Back in 2006 at a Cal Poly lecture given by the legendary Keith Patterson, PhD of Viticulture, covering climate and a little thing called the Winkler Scale of Growing Degree Days. In that class I learned that Region I, with up to and including 2,500 Degree Days (Ok, I did have to Google the exact # of days...) is the coolest possible wine-growing climate, similar to regions like Champagne and Burgundy. Optimal grape varietals for Region I's include Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling and Pinot Noir. The entirety of the Sta. Rita Hills AVA falls within (and sometimes below!) this chilly Region 1 due to the marine influence that the unique East-to-West mountain range allows, creating a trough for cool air funnels through like a champ. Cool climates make for grapes with naturally high acidity, lower potential alcohol when picked soon after phenolically ripe, and produce Chardonnay that exhibits the left scale of the following varietal markers and characteristics:
|COOL CLIMATE:||MODERATE CLIMATE:||WARM CLIMATE:|
|Region 1||Region 2 & 3||Region 4 & 5|
|Sta. Rita Hills/Chablis||Bordeaux/Rhone||Southern Spain/ East Paso Robles|
|apple, pear||stone fruits||tropical fruits|
|Earth w/ pure fruit||Pure Fruit||Candied fruit|
|High acidity||Moderate Acidity||Low Acidity|
|Lowest Alc.||Moderate Alc.||Higher Alc.|
|Great minerality potential||Little minerality||No minerality|
What you get on the far left is what we're addicted to in wines from Region 1's like Burgundy and other über-cool climates such as the Loire Valley, Northern Italy and North Western Spain. So, step 1, Cool climate – check! But, as studies are showing and resulting wines support, the soils also have to be well drained and possess some type of white porous rock – like chalk in Chablis and limestone in Burgundy – to give way to truly stressed vines that make complex wines which have longevity potential to develop even more complexity in the bottle. You also then have the potential for minerality to shine through in the wine.
Luckily, Sta. Rita Hills is blessed with incredible ancient soils that are extremely Chardonnay suited. The sandy-alluvial soils drain like nobody's business (picture how fast water would go through thick clay vs. beach sand). This means that the vines have to get crafty and dig deep for water. And, just like people who are stronger and more complex when they have overcome challenges, vines are the same. If they have it on easy street with rich, fertile soils and never have to work for water, the personality of the wine reflects that – it's usually more monotone with less going on. Additionally, to have minerality potential you need that white porous rock and in a very cool climate. The diatomaceous soils that flow through this undoubtedly cool region are made up basically of pure silica. So, Step 2. Well drained – check! And, step 3. White porous rock, check!
Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay has this delicious unmistakable minerality that comes through the wines' aroma and palate with a saline-like quality. When I first really started falling in love with wine, a non-pretentious person whose acumen I greatly respect told me that you can always tell a truly great wine no matter your level of wine knowledge or taste preferences because, "it will just have no holes." The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is capable of such hole-free wines. Texturally the LF Chardonnays have what Jeff and I simplemindedly describe as "no arms or legs," or if you prefer, "no holes." The wines glide across the palate from start to finish with both grace and seduction and most importantly, leave you eagerly headed back to the glass or bottle for more . . . the ultimate quality test.
To learn more about the rich history of the Santa Rita Hills, how the region came to be it's own AVA and what makes it so uniquely suited for Burgundian varietals, we encourage you to visit Clos Pepe Vineyard and Winery's excellent website to check out the writings of Wes Hagen. He has a wealth of knowledge and experience on all things SRH plus he's a writer, winemaker and vineyard manager, making him a renaissance man not only more educated than I am on such topics, but also more captivating to read. PS: he also spearheaded the establishment of the AVA with other pioneering vintners and growers. We are grateful for those who came ahead of us, took risks and developed this amazing wine-growing region.