Winegrowing Santa Maria Valley (+ a hand drawn map)

This write-up appears as a follow-up to a previous article on Santa Barbara County wine growing.

Santa Barbara Wine Country

For more information on over-arching growing conditions for the region, such as climate and weather patterns, please see that article, which appears here: http://wakawakawinereviews.com/2014/05/20/understanding-santa-barbara-county-wine/

Santa Maria Valley

Driving South through California on Highway 101 the sand dunes begin to appear as the road comes closer to the ocean. By San Luis Obispo (SLO) county (home to Paso Robles, San Simeon and its famed Hearst Castle, as well as Morro Bay) ocean succulents, and cypress dot the roadway, growing from sandy loam of the seascape. The highway hugs ocean through Pismo Beach, then cuts inland again lifting over a slight climb in elevation, through the drop on the other side. You’ve arrived in Santa Maria Valley.

Santa Maria Valley proves the second oldest appellation in California, after Napa Valley, and includes some of the oldest contemporary vineyards in Santa Barbara County (SBC), as well as some of the most distinctive Chardonnay plantings in the state. However, the area has received historically less attention for wine than its Southern siblings such as the Sta Rita Hills.

The Agricultural Richness of Santa Maria Valley

The Northern most appellation in Santa Barbara County, the land formation as well as the appellation of Santa Maria Valley include sections of San Luis Obispo county. From the North, it is the San Rafael Mountains that circumscribes the Valley floor, and the intersection of the Santa Maria River with the water flowing through North Canyon from Twitchell Reservoir that marks the SLO-SBC border. Bien Nacido Vineyards, for example, sits just inside the North-western edge of SBC while its strawberry fields on the flats sit just inside the South-eastern rest of SLO.

Santa Maria Valley proves one of the most agriculturally diverse, and active regions of North America hosting a range of berries, avocado, spinach, beans, squash, broccoli, cauliflower, and even a cactus nursery. With avocado entering the region in the 1870s, this section of California quickly became the primary supply for North America. It still hosts (one of) the largest groves in North America.

Grape growing through the region reaches back to the 1830s, with more contemporary vineyards being established beginning in the 1960s, many of those early own root vines still giving fruit. As a result of such agricultural diversity, the area includes one of the more residential farming communities in the country, with farm workers able to remain year round as they rotate between crops.

Local cattle ranching and indigenous beans find focus through the tradition of Santa Maria BBQ. It appropriately claims the title of Best BBQ in the West, offering a local-oak fired tri-tip that proves more spice-rubbed than sauced, coupled with a side of pinquinto beans. The beans stand as a reminder of the relevance of land formations in agricultural development. The small pink morsels originate from and grow only within this area of the Central Coast.

Winegrowing Santa Maria Valley

SMV map

click on image to enlarge

Santa Maria Valley AVA offers the only valley in North or South America with unhindered ocean influence. No hillside formations rise within the center line of the appellation to shade or shield portions of the valley floor. The mouth of the valley opens to the Pacific, with the West-East narrowing funnel of the region cut by the San Rafael Mountains to the North, and the Solomon Hills to the South squeezing together near Sisquoc. The center of the valley is defined by the open pull of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc river bench.

The shape of the valley generates a clockwork regularity of fog at night through morning, then wind by afternoon. It is the wind that balances disease pressure from the ocean humidity. Open valley floor also means temperatures average one Fahrenheit degree warmer per mile driven East. Some slight nooks along the river bench, or canyon formation along the Northern mountain and Southern hills offer variation.

Considering Soils

Soil variation within the valley can broadly be cut into four types. Along the Northern portion of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc River colluvial soils cover slope sides giving rocky freshness to grapes grown throughout. Moving towards riverside, soils become unconsolidated as mixed alluvial soils appear from old wash off ancient mountain rains.

