013s. The vintage looks even better for Chardonnay with a number of winemakers telling me they make their best Chardonnays ever. It could be the best of the ’12, ’13, and ’14 trio for Rhône varieties.
This report includes wines from Santa Barbara County and Edna Valley, which lies just to the north of Santa Maria and south of San Luis Obispo. In the past, I had included Edna Valley in the Paso Robles report due to the proximity of the two regions, but this cool-climate region has much more in common with Santa Barbara County than Paso Robles. I tasted all of the wines during my annual two-week jaunt through the region in June, followed by numerous tastings at my office in Colorado.
California remains a mecca of high quality winemaking and given the idyllic weather, the region provides an incredible amount of outstanding wines. I continue to be more and more selective with what is included in these reports.