Santa Barbara Pinot Noir wines are some of the best in the world. In the incredibly popular movie Sideways, one of the characters describes this region as the "promised land" of the Pinot Noir grape. It is an ideal location to grow this varietal because of its climate and fertile soil.
About the Santa Barbara Region
Santa Barbara, as a growing region, is home to four official American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, as well as four more unofficial sub-regions, which have a diverse set of climates, soils and topographies.
Santa Ynez Valley AVA
The largest AVA in Santa Barbara is the Santa Ynez Valley. This region lies along the Santa Ynez River and butts up against the Los Padres National Forest.
A smaller AVA, Santa Rita Hills, lies within the Santa Ynez Valley. In Santa Rita Hills, temperatures can run anywhere between 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit lower than in the Santa Ynez Valley because it is closer to the coast. Another smaller AVA located at the far east end of the Santa Ynez Valley is Happy Canyon.
The topography of the Santa Rita Hills AVA is so different from other areas like Happy Canyon that it creates ideal growing conditions for Pinot Noir grapes. The cooler temperatures are more suited to producing a balanced, fruity wine.
Santa Maria Valley AVA
Just north of the Santa Ynez Valley is the AVA of Santa Maria Valley. This region is relatively cool during the mornings and provides almost perfect growing conditions for the Pinot Noir grape. Some of the top producers of Santa Barbara Pinot Noir are Au Bon Climat, Cambria and Byron. They are all located in the Santa Maria Valley.
This region is the most northern tier of Santa Barbara County. It is slightly less bucolic than the Santa Ynez region and doesn't cater as much to the wine tourism crowd, but the vintages coming from here are amazing and well worth the drive.
Los Alamos Valley AVA
This Santa Barbara AVA lies between the Santa Maria Valley and the Santa Ynez Valley. It boasts warm days and cold nights, creating grapes that have a lot of concentration and balance. Because the Los Alamos Valley isn't an official appellation, you will instead see "Santa Barbara County" on the labels of wines made here. However, the name often appears alongside the specific vineyard labels.
Happy Canyon AVA
This area is one of the newest wine growing regions and has recently become its own AVA. It is located on the far east edge of the Santa Ynez Valley. Because it is further inland than other Santa Barbara AVA's it has a much warmer climate. With a rolling terrain, high slopes and a variety of soils, this area is well suited for growing Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc.
American Pinot Noirs
While Americans continue to enjoy more Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon than Pinot Noir, there is a growing group of wine lovers who are making pinots their go-to bottle. The reason is understandable--American Pinots tend to be more aggressive with a lot of lavish fruit. They can sometimes be a little overwhelming for those who like more subtle wines.
However, as the demand for Pinot Noir grows, the winemakers are becoming more skilled at creating nuanced and subtle wines that are not as rich and heavy as their previous counterparts. Many of these more refined pinots are coming from Santa Barbara County.
Top Santa Barbara Pinot Noir
Here are a few of the top pinot Noirs that hail from Santa Barbara County. These wines have been highly rated by the New York Times wine reviews, as well as Wine Spectator.
2004 Siduri, Clos Pepe Vineyard, Santa Rita Hills
This bright, fruity, balanced wine comes from a husband/wife operation that only makes about 21 Pinot Noirs each year. The wine is earthy and crisp.
2003 Melville, Carrie's, Santa Rita Hills
Similar to the Clos Pepe, this wine has enough acidity to balance the intense fruit.
2005 Au Bon Climat, La Bauge au Dessus, Santa Maria Valley
This is a stunning, well-balanced wine that offers notes of blackberry and spice. Very elegant and easily quaffable.
2005 Rancho Ontiveros, A.P. Vin, Santa Maria Valley
The wines from Andrew P. Vingiello are rich with ripe fruit nuances and a wonderful structure.
2007 Au Bon Climat, La Bauge au Dessus, Santa Maria Valley
This wine is a serious bang for your buck. It is balanced and delicate. The winemaker, Jim Clendenen consistently produces excellent entry-level wines that are easy to drink and easy on the wallet.
What is Pinot Noir?
Pinot noir grapes are one of the top blending grapes in Burgundy wines. They are excellent for growing in cooler climates, such as Santa Barbara County. While this type of grape is difficult to grow, when it does, it produces some of the best wines in the world.