Bien Nacido, for example, grows vines from hilltop, through slope-side, and into the rolling flats approaching Santa Maria Mesa Road. The absolute flats they reserve for other crops. Walking the midslope vineyards of Bien Nacido offers a mix of rocky soils rolling into Elder Series, and then finally sandy loam near the bottom. Bien Nacido, and Cambria (growing directly beside Bien Nacido to the East) both contain a mix of colluvial and Elder Series soils, with some dolomitic limestone appearing near the tops of slopes, and shale in mid-slopes further East in the Valley. By riverside, soils are entirely unconsolidated giving a mix of some Elder series, and some sandy loam.

Across the street from Bien Nacido, the soils change, becoming unconsolidated alluvial soils. Rancho Viñedo grows in entirely unconsolidated soils, Pleasanton Clay Loam. In broader context these sorts of unconsolidated soils are often treated critically when it comes to grape growing. After rains soils like Pleasanton Clay Loam act like cement, as the soils do not absorb water easily crops grown in such ground tend to flood. However, in a region where rain is rare, thanks to the rain shadow effect of the San Rafael Mountains, such concerns become almost irrelevant. The rare cases when flooding does occur in the region come from ocean storms hitting so hard and fast the question of soil has little to do with the result. Flooding would have happened anyway.

On the Southern portion of the Santa Maria-Sisquoc River soils dramatically change. The Western portion of the appellation rises from ancient sand dunes, once part of the sea floor. Sections of the valley, then are almost pure sand mixed through in areas with silt from mountain erosion. The South-western quadrant of SMV moves from almost pure sand, into sandy loam as you travel North-east, or silty loam as you move into the Solomon Hills.

Sections of the newer Presqu’ile Vineyard, for example, appear as incredibly sandy giving a sense of suave tannin to red wines. By the time you reach the Dierberg planting a touch closer to the river, however, it has become more sandy loam. On the plateau of the Solomon Hills North of Cat Canyon, overlooking the valley, Ontiveros Ranch grows in unconsolidated silty soils.

Moving East along the Southern side of the river, the valley squeezes closer to the river bench, and the ground changes to predominately mixed cobbles and rocky loam. Riverbench Vineyard, for example, includes blocks on rocky clay loam, approaching Foxen Canyon, or more rocky plantings approaching the riverside.

While the North-eastern section of Santa Maria Valley contains a predominance of colluvial soils and Elder Series from the Mountains, sandy soils appear mixed throughout Santa Maria Valley with some sections of these vineyards including sandy loam.

Though the valley’s soils can be described through four major types, and the region’s climate has an overall sense of regularity, throughout the appellation there are subtler distinctions within sites that must be expected. As examples, thanks to the ocean influence salinity plays unexpected while sometimes significant role in vine vigor. Slight rolling character in what might seem an otherwise flat vineyard site can create slight air pools that change growing temperatures for vines in those sections. Individual vineyards, then, have significant internal variation.

Establishing Santa Maria Valley Wines

Modern day viticulture appeared in Santa Maria Valley in 1964, with the planting established by Uriel Nielsen in what is now the Byron Winery and Vineyard facility. The area benefits from the cool climate of SMV while hosting the slightly warmer day time temperatures that give darker red fruit in comparison to plantings on the Western side of the Valley.

In 1972, Louis Lucas and Dale Hampton would establish what would become the famous Tepusquet Vineyard, simultaneously pronouncing the great viticultural promise of the region shown through the cool climate, the ocean influence, and the water availability even in desert conditions. The Tepusquet Vineyard now stands in the Cambria Winery and Vineyard facility at the Northern side of the Sisquoc River.

Soon on the heels of the Nielsen and Tepusquet plantings, in 1973 the Miller brothers would begin one of the most influential vineyards of the valley, Bien Nacido. The site would establish itself as what was at the time the largest certified nursery-service-plus-vineyard in the state. By maintaining soil testing on a regular basis and ensuring the health of the vineyard through FPMS certification, Bien Nacido could not only generating crop for area winemakers, but also vine material for future regional vineyards.

These three early vineyards served as what were essentially viticultural test plots surveying what grape varieties, clonal types, and rootstocks could prosper in the region. Figures such as RIchard Sanford, while known more for his original plantings in Sta Rita Hills, also played key roles in helping to identify the appropriateness for Pinot Noir in the region, the valley’s signature variety.

