Santa Rita Hills Has the Right Kind of Cool for Pinot Noir

Posted: Mar 14, 2009 12:01 AM
Santa Rita Hills Has the Right Kind of Cool for Pinot Noir

With pinot noir on the lips, literally, of most wine lovers, prices for this most difficult-to-make wine have skyrocketed.

For decades, this light red wine -- perhaps the complete opposite of today’s cabernet sauvignon -- was known to be the offspring of petulant grapes that didn’t take kindly to being grown in warm areas. In the last 20 years of so, most warm-climate pinot noir plantings have been removed or converted to grapes that like warmth.

And even though growing pinot noir in colder regions was more likely to produce a good wine, the very attempt was not only risky, but often not financially rewarding.

The best way to make a great wine from this grape is with moderate tonnage per acre, and this meant that small crops had to be encouraged. This meant less wine per acre, and thus the wines would have to cost more.

And until the movie “Sideways” came out, getting a higher price for many wines was seen as rather dicey.

Now that consumers have discovered the greatness of pinot, prices for the best have risen to nearly $100 a bottle, and literally dozens of California and Oregon producers now routinely get $50 for just “very good” versions.

The number of regions that can be coaxed to deliver a great pinot noir are few and often within sight of water -- thus many are attractive as home sites.

Among the better regions for pinot is one in California’s Santa Barbara County that has less public recognition than it ought to, though many are now getting the idea that Santa Barbara in general is a great place to grow this variety.

Santa Rita Hills is the location, and it is west of Buellton in a foggy area that is quite cold and windy. Growing pinot noir is tricky in many colder regions, and this one is especially so because the Pacific Ocean crowds these vineyards on two sides.

Because of the way the coastline careens, there is ocean on the south and the west. Then, odder still is the fact that the cold winds that retard growth and grape development race east. Most California river valleys have north- or south-racing winds.

“It’s a very rare spot,” said Steve Fennell, winemaker for Sanford Winery and Vineyards.

“It gets pretty cold out there,” added Fennell, who thinks of Santa Rita Hills as one of the few blessed pinot spots in the state. In most of the Sanford vineyards, “we have an underlying mineral component in the wines with a trace of pepper, and there is great structure.”

Tasting through the lineup of numerous Sanford wines, there is a uniformity of one characteristic that may be likened to many pinot noirs in California’s central coast.

It is an aroma that reminds me of fresh tobacco leaves, a faint earthy-truffle-y note, with hints of clove, pepper, and berries. This is different from many other regions where the earthy/leafy aroma is less pronounced.

I love this regional characteristic in many Santa Rita Hills pinots, and found that the 2007 Sanford Pinots (just now being released) are more intense -- and backward -- than were earlier vintages.

Best bet for most 2007 wines is to leave them alone for at least two more years, so the wines can gain the complexity that tasting them indicates is lurking there.

“Pinot is like that,” said Fennell. “It needs time in the bottle.” But I also loved the classic nature of the regular bottling of Sanford’s 2006 Pinot Noir, now on store shelves. It’s a great example of the aroma that Santa Rita Hills wines usually have.

Wine of the Week: 2006 Sanford Pinot Noir, Santa Rita Hills ($34) -- The aroma is strikingly fruity with hints of tobacco leaf and pepper, red cherry and strawberry fruit, and a light, but complex midpalate. It tastes great now, but with another two to four years will be truly great. The 2007 version of this wine goes up to $40, so this wine is an excellent value. And yes, this is a lot of money for most people, with the economy the way it is, but the wine is actually a bargain in world-class pinot noir.