You have tried California Chardonnay before, and think perhaps you know what it tastes like.
The most common ones are oaky and buttery in style, (or were at their height of popularity, many winemakers are now trying a leaner style), and come from the Carneros region, an AVA shared by Napa and Sonoma.
But there are other regions that speak of their own soils and climate.
There’s something different about Chardonnays from the Santa Maria Valley, the northernmost sub-AVA of Santa Barbara.
Matt Kramer, critic and longtime contributor to Wine Spectator, praised them as California’s “most opulent Chardonnays” in his book New California Wine. He was impressed with their “massive fruit,” tempered by strong acidity, especially noting flavors of lime and coconut.
The fruitiness is especially intriguing, because it is not a characteristic classically associated with Chardonnay. Yeastiness, toastiness, and butteriness, yes, all products of vinification–Chardonnay is a grape that shows the winemaking process better than the fruit itself. But not fruit. Fruit is associated with Muscadet, Sauvignon Blanc–zesty wines.
I set out to learn more. I bought myself a bottle of SM Valley Chardonnay, and I emailed several SM Valley wineries.
“Santa Maria Chardonnay is definitively full of citrus flavors: lemon, lime zest, maybe some bergamot,” says Laura Booras, general manager for Riverbench Vineyard and Winery.
“Of course, that’s just the fruit, so once you add in oak (or not) it changes a lot….Our Chardonnays tend to be leaner because it’s so cool here, with a big hit of minerality.”
Cameron Porter, estates manager for Presqu’ile Winery, distinguishes between different parts of the valley. He says the wine:
“varies somewhat depending on where you are in the valley. On the west end, where we are, the wines are taut and precise, driven by acid and wet-stone minerality. The fruit profile tends toward lemon zest/lemon curd, lime, and just-ripe tropical fruits.”
“On the northern/eastern end, where vineyards such as Bien Nacido and Cambria are, the wines have more weight without losing that balancing acid. The fruit profile starts to head more into peach and apricot, and the wines are fleshier overall.”
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Santa Barbara AVA is the transverse range, a range of mountains that run west to east from the ocean. The mountains along the West coast run north south for the entire length of the United States, then briefly turn inward here.
The ocean air funnels inwards, making the SB wine region one of the coolest in the state, despite its southerly latitude. SM Valley sits in its direct path.
“The Santa Maria Valley is an ancient riverbed that runs east to west instead of north to south,” says Booras.
The cool ocean air “means the valley has one of the longest growing seasons in the country and the grapes can develop a ton of character without being super high in alcohol.”
Norman Beko, owner and winemaker for Cottonwood Canyon Winery, observes another feature.
“We are at 500 feet elevation and have a micro climate which is strange because, historically, we receive about ten inches of rain less than the properties 60 feet west of our 78 acres. I believe this is because the ocean breeze which we receive about 1:00 p.m. daily, pushes the clouds away.”
Kramer talks about this battle between fog and sunshine distinctive to this location.
When he wrote his book, the SM Valley received 87 days of fog per year. The cool, moist ocean air creeps in, then duels with the inland heat, creating the fog, which ultimately burns off for part of the day.
The delicate balance between sunshine, fog, and the right growing temperature lend the wines a long growing season and an acidity that hits the sweet spot.
Porter notes that the west side of the valley is cooler, creating “brighter, leaner wines,” while the east is warmer as the ocean air is less prevalent, creating richer wines.
He also notes soil differences:
“The west end is essentially a giant sand dune. The northern/eastern half has much more clay and rock (shale, sandstone), which brings more body.”
What are the current vintages like?
The Chardonnays currently released by Riverbench are “mostly 2015, another even year with little variation, so the grapes have tons of flavor and character. The wines are super complex,” says Booras.
“The 2014 vintage [the current vintage for Presqu’ile] has a generous character, with plenty of fruit, backed by great acid,” says Porter. They are also selling some 2013s.
Cottonwood Canyon is selling several vintages dating back to 2009, and had no comment on the latest vintage.
I opened up a bottle of Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, with fruit mostly from Santa Maria, to get a taste of this place.
The nose was toasted coconut, vanilla, clover, with a metallic minerality; while the palate was coconut, vanilla, lemon, and lemon thyme.
There was also the spirit of something distinctly SoCal present: I got an image of a pot of succulents paddling across a sunny swimming pool.
It seemed more fruit-driven than body/texture driven, and that’s the sense I got from interviewing these wine professionals, as well. More fruit, less butter–a refreshing take on an old classic.
And we thought we knew California Chardonnay.
P.S. I first tried the Chardonnay at a cool, but not cold temperature, and it sung. Then I put it back in the fridge, and it became austere and shy. It behooves us to remember that Chardonnay is best at slightly warmer than fridge temperature.