Location determines Sea Smoke wines' quality

The saying goes that three things are critical to real estate success: location, location, location.

The same holds true for successful winemakers, who realize the hackneyed phrase really refers to vineyard topography, climatic conditions, soil quality, elevation and a host of other more specific characteristics. Great wine starts with great grapes, and that means grapes planted in the right location, grown and harvested under the proper conditions, and then passed into the hands of talented winemakers.

At Sea Smoke Estate Vineyards, in California’s sprawling Santa Barbara County, topography is critical to setting the high-end vineyard’s wine apart from its peers, according to Victor Gallegos, the winery’s director of winemaking. In fact, the contours of the land are among the vineyard’s most distinctive and influential features.

“The Santa Rita Hills American Viticultural Area (AVA) features a Region 1 microclimate, among the coolest for growing grapes,” says Gallegos, a 14-year Sea Smoke veteran who also has made wines in New York state, Spain and France’s Bordeaux region. “Region 1 is located at roughly the same latitude as Tunisia, which leads to a very unique combination (of climate characteristics).”

What’s critical to the pinot noirs and chardonnays that Sea Smoke produces can be found in the nature of the land itself. The contours of the land, located near the “knee” of California that juts into the Pacific Ocean, is thought to be the result of a long-ago tectonic plate shift that fractured the traditional valleys that run through portions of the Golden State.

Rather than running primarily north to south, like the more familiar Napa and Sonoma valleys, the wine-growing regions in Santa Barbara County tend to perch on the hillside in valleys that run at an angle to the ocean and are subject to its influences more so than their cousins to the north.

Because the area is just 7.5 miles from the Pacific, its most influential characteristic may be the ocean fog, or “sea smoke,” that floods the valley's higher elevated vineyards every evening, Gallegos says.

“The predictable daily ingress of fog from the ocean into the Santa Rita Hills can drop the temperature from 85 degrees to about 55 degrees in a couple of hours,” Gallegos explains. “The fog and resulting temperature drop shut the vines down for the evening and allow the wines to retain their characteristic cool-climate acidity.”

The temperature change also creates an extended growing season for the biodynamically managed vineyards, the winemaker adds. The grapes have more “hang-time” on the vines, which allows them to naturally develop ripe tannins, optimal flavors and lovely aromatics.

The net result of the longer growing season, as well as a cooperage program that utilizes new and used French oak in differing combinations, yields pinot noir and chardonnay varietals of exceptional quality.

The 2013 Sea Smoke "Southing" Pinot Noir ($60) is complex and elegant, offering a nose of red fruit and spices with pliable tannins and a distinct minerality that balance well on the palate. The 2013 Sea Smoke "Ten" Pinot Noir ($82) is a more robust and full-bodied wine with spice and black cherry flavors supported by firm tannins that indicate a long cellar life. The variation in character comes from the differing grapes themselves matched once again to variance in vineyard characteristics, Gallegos says.

“’Southing’ refers to the fact that all of our vineyard blocks are south-facing, while ‘Ten’ refers to the 10 low-vigor pinot noir clones planted in our vineyard,” Gallegos explains. “Each of our wines is stylistically distinct, and the objective of the barrel grading and our blending efforts conducted by our wine team is to maintain these distinct styles.”

Gallegos and his team also produce sparkling wine, and the 2012 L.D. Sea Spray ($80) is a lighter and brighter pinot noir, with a more floral nose and the suggestion of pastries on the palate. Sea Spray spends nine months in oak, compared to 16 months each for the previously mentioned wines.

“In addition to less barrel time for the Sea Spray base wine, we choose lower-impact coopers,” Gallegos says. “This allows us to develop barrel-aged characters in the base wine, without a great deal of oak impression, which would be enhanced on the nose and palate by the bubbles.”

The 2013 Sea Smoke Chardonnay ($60) also spends 16 month in a blend of new and used French oak, resulting in a floral wine redolent of apricots. But then oak is part of the Sea Smoke process and figures prominently in the profile of its wines.

“We feel that all of our wines are improved by elevage in barrel – it is part of the ‘house style' of Sea Smoke,” Gallegos says. “In the case of our chardonnay and Sea Spray, we are looking for the aromatic character as well as a hint of oak aromatics. In the case of our pinot noirs, we are looking for both a balanced aromatic component and the polishing of the tannin profile of the wines.”

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