If you have ever made the trek from San Francisco to Los Angeles on HWY 101 in California, you have driven through some of the best, most scenic parts of the state. From cool ocean views in the south to mountains in the middle and seas of crops toward the north. But what you may not have known, is that along the way you traveled through two of California’s lesser known premier wine regions: Paso Robles and the Santa Barbara County.
While only 45 miles apart, these regions couldn’t be more different.
How are they different? Topography, temperature, climate, grape varietals. Each of these things contributing to the region’s unique identity.
Topography is what sets Santa Barbara Apart
While most of the state of California runs in the north to south direction, the southern part takes a bit of a turn. I call this the “elbow” of the state.
That’s why the sun sets in the south in the Santa Barbara area. It gets very confusing if you are not from the area.
This change of direction happens south of Point Conception in the Santa Barbara County. Because of this change, the Santa Barbara (SB) wine country is not like others, when it comes to topography.
Driving on HWY 101 from north to south, you will cut through the three valleys that make up this wine region: Santa Maria, Los Alamos and Santa Ynez. So as you are driving south, the ocean is on your right…about 20 miles to your right. That means the valleys are configured in an east to west direction.
The two major mountain ranges that are the natural boundaries for the three valleys are the Santa Ynez Mountains to the south and the San Rafael Range to the north. They form a natural V, with the widest opening to the west.
Within the valleys are a lot of smaller valleys that are created by smaller hills. These create micro climates that have vineyard throughout the valleys.
Paso Robles has its own Topography
HWY 101 seems to be a good landmark to use for both wine regions, for Paso Robles (Paso) it is what divides the east and west growing areas.
Unlike SB county, Paso is set up in a north to south direction, like most other wine regions in the state.
Paso wine country lies on the inland side of the Santa Lucia coastal mountains in San Luis Obispo County, and roughly forms a rectangle 35 miles from east to west, and 25 miles from north to south creating a single valley.
It extends from the Monterey County border to the north, to the Cuesta Grade below Santa Margarita to the south, and from the Santa Lucia Mountains to the west, to the Cholame Hills to the east.
Like SB county, there are many smaller hill areas that house the same micro climates within the single valley where vineyards are planted.
Both Regions Are in a Mediterranean Climate Zone with Differences
Even though Paso seems very inland, it is only 24 miles from the ocean. But because they are situated in a north to south direction, it is a very dry climate with warm to hot temperatures. Average temps range from high 80’s to near 100 in the summer time.
Because the Santa Lucia Mountains block some ocean influence, you really don’t get too much of a cooling effect during the day. Temperatures do drop at night, about 30 degrees on average.
SB wine country, if you remember, is east to west. The Pacific Ocean provides a regular climate pattern that you can set your watch to. Cooler in the morning with fog, fog burns off, valley warms up, the wind blows between 1:30 to 3 pm every day, sun goes down and you start over.
With the east /west configuration, there is an enormous temperature swing as you head west-almost 30+ degrees in the summer. Average temps for summer are 95-100 in the east and 65-75 to the west. Most of the locals say you lose a degree a mile as you drive west.
We talk about summer averages a lot because that is in the middle of the wine grape growing season. Harvest happens between September and October. The white wine varietals ripen earlier than the red grape varietals. That is why the harvest window is so big.
Climate and temperature are important determining factors that will dictate what type of wine grape you will plant.
Different Topography and Weather = Different Varietals
With SB wine region’s huge temperature range, they can plant an enormous variety of grapes. The region boasts over 60 different varietals.
- From cool climate Pinot Noir to heat soaking Cabernet Sauvignon, and everything in between.
- In total, there are about 23,000 acres under vine.
- The two most dominant varietals grown, as far as acreage, are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Paso also has that heat that robust gapes enjoy. And Cabernet Sauvignon is the most dominant grape. It makes up 39% of the 40,000 total acreage.
- Red is the favorite color in Paso.
- In fact, red varietals account for 86% of the wine grapes planted in that region compared to about 60% in SB county.
- Also because of the heat, Paso has about 35 – 40 different grape varietals that they grow.
- Chardonnay is the dominant white grape in this region, as well.
Interesting to note, the total acreage planted for the Paso region is almost double compared to SB but much fewer varietals grown.
That really shows how climate and temperatures will allow what to grow.
Each Region Has It’s Own Specialty
It seems obvious to assume that SB specializes in Pinot for red and Chardonnay for white and Paso really likes to make Cab Sauv.
But you know what they say when you assume….
SB county does produce Pinot Noir, and great ones. But, a majority of the offerings from the wineries are just a big mix. This goes back the huge temperature swing the county has.
For reds, Cabernet (Sauv and Franc), Sangiovese, Merlot, Syrah, Mouvedre, Grenach, Petit Verdoh, Petit Sirah, Malbec, plus more…they’re all there.
Because the overall temperature profile is cooler than Paso the acidity in the grapes is lower, therefore the wines in the region are low acid with a lot of fruit.
Paso, with their reds, has the heat to push the acid up. So while you are getting fruit structure from the same varietals, the acid is a lot more present. This creates an age worthy wine. A wine you can put in your cellar for a while and it will come out even better.
When it comes to the white category, the same type of effect happens. But white wines aren’t made the same way as reds are. You usually don’t have long periods of skin contact to add acid to white wine. So Paso whites have great acid structure with a nice balance of fruit. SB county wines are very fruit forward with a nice acidic finish. I would put Paso whites in the “with food” category (depending on the varietal), and the SB whites in the “with picnic” category.
Overall, both regions are strong producers and make some great wines. As with most things pertaining to drinking wine, it all depends on your personal preference.