04/13/2012 11:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Sta. Rita Hills: Young Appellation Fulfills Its Promise

Sta. Rita Hills AVA trade tasting at San Francisco's RN74

Twenty producers from Sta. Rita Hills, one of California's younger officially designated appellations, returned to San Francisco for the second time in two years for a tasting for wine buyers and media at San Francisco's RN74 Restaurant this month.

Sta. Rita Hills, formerly a part of the Santa Ynez Valley appellation in Santa Barbara County, gained American Viticultural Area (AVA) status only in 2001. It has long been thought to be a particularly promising area thanks to its location near the ocean, giving it cool growing conditions, and to its hilly sites and geology, including calcareous soils which often make for particularly minerally wines in Europe.

Based on last week's tasting of 72 wines from this appellation, I am happy to report this region is definitely starting to fulfill its promise as a source of characterful, balanced and terroir-driven wines -- from flavorful Chardonnay and Viognier to minerally and complex Pinot Noir and Syrah.

I was, in fact, thoroughly delighted with the wines overall. Many were from the relatively cool recent vintages -- 2009, 2010 and 2011 -- which seem to have been ideal for Sta. Rita Hills, permitting lots of hang time, adding complexity and flavor to the region's wines.

Sta. Rita Hills AVA sits between the towns of Buellton and Lompoc in Santa Barbara County, comprising about 100 square miles and 1,700 planted acres. Its two east-west oriented valleys are formed by the Purisima Hills to the north, the Santa Rosa Hills to the south and the Santa Ynez River flowing between them to the Pacific Ocean.

Pinot Noir dominates the plantings and reputation of this AVA. This is not surprising, given the cool climate and marine breezes that are ideal for Pinot. This was originally demonstrated by Richard Sanford's first vineyard in the area -- Sanford & Benedict -- planted in 1970, and the wines he produced from that vineyard under the Sanford label.

Richard Sanford

Lafond Winery also planted its first vineyards in the area that same year. They were followed by Babcock Winery in 1980. The rest of the vineyards here date mostly from the mid- to late-1990s, when several Pinot Noir enthusiasts bought land in the area with the aim of growing cool climate Pinot.

That said, there's also terrific Chardonnay now coming from Sta. Rita Hills.

I reported here recently on the In Pursuit of Balance tasting, where I got to sample two Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnays from Sandhi Wines. Those Chardonnays and a 2002 from Clos Pepe are the best Chards I've had yet from the region -- minerally, structured and complex. At this tasting, I was also thrilled by Chardonnays from Alma Rosa, Liquid Farm and Longoria.

Pinot Noirs from Sta. Rita Hills range from the ripe and fruity style of Sea Smoke and Loring (neither of which were represented in this tasting) to the higher acid, more "Burgundian" styles of Alma Rosa, Clos Pepe and Longoria.

One tends to find lots of black fruit -- black cherry, berry and plum -- in Pinot Noir grown in this AVA, as well as intense red fruit: cranberry, cherry and raspberry. I think these flavors owe in large measure to the Dijon clones, like 115, 667 and 777, that dominate the plantings. The good news is that more California heritage clones, like Mount Eden and Calera, are also being planted, which should help to diversify the flavor profile.

The Sta. Rita Hills Winegrowers Alliance includes both owners of vineyards located within the geographical boundaries of the appellation and winemakers who make wine from grapes grown there. Some, like Peter Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe and Zotovich Family Vineyard, are both growers and wine producers.

Peter Cargasacch

The Association's website lists a total of 46 members. The participants in this tasting included many of the names most identified with this AVA, like Alma Rosa, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Fiddlehead, Hartley-Ostini Hitching Post and Longoria.

Of the 72 wines I tasted, I scored 28 of them, or 39 percent, 92 points or higher. That's a very high percentage of high scoring wines at an appellation tasting like this, which is why I felt very excited about wines from many of these producers, including some that I usually taste year after year.

For example, the wines from Richard Sanford's Alma Rosa were the best lineup from this producer I've tasted yet, including a delicious Pinot Blanc, admirable Chardonnay and thrilling Pinot Noir based on the Mount Eden clone.

The wines from Cold Heaven were similarly impressive. After I complimented winemaker/proprietor Morgan Clendenen on the lineup -- including not only the Viogniers for which she has long been admired, but also thoroughly delicious barrel samples of her 2010 Pinot Noirs and a Syrah -- she admitted she feels she's "in a groove now" after many years of getting to know the vineyards from which she sources.

Morgan Clendenen

The producers responsible for one or more wines I rated 92 points or higher were Alma Rosa, Ampelos, Cargasacchi, Clos Pepe, Cold Heaven, Dierberg, Dragonette, Flying Goat, Gypsy Canyon, Liquid Farm, Longoria, Siduri and Zotovich Family.

For more details on many of these producers, and my complete tasting notes, see my full blog post here.

A note about the peculiar looking abbreviation/punctuation of the AVA's current name: 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.