California is known for its produce. All different kinds.
Since this is a wine blog, let’s get into the most important produce there is…the wine grape.
Now, there are many regions in California that grow wine grapes. In fact, wine grapes are grown in 49 of the 58 counties in California. Most of them grown in a designated AVA (American Viticulture Area).
Today we are going to look at a specific AVA and the grapes grown there: Santa Maria Valley AVA in the Santa Barbara/San Luis Obispo Counties.
What is an AVA?
An American Viticulture Area is defined as a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States, providing an official appellation for the mutual benefit of wineries and consumers.
Winemakers frequently want their consumers to know about the geographic pedigree of their wines, as wines from a particular area can possess distinctive characteristics. Consumers often seek out wines from specific AVAs, and certain wines of particular pedigrees can claim premium prices and loyal customers.
If a wine is labeled with an AVA, at least 85% of the grapes that make up the wine must have been grown in the AVA, and the wine must be fully finished in the state where the AVA is located.
Little known fact: Santa Maria Valley AVA is California’s 3rd AVA, established in 1981.
A little more history about the area
Even though the AVA was established in 1981, wine grape growing in the Santa Maria Valley goes further back in time.
When California was known as Alta California, it was first occupied by Spain, then Mexico. Mexican Colonials planted wine grapes in this area in the 1830s.
The US took over California in 1848, with CA becoming a state in 1850.
Prohibition hit in 1920 and wine grapes in the Valley were pulled out or left to die. Wine grapes weren’t reintroduced in this Valley in the late 1960’s.
What’s happening now
The Santa Maria Valley occupies the northern perimeter of Santa Barbara County on California’s Central Coast, which is today recognized as one of the world’s most dynamic wine-growing regions. The Santa Maria Valley appellation is bounded by the San Rafael Mountains and the Los Padres National Forest to the east, and by the Solomon Hills and the city of Santa Maria to the west.
This AVA is about 98,000 acres large and has about 7,500 acres of wine grape vines planted with about 25 different varietals.
A portion of the AVA spills across the Cuyama River into the southernmost corner of San Luis Obispo County-and introduces a change in climate. The east–west orientation of the wide, open valley means cool winds and fog flow in freely from the Pacific Ocean, settling most noticeably in lower-lying areas.
This climatic effect is significant in several viticultural areas along California’s Pacific coast, as the cool maritime influence lengthens the growing season and contributes to the eventual sugar/acid balance in Santa Maria Valley’s wines.
Indeed, Santa Maria Valley’s extended grape-growing season is among the longest in the world.
With the Valley flowing in a west to east direction, it is very advantageous for cooler climate grapes like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, two wines that excel in that region.
Low rainfall, mild temperatures and a prolonged growing season are not the only features of the AVA’s terroir – the loamy soils are relatively free draining, preventing the vines from becoming waterlogged in almost all conditions.
The proportion of sand and/or clay in these loams varies from area to area, depending on the local geology. Limestone is present in some of the region’s most exceptional vineyards.
So what does all of this mean to wine? Exceptional grapes.
While the Burgundian Pinot Noir and Chardonnay dominate the area, here is a quick list of the other varietals grown:
- Cabernet Sauvignon
- Cabernet Franc
- Chenin Blanc
- Petit Verdot
- Pinot Banc
- Pinot Gris
- Sauvignon Blanc
- Tocai Friulano
As you can see, it is a big mix. Finding a big varietal list, like this, is very common for the Santa Barbara County. And it isn’t just the Santa Maria Valley AVA that benefits from the east to west direction…it’s all of the Santa Barbara County wine region.
Pinot Noir thrives in the Santa Maria Valley AVA
Wine grapes are grown in climates and conditions that are best for ripening. Pinot noir is a red grape that has a thinner skin. With a thin skin, it can’t take a lot of heat and can possibly get damaged.
The natural air conditioner known as the Pacific Ocean sits about 14 miles from the Santa Maria Valley. With morning fog that doesn’t break up until late morning to early afternoon, temperatures are always on the cooler side in the western part of the valley. The further up valley to the east, temps get a bit warmer.
As mentioned previously, this Valley has some of the longest ripening times. This translates into full fruit flavors and low acid.
Depending on the heat index for that season, it could also mean lower sugars at harvest time. A lower sugar will translate into lower alcohol.
This combination will give a wine a very nice balance of fruit and acidity. Since the skin of the grape is not that thick, the tannins for these wines are very soft, as well.
What about the other reds?
Again, going back to the east to west flow of the valley, cooler temps in the west and warmer temps in the east. The temperature variance can be almost 30 degrees from east to west.
Pinot Noir sits more in the western part of the Valley while a thick skin grape, like Cabernet Sauvignon, is growing in the east. If a Cab Sauv was planted in the western area, it wouldn’t ripen to its fullest. This would result in a wine that was very grassy, too low in alcohol and very bitter.
So the other red varietals are planted in their optimum temperature zones throughout the Valley. This also means, in small micro climates that are formed in smaller valleys created by rolling hills in the larger Santa Maria Valley AVA.
Chardonnay is the dominant grape in this Valley
Of course, that’s not too much of a surprise since Chardonnay dominates the state as a whole.
The reason it does so well is the same for all wine grapes–ripening time. The difference for Chardonnay is that it can handle a little more heat than a Pinot grape. So you can plant it in more climate zones. That’s why there is more of it.
Producers in this region have a tendency to not barrel age their Chard as long as others in the state. Because the grape ripens so long, the fruit flavor is really dominant. It tastes more like Chardonnay.
The same is true for all of the white wine grapes coming from this Valley. So producers really like to showcase the fruit, without a barrel masking that profile. Many use stainless steel throughout the whole process of fermentation and aging until it gets in the bottle.
What you get is an awesome wine with great fruit forward properties and a nice crisp mouth feel.
More affordable price points
One thing you will find, when it comes to wine from this Valley, is that they are not overpriced. You really get what you pay for, when it comes to Santa Maria Valley wines. And in most cases…a lot more!