Focus on Santa Barbara County
2013 vintage across Santa Barbara County should bring plenty of choices and
pleasure to wine lovers who like to dig into their wines soon after release, as
well as for itchy-corkscrewed sommeliers whose lists are chiefly made up of
current releases. Many 2012s will give
early satisfaction as well, but this vintage has also produced some more
seriously structured wines, as I discovered during my October visit to Southern
California and subsequent tastings back home in New York
thousand thirteen was a warm, very dry vintage—a drought year, actually—that got
off to a quick start, with budbreak occurring in early March in many areas. Every month of the 2013 growing season—from
March through October—experienced temperatures above the long-term average, but
there were no bouts of freakish heat.
The early start and the long, warm growing season set the scene for
ripe, relatively low-acid, gently tannic wines.
And lots of them, as yields approached and sometimes surpassed those of
2012, which was itself a record-breaker.
A few old-timers told me that the last two back-to-back bumper crops in
the region were 1978 and 1979, so supplies of these wines, with the exception
of the usual trophy bottlings, won't be a problem for a while. (As a quick aside, 2014 is shaping up to be a
fascinating year, with clean fruit being picked across the longest harvest period
most winemakers and growers can recall:
from mid-August for some white varieties to late October for red grapes. Suffice to say that there will be wines for
fans of all types, from lean and racy to richly decadent; it all depends on
when the grapes were harvested, making it a true winemaker’s vintage.)
for 2012, the area’s red wines, especially the pinots, which generally looked
to be fruit-forward for early drinking at the outset, have surprised most
people, including this writer, by taking on a more serious, structured mien
than seemed possible during their infancy.
The extroverted fruit that was apparent early on is still in plain view,
no question, but the wines typically display more grip than they showed last
year, as well as more tannin presence.
They haven't hardened up so much as straightened up, which bodes well
Stolpman Vineyard, Ballard Canyon
talked with a number of winemakers about the fact that many vineyards in the
area, especially the most highly regarded ones, are moving into maturity, and
are thus now yielding grapes that can produce wines with more structure, depth
and power. Quite a few winemakers, like
Brian Loring and Brandon Sparks-Gillis (of Dragonette), noted that this kind of
fruit means that less new oak is needed now:
"The wines have their own native tannins and structure so new oak
becomes more a distraction than a benefit." I think they're onto something
here: I tasted more young wines this year that
exhibited greater varietal expression and Old World-style complexity than ever
before. That was especially the case
with many of the syrahs, which often showed less of the primary, jammy, even decadent fruit character that
marks so many New World takes on the variety.
I was thrilled to find more northern Rhone-ish olive, smoked meat and
floral qualities than I've come to expect from the New World, and we're talking
about two vintages, 2013 and 2012, that definitely lead with fruit.
of lumber, the move away from new oak is obvious throughout the region. This trend is being driven both by the palate
shifts of consumers and sommeliers and by the desire of winemakers to make
wines more in line with what they like to drink, as a number of them put
it. With a few exceptions this is a cool
climate, by California standards, so the region has always been in a position
to make low-octane wines, even without harvesting in, say, August. Growing seasons here tend to be long, and the
arcs of building fruit maturity and descending acidity are slow and steady,
without the crazy heat spike dangers of, for example, Paso Robles. “Hot” is a relative term and it’s good to
remember that compared to many New World regions, greater Santa Barbara can be
downright cold. Plus, it enjoys
beneficial, often wide diurnal temperature shifts, even in the middle of the
summer, as anyone who’s been there at that time can attest.
has been plenty of buzz over the subject of winemakers asking for fruit that's
harvested earlier than has been the tradition here—for higher acidity and lower
sugar and thus lower alcohol and pH levels.
Those earlier picking times can be too early, even way too early, in the opinion of detractors, who question whether
the resulting wines will have the stuffing and structure to age well. That debate isn't just heating up in Santa
Barbara County, but up and down California, as has been discussed in our
coverage of North Coast wines in the past.
We're still waiting to see how the wines made under such strictures turn
out in the long run; but based on examples I’m tasting from across the State
that are hitting their fourth, fifth and sixth birthdays, I'm a lot more confident in their promise
than the naysayers are.
-- Josh Raynolds