Introduction to AVAs
Santa Maria Valley
Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara is far more inland than most AVAs of the region, meaning that its climate is significantly warmer than most others. The geography is characterized by rolling hills, steep cliffs, and diverse soil conditions. Varietals that ripen later in the season therefore have time to reach their full maturity, which means that Bordeaux wines like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, and Merlot do quite well here.
The Santa Maria Valley was the first officially approved AVA in the region. Grape growing has been the custom in this appellation since the Mexican Colonial period of the 1830s. With complex soil conditions, a fertile valley that opens up into the Pacific Ocean, and diverse microclimates that favor wind, cool fog, and very little rainfall, the grapes here are of top quality and have a long time to grow ripe on the vine. The region’s grapes are of such high quality that they are used by wineries throughout the region, especially for Pinot Noir, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Blanc.
Sta. Rita Hills
An American Viticultural Area (or AVA) is, quite simply, a geographic region that produces wine that is unique to that geographical area. While Pinot Noir grapes can be found in many places in the world, a Pinot Noir from the Santa Ynez Valley AVA is going to be different from a Pinot Noir from any other AVA. In the United States, the borders of these regions are determined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, and generally follow geographic or meteorological boundaries, such as mountains, rivers, or the edges of a microclimate.
If a wine is said to come from an AVA, then at least 85% of the grapes used to make that wine must be from that AVA. This preserves the unique qualities of each AVA and gives you, the wine consumers, more choices and a more diverse experience as you taste wines from various AVAs.
We are fortunate because there are no less than five AVAs within close range of the Santa Barbara Wine Tours headquarters. They are listed below, with descriptions. We hope that this introduction, and the descriptions of each AVA, will illuminate for you some of the unique and varied qualities of the wines in our very special region.
Santa Ynez Valley
This AVA is comprised of a long valley running east to west, with cool coastal temperatures on one end that grow steadily warmer as you go toward the other. This gives growers in the Santa Ynez Valley the opportunity to grow several different varietals, depending on the precise location of the vines, from Pinot Noir near the coast to Cabernet and Merlot further inland. Chardonnay is the most popular varietal in the western end of the valley, while Rhône varietals top the east. The wineries here are similarly diverse, ranging from small family operations to businesses that produce several thousand cases a year, but every one of them has shown a commitment to showcasing the spectacular quality of this region’s grapes and the vast range of this AVA’s potential.
Ballard Canyon is the newest appellation in the region, but its unique microclimates produce quite distinctive wines of a singular quality. Red grapes grown here include Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Sangiovese, and Syrah, and the AVA’s white varietals include Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, and Viognier. Ballard Canyon’s Rhône-inspired grapes, both red and white, are especially highly prized.
Sta. Rita Hills is 1700 acres of vineyards that are geographically contained within the Santa Ynez Valley appellation. Its unique combination of maritime fog, gentle sunshine, and cooling afternoon winds, not to mention its fabulously rich sedimentary soil with patches of limestone, makes it perfect for growing Chardonnay, Syrah, and Pinot Noir. It is also an AVA that prides itself on farming innovations, and the wineries in the area are always striving to improve both the quality and volume of production.
Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara