Bored of what California has to offer? Christine Austin heads to Santa Barbara to ride the new wave of wine from the Golden State.

It really had to be done.  Despite the long flight, the late night and early start I just couldn’t miss that opportunity.  For some reason, and this doesn’t happen often on wine trips, I was staying in a swanky hotel in Beverley Hills, just around the corner from Rodeo Drive in the affluent part of Los Angeles.  With the tune from ‘Pretty Woman’ running through my mind, I walked along the street, window-shopping all those brands that I have heard of but never bought. This is a place where money doesn’t just talk, it roars down the street in outrageously expensive cars.

Thankfully for my bank balance the shops don’t open until 10am by which time I was safely on the bus and on the road to Santa Barbara.

The UK drinks a lot of Californian wine.  In terms of the market share it comes third after Australia and Italy, but if you are a regular reader of this column, I suspect that you don’t actually drink so much of it yourself.  That is because the Californian wine market is divided between the pinkish, sweetish wines that are on almost permanent special offer around £6 a bottle, and the rarefied wines of Napa some of which can easily outgun top-class Médoc on price.

But now there is a new wave of Californian wines and it is the unprepossessing region of ‘Central Coast’ that is providing the excitement.

Head north from LA and pretty soon you will notice you are actually driving  north west, and as you get to the delightful, white-washed Spanish-colonial style Santa Barbara, the road is definitely due west.

The significance of this becomes apparent when you go up into the hills behind Santa Barbara.  Instead of the usual north-south range of hills that run the length of California, these hills, known as the Santa Ynez Mountains run east west.  So instead of shutting out the maritime influence with a range of hills, the Santa Ynez Mountains act like a funnel, pulling in cool air from the Pacific Ocean with morning fogs and afternoon breezes.

There is a significant temperature gradient along this valley.  ‘For every mile you go west the temperature goes up by 1 degree Fahrenheit, ‘ said Sashi Moorman, winemaker at the French-sounding Domine de la Côte. The soils vary too.  The influences of ocean, Pacific plates and run-off from mountains means that soils vary from sandy loam to chalk hills, and include one of the largest, whitest hills of diatomaceous earth I have ever seen.

Sashi Moorman of Domaine de la Côte

This gives winemakers a free hand when it comes to planting vines.  Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the most planted, but varieties such as Grüner Veltliner are being trialled in cooler zones while warmer areas are producing seriously good Syrahs, as well as other Rhone varieties such as Roussanne, Mourvèdre and Grenache.

For a region that has been growing grapes and making wine for decades it must be a mixed blessing that Santa Barbara County’s real fame has mainly come from a movie, although Frank Ostini is quite happy about it.  He runs The Hitching Post steak house, which featured in the movie Sideways, about two middle-aged losers, one with a drink problem, who tour the Santa Barbara wine district.  The scenery was fabulous, the dialogue was humorous and it was this movie that put Santa Barbara’s Pinot Noir on the map and in consumer’s glasses. Frank has been serving his fabulous steaks to a full restaurant ever since.  He also has his own wine, which scored highly in my tasting notes.  Until now his terrific Hitching Post Home Town Pinot has not been available in the UK, but it is currently on a ship and heading our way.  I’ll let you know when it arrives.

Frank Ostini

The best way to start exploring Santa Barbara’s Pinots and Chardonnays is to head to Hoults in Huddersfield and try the Nielson by Byron wines which come from the original 420-acre vineyard planted in 1964 in Santa Barbara County by Uriel Nielson.

The 2015 Chardonnay (Hoults £19.99) has rounded, peachy fruit with a clean, bright streak of freshness running though it.  The Nielson Pinot Noir 2014 (Hoults £19.99, also available at Buon Vino in Settle) stands out for its elegant, cherry and strawberry fruit, clearly showing the fresh flavours that this region can produce.

Field and Fawcett also has Four Vines Naked Chardonnay 2014 (£15.20) which, as its name implies is completely without wood aging.  Still rounded, smooth but allowing the yellow peach and apple flavours to shine out.

My top marks for Pinot from Santa Barbara went to Domaine de la Côte wines which are refined, precise and very expensive, but worth buying to experience just how good this region can be.  Head to Roberson’s in London for this single-vineyard, whole-bunch fermented, Burgundy-challenging La Côte 2013 (£75) made by Sashi Moorman.

Moving up the valley, away from the coast, daytime temperatures increase bringing the potential to ripen Syrah.  Ballard Canyon is undoubtedly warm, but the 163 acres of the Stolpman Vineyards are spread over a range of hills and manage to catch the breeze from two directions. The result is great sunshine, without baking the grapes.  Pete Stolpman who runs the estate, trained in France and there are rumours that some of the cuttings for these vineyards may have arrived straight from the Rhône valley. Whether it is the clones, the close plantings, the foot trading or just a superb location, these are the most impressive Californian Syrahs I tasted on this trip.  Find them at The Inn at Whitewell just over the border in Clitheroe, at around £28 which is where Bowland Forest Vintners operate (theinnatwhitewell.com).

For those who really know this part of California, you might wonder why Au Bon Climat hasn’t featured.  That was such a long visit, and such a great lunch that it deserves special attention, next week.

About The Author

Christine Austin

Christine is a wine writer, broadcaster and a wine judge for several international wine competitions. She has a technical background and spent five years as a buyer for a major supermarket before moving to wine writing.She writes for The Yorkshire Post Magazine and organises the York Festival of Food and Drink. She has won both the Lanson and the Roederer prizes for wine writing.

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