If Ballard Canyon in California’s Santa Barbara County is as unknown to most wine professionals as it had been to me prior to a recent trip to the region, my prediction is that it will soon be “discovered”. The pending AVA is a source of superb Syrah. Not that Rhône varietals from California are burning up the market but the quality here, across the board, is simply too good to ignore. If you’re seduced by Syrah, be patient; there are treasures here in the South Central Coast – hidden gems.
On the East Coast we are used to waiting out enthusiasms that emanate from the California winegrowing community (Sangiovese, Viognier, take your pick) for an appropriate number of years to determine if they really have legs, but there is no question in my mind that Ballard Canyon Syrah is for real. Tasting through a few hundred wines in Santa Barbara County with a few dozen other sommeliers in early May, there were many memorable Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays (yes, outstanding Chardonnay lives in the transverse southern valleys!) but that was perhaps expected. Syrah? Perhaps one of the benefits of Recession is that until 2OO9 Left Coasters had been keeping this a secret and now they can no longer afford to.
Situated in the greater Santa Ynez Valley, about 1O miles east of the Santa Rita Hills and perhaps 15 from the Ocean, Ballard’s weather is strongly influenced by Pacific breezes and fogs. The moderating influence of these daily weather incursions permit grapes to hang on the vine for a lengthy period before harvesting is necessary, so structure remains a defining element to balance the super-ripeness of the Syrah fruit grown here. Despite searingly hot sun in this part of the Golden State, water borne winds begin to blow by mid-afternoon on most summer days, cooling temperatures and permitting the vines to experience extended ripening. Hot sun, cool afternoons and evenings, dry conditions during most harvests; these are the growing season parameters. To complete the picture, the Canyon’s predominantly thin sandy soils contain substantial limestone deposits which yield a mineral style of Syrah unique among others I’ve tasted from California.
Speaking of stylistic markings, the grape itself never ceases to intrigue me for its ability to take on multiple personalities based on where and how it is grown. Its adaptability to different regions and terroirs within them is not as widely known as it should be. Since most of the Ballard Canyon wines that I experienced were hand-crafted by growers from their own fruit in what each described as virtually the same manner, the significant variations on the overall theme (as described in my tasting notes) appear to be truly terroir-driven.
The amazing thing to me is that despite hefty alcohol levels, the Ballard Canyon Syrahs, as a group, are all in balance. While it’s fashionable today to decry 15% wines today, to me there’s no issue unless the heat hovers over the wine’s fruit, dominates the structure, and all you experience is a strong burn on the palate. That’s not what Ballard Canyon provides. There’s weight but no flab, warmth without fire. Although it’s tiresome to compare wines to their supposed European “models”, many of the Syrahs struck me as in a Côte Rotie style of sleek fruit expression, rich soft textures, bacon and mineral earth undertones. But these are no copies. They’re true originals and of all the Santa Barbara wines I tasted, they seemed the most coherent in defining a compelling originality.
Listed in ascending order of preference,
these 2OO7s are all no less than outstanding.
JONATA “LA SANGRE de JONATA” SANTA YNEZ, 2OO7
Opaque with a bright bluish rim, this herb, olive and chocolate-scented wine features a chewy lushness to the fruit which is ripe and at the same time etched with green forest-like accents. Intensely extracted and powerfully tannic, the acids and alcohol taste moderate and absolutely in balance despite whatever the label says. Still somewhat of a baby but one that shows outstanding promise.
JAFFURS “LARNER VINEYARD” 2OO7
With smoky, sweet black fruit aromas and a driving blueberry and pepper flavor profile, this hugely extracted but only moderately tannic wine is a sensual delight. It has pepper, bright brambly berries and cocoa in all the right places. Very upfront and appealing for drinking today – it’s one of those magic wines that also has legs. Pure and sweet, very definitely.
BECKMEN “PURISIMA MOUNTAIN VINEYARD” 2OO7
This wine had the deep, glistening ruby glow of a youthful Syrah beauty. The aromas flaunted ripe black fruit, anise and vanilla, with undertones of tar, wild herbs and black pepper. On the palate the Beckmen is a study in contradictions held together in a delicious, though as yet unevolved whole: tart acids, soft rich silky texture, earthy blackberry, lush brilliant dark edgy fruit. Tannins are substantial but not grippy. Power and finesse, big in every way but graceful at the same time.
RUSACK “BALLARD CANYON ESTATE” 2OO7
This is a black colored wine with monumental aromas of dark chocolate, smoky oak and caramel. It’s compact and dense, with a spice cake and black mission fig lushness, dramatic tannins and a very lengthy finish. A “wow” wine that is super ripe but shows freshness and class at the same time.
STOLPMAN ESTATE 2OO7
Beautiful, best of a great bunch, this has a somewhat leafy aroma layered over black raspberry and mocha. The velvety chocolate and macerated dark berry theme continues on the palate. In the finish, the Stolpman shows mineral tones and hot exotic spices that are rounded off by the persistent sweetness of the fruit. It’s sculpted from vines that are pushing the density limit, approaching the kind of concentration that you find in the Northern Rhône. Serious, major league, world class Syrah.
There are other outstanding Santa Barbara Syrahs I tasted on my journey through the County, but none had the stylistic unity of expression as Ballard Canyon. For that matter, there are outstanding wines made in the region blending Syrah with Grenache and other grapes, too. But somehow, in marketing wines from most regions outside Europe, we’re still in a varietal world. At this stage of our evolution it’s still easier to remember the link between a particular variety and a new geographical sub-division than it is to try to learn about all of the “one-off” blends. In this case, at least, there does seem to be a link between this emerging wine zone and the Syrah grape that is something special.