Santa Barbara Coast

The Santa Barbara Coast is rapidly gaining awareness as a world-class viticultural area. To understand why this region is so well-suited to the growing of premium wines, consider the key elements of producing premium-quality varietal grapes: climate, soil, and topography. In these determinants of viticultural quality, the Santa Barbara Coast uniquely combines the characteristics of two other world-class wine growing regions: Northern California and France.

Like Northern California and France, the climate of the Santa Barbara Coast is influenced by its proximity to the ocean. The Santa Barbara Coast’s unique location and topography create a more direct marine influence than in most Northern California vineyards, with resulting cooler temperatures. In the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, cold Arctic Ocean currents flow down the Pacific Coast to create fog and cool ocean breezes, which roll into the coastal valleys and lower the warm summer temperatures. This provides a moderate Mediterranean climate of primarily Region II and III temperatures, which enables the grapes to properly mature and develop the correct balance of acid and sugar. Here, the fog and maritime breezes must rise over the Coastal Range or flow up through the San Francisco Bay to reach the North-South Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

In contrast, the Santa Barbara Coast has unique East-West valleys open to the ocean, which allow the cool ocean fog and breezes to funnel directly into the coastal valleys. This direct marine influence results in Region I and II temperatures, which are among the coolest of California’s premier wine-growing regions. The result is a long, even growing season which is particularly well-suited for producing Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. These varietals develop slowly to maturity here, and attain subtle character and complexity.

The vineyard soils of the Santa Barbara Coast, like the soils of Bordeaux and Burgundy in France, also benefit from their ancient geological history. Much of the Santa Barbara Coast, like many of France’s premier growing regions, is former ocean bottom. This results in a high concentration of sand, gravel, and limestone in the soils. Rivers from the mountains have also deposited rocky, alluvial soils in this area. This unique soil composition provides low nutrition and excellent drainage, which favors extensive root development, limited vine growth, and grapes with concentrated flavor. The sloping topography of the low, rolling hills are advantageous for proper sun exposure and maximum drainage. Together, the soils and topography of the Santa Barbara Coast provide an ideal terroir for prime varietal viticulture.

Although these excellent viticultural credentials were discovered in the 1930′s, the region’s potential was not fully realized until the advent of the California white wine boom in the early 1970′s. Because this region’s cool climate is so well suited to the growing of premium Chardonnay, plantings of this and other early-ripening varietals increased dramatically at that time. In fact, over half of the region’s vineyards were planted between 1964 and 1974.

Now that those vines have entered their prime, noted French viticulturalist Professor Enjalbert’s 1973 comment appears to have been prophetic: “All things being equal, the Santa Maria region [i.e. the Santa Barbara Coast] would very well be in 12 to 15 years at the very head of the quality production in California.”

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Database used with permission of Vintage Wine Lover’s Software.

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