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Sta. Rita Hills: Top Choices from One of California's Greatest Sites

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View of southern portion of Sta. Rita Hills AVA, from the top of the Mt. Carmel vineyard

Sta. Rita Hills AVA is a 10 mile stretch of land between the Santa Barbara County towns of Buellton and Lompoc that encompasses two wind buffeted valleys and the east-west transverse hills that rise between them. The cool climate, super long growing season and largely poor soils here facilitate the production of wines that potentially "have it all": weight, body, richness, minerality and scintillating acidity. Winemakers elsewhere around the world would kill to have this combination of favorable conditions, making it possible to produce fine wines in just about any style a winemaker wants.

Winegrowing here dates back only to the 1974 planting of the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard -- the subject of a previous piece here. Most of the existing vines in the AVA were planted starting in the mid-1990s. Nonetheless, the results to date have already shown the tremendous potential of this area, and refinements are constantly going on in vineyards here and with new plantings. I truly believe that anyone interested in New World wines in general and cool climate wines in particular should know about this region and seek to sample some of its stellar Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and Syrahs.

I spent two days in the appellation on my last Santa Barbara County visit at the end of last year, doing a day and a half of intensive comparative tastings, organized by Sao Anash and Chad Melville. I got a much deeper sense of the appellation's geography thanks to a three-hour tour led by Chad, whose family has been growing grapes here since 1997. I also spent a few hours with Wes Hagen of Clos Pepe, the author of the region's 1997 application for AVA status that was ultimately approved in 2001.

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Chad Melville beginning my appellation tour at Melville Vineyard

As Wes explains, this special microclimate began forming 20 million years ago when tectonic plate movements pushed mountains up from the ocean here in a north-south orientation. Over a period of 12 million years, the mountains gradually broke from the plate and shifted east to west. Wes calls the area "the most erosive, geologically unstable part of California."

It's this east-west orientation that makes this 100 square mile area so special. Fog and cool winds generated by the Humboldt Current off the coast are drawn in daily through the east/west maritime throat, keeping temperatures predictably low and balmy, even throughout the summer.

Sanford and Benedict originally planted a number of varieties, including Bordeaux varieties, at their pioneering vineyard. Reportedly the results were good even with the Merlot, which tends to perform better in warmer growing conditions. It was the Pinot Noir at Sanford & Benedict, however, that really grabbed the critics' attention, leading to lots more Pinot being planted as additional growers arrived.

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Wes Hagen by the 900,000 gallon irrigation pond at Clos Pepe

According to Wes Hagen, 72 varieties of grapes are now grown in this compact appellation. The vast majority of its 2800 planted acres, however, consists of Pinot Noir, amounting to over 75 percent of the plantings. Chardonnay follows with about 18 percent of the vineyard area. About 150 acres are planted to Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and other white grapes.

When plantings got going in earnest in this region, in the mid-1990s, the newly released Dijon clones of Pinot Noir were all the rage. These clones produce distinct red and black fruit characteristics. With the long hang time potential here, and a common tendency to wait until full ripeness through the late 1990s and early 2000s, those flavors became quite intense. With wines from Sea Smoke, Loring and others in this style getting high points from major critics who favor big, ripe wines, the appellation quickly gained a reputation for this style of wine.

In more recent years, however, California heritage clones, like Mount Eden and Calera, have also been planted, helping to diversify the flavor profile. Melville's 66 acres of Pinot, for example, contain 14 different clones.

Producers like Melville, Brewer-Clifton and Sandhi have also used significant whole cluster or stem inclusion to add texture and savory characteristics to the fruit. It takes a lot of work in the field to do this successfully. Estate producers like Melville, after years of vineyard work, are making that happen, and it's helping to bring a depth and dimension to their wines that is very appealing.

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One of the comparison tastings at Melville with, from left to right: Rick Longoria, Mark Horvath, Bill Wathen, Greg Brewer, Fred Swan, Richard Sanford, RJ and Jenne Lee Bonaccorsi

Out of the 150-plus Sta. Rita Hills wines I sampled over the past year, I rated a high percentage of them, over 46 percent, 92 points and higher. In the full version of this report on my blog here are tasting notes for the 70 wines I rated at this level, including more information on many of the major producers.

In the case of the Chardonnays, there is exceptional minerality amongst the best of those, along with lively acidities and rich fruit. Those ranked highly are very age-worthy.

Pinot Noir here still does tend to show a lot of ripe red fruit -- cherry, raspberry and cranberry -- along with black fruit typical of certain Dijon clones. I also find a lot of appealing spice here, like cinnamon, orange spice and Asian five-spice. Thanks to the cool climate and soils, there is always that balancing acidity to the Pinots that distinguishes them from ripe, Dijon-clone dominated Pinots from warmer parts of the State, like the Russian River.

Final note: The AVA was known from 2001 to 2006 as Santa Rita Hills AVA. As the result of a protest by and subsequent negotiations with Viña Santa Rita, a large Chilean wine producer, the name was officially changed on January 6, 2006 (with producers given a year to change their labels), to Sta. Rita Hills.

Follow Richard Jennings on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rjonwine