Other vineyards, such as SIerra Madre originally planted in 1971, would prove influential for their later replants. Santa Barbara County includes a long history of influence on the more well-known Napa and Sonoma counties. Well established winemakers known for their North Coast wines utilized grapes grown in SBC to blend and bring added dimension to their North Coast wines. Off paper, then, SBC’s grape quality has been long established.

In the 1990s, however, that reputation was backed up by a series of purchases from big name wineries such as Robert Mondavi, and Jackson Family. In the 1990s, Robert Mondavi took interest in the Sierra Madre site, and decided to use portions to graft newer Pinot and Chardonnay clones in order to study their viability. The unique quality of the site became inspirational force for a range of winemakers both within the region and without. Mondavi’s clonal changes predominately remain within Sierra Madre, some of which offer fruit unlike that seen anywhere else in the state.

Newer vineyards such as Solomon Hills, or Dierberg both planted in the 1990s, and Presqu’ile in the 2000s, expand insight on ripening in SMV. Set near or on the Western boundary of the appellation, each receives cold air, and afternoon ocean wind bringing ultra cool climate focus to their fruit development.

Pinot Noir of Santa Maria Valley

Pinot Noir proves Santa Maria Valley’s signature grape. The valley’s signature marks its Pinot with red fruit character integrated through with the classic blend of Chinese Five Spice and tons of juicy length. The subtle complexity of this flavor study, coupled with the region’s mineral tension, and juiciness give it a profile distinctive from its Pinot Noir neighbors to the North and South.

Within the appellation, soil and temperature changes give fine-tuned distinctions to wines grown from different vineyards. Fruit from the South-western quadrant, for example, consistently carries the suave tannin of sandy soils, and a brighter red profile than the wines of the warmer North-eastern section. The sandy soils have also shown the ability to manage a high portion of whole cluster during fermentation to good effect.

With older vineyards such as Bien Nacido still showcasing own-root original plantings of Pinot Noir, now inter-planted with comparatively younger grafted vines of the same vine material, SMV also offers unique opportunity for winemakers to experiment with fruit from older and younger vines grown side by side. At Byron, sections of the original clonal and rootstock experiment planting are maintained allowing winemakers there the opportunity over decades to separately vinify fruit by clone-to-rootstock combination.

The best Pinot Noir from Santa Maria Valley has also proven its ability to age well. The subtlety of the valley offers its Pinots what is an almost brooding even while red fruit character, that turns outward again as it ages giving slightly older examples a beautifully surprising energy and lift.

Chardonnay of Santa Maria Valley

While Pinot stands as Santa Maria Valley’s best known variety, some of the most distinctive Chardonnays of California herald from the region. Unique clonal material grows through SMV offering distinctive flavor profiles from vineyards such as Sierra Madre.

The underlying Santa Maria Valley Chardonnay character shows up as Meyer lemon curd on toasted croissant with a long ocean crunch finish. Depending on area of the valley you can imagine that profile dialing down towards more mineral at the Western-reaches, or up towards riper in areas like Cambria. The ocean influence often gives a distinctively pleasing saline crunch or slurry to the white wines, in some of the cooler and sandier vineyard sites it verges into olive.

The mineral presence plus ample juiciness of the fruit give a lot of room for successful oak integration, and/or more reductive character. The two techniques give breadth and length of presence to the juiciness of the region’s fruit without having to dominate its flavor.

Other Varieties of Santa Maria Valley

Rhone varieties appear in small but successful portion through Santa Maria Valley. Most famously, Syrah has done well through the Northern-middle portions of the appellation with producers like Qupe bringing attention to the quality possible from the grape grown in the valley.

At the furthest Eastern side of SMV, Rancho Sisquoc grows a range of grape types successfully producing the range of Bordeaux varieties in warmer pockets near the close of the SMV funnel, as well as unexpected successes such as Riesling and Sylvaner.

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