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Right, fellow wine lovers, let's get straight into this:
The wine specifics
The Santa Barbara wine varieties can be broken down into four major players; 34% Pinot Noir, 25% Chardonnay, 15% Syrah and 4% Sauvignon Blanc.
But wait, there's more!
By no means the be-all and end-all of Santa Barbara talent, there are in fact 55 different grape varieties and an impressive 110 wineries in the region. And if that doesn’t have you licking your lips and skipping merrily to the wine rack, nothing will.
So, let’s break down those four main grapes into their primary characteristics:
1. Pinot Noir: He's weak but he's a prize winner
Considering the pinot noir grape is considered weak, pale and highly susceptible to disease, it remains one of the world's most prized wine varieties. A notoriously difficult grape to nurture (and one that will likely mutate before it even reaches adolescence) it causes all manner of headaches for the average wine producer. In Santa Barbara however, they seem to have quite the knack for it.
Try it: To lock lips with a smooth glass of this subtle red, follow the sound of the cool ocean breeze and head for Sta. Rita Hills. Interestingly the Sta. stands for Santa, but use it and you’ll get mixed up in a legal battle with the Chilean wine region of the same name. Yikes.
You’ll only find a handful of visitor-open wineries here but with an international reputation for producing the most drinkable Pinot Noir, coupled with a landscape that’s blanketed by rolling hillside and a majestic fog (a fog which aids the harvesting process) you’ll want to make the effort.
Most tasting rooms are open by appointment only so do your research and book ahead. Notable Pinot producers include Alma Rosa, Babcock and Lafond, all of which have websites you can check in advance.
2. Chardonnay: Don't dis her until you've locked lips with her
As the most widely drank white wine in the USA, Chardonnay is quite the crowd-pleaser. And being one of the most diverse grapes to fall from the vine, she always aims to please; delivering anything from warm and oaky to crisp and acidic, depending on ripeness.
A coastal air that runs straight off the Pacific and into the rich Cali soil has been credited with the distinct taste of an SB Chardonnay, although you’ll be presented with a different reason and a different explanation from every resident you bump into.
Try it: Venture to Santa Maria Valley – a funnel-shaped nook in Santa Barbara’s north and you’ll be rewarded with full-bodied whites and a couple of hearty reds. With approximately ten wineries to choose from, the Cottonwood Canyon will spoil you with both wine tasting and a cave tour. Available weekend afternoons and by appointment only. Make the effort because if there’s one thing better than just-opened wine, it’s the rich smell of wooden wine barrels – lined like warriors in the cold, damp confines of their wine cave.
3. Syrah: The one for the health conscious
Ahh the ‘healthy’ wine – one glass a day and you’ll never see the doctor again. Or so they say (they probably being Californian Syrah growers).
Packed with antioxidants – but let’s not sugar coat this, a hefty amount of calories and alcohol also – it’s a dark, full-bodied wine. Thick skinned and incredibly robust, Syrah grapes don’t half pack a punch; a hard wallop for want of a better word.
Try it: The Santa Ynez Range of Santa Barbara has proven itself to be quite the sweet spot for a rugged Syrah. Having said that, they’re usually slightly smoother than their old-world counterpart. Californian Syrah are grown under a fluctuating climate and an intermittent fog, allowing for a lighter-bodied Syrah than regions with perennially warmer climates such as Argentina, Spain and Australia. Often they are slightly lighter in colour and if you have taste buds as refined as a veteran wine aficionado, you’ll note the fruitier, tart flavours. Either way, Santa Barbara has gained an internationally acclaimed rep for a delicious Syrah.
4. Sauvignon Blanc: Once you go blanc, you never go plonk
By no means the biggest player on the Santa Barbara wine circuit, the old Sav Blanc still plays its part. As one of the county’s most harvested white wine varieties and only second to Chardonnay, its zesty clean flavour which is considered clean, crisp and fresh, proves popular amongst locals and visitors alike. We doubt you’ll leave without a few prized bottles in your possession.
Try it: A Sauvignon that has been winning prestigious wine awards for over three decades can be traced to the Santa Ynez Valley, in a vineyard by the name of Brander. Located in the town of Los Olivos, Brander was founded by Fred Brander, an Argentinian from Buenos Aires. He popped his first Sav cork in 1977 and he’s been winning prizes ever since. The winning formula has been credited to climate, soil and storage in French oak barrels, as well as a fermentation process that involves nothing but stainless steel tanks. The result? Little oakiness and a smooth delivery of crisp, mineral white wine.
Open for wine tasting Brander is a definite must-do on your Santa Barbara wine itinerary, but it comes with a forewarning; Brander made sav is highly moreish. You have been warned.
To try or not to try, that is the question.
...It's not. You should definitely try.
Whether you’re a wine novice or a full-blown connoisseur, Santa Barbara will surprise and delight every wine palette. With 80 kilometres of tasting rooms to explore, wine trails in the Santa Barbara region are extensive.
The simplest thing to do is find Highway 101, hire a car and plan your route. That way you can create your own trail to include favourites such as Santa Ynez Valley, Sta. Rita Hills and Santa Ynez Valley. And depending on time, a few days exploring Santa Maria and Los Alamos. Three or four vineyards per day is ideal; feasible as well as affordable.
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