Posted on 16.04.19 #76

Santa Barbara: Wines to knock you ‘sideways’

This piece originally appeared in The Buyer.

The last double act I saw from Santa Barbara were the stars of the movie ‘Sideways’. Incredibly, it was fifteen years ago that they – double-handedly – pushed up the price of Pinot Noir and did their best to murder Merlot. So how could the Golden State’s newest duo top that?

Ernst Storm and Gavin Chanin are rather different characters. In theory they are rivals – producing different wines under their own labels – but you’d struggle to notice it. What they share is a passion for Santa Barbara county, and a determination to do justice to its rich regional diversity, of both terroir and climate.  In fact, at a recent London masterclass (a scheduled stop en route home from ProWein) it was easy to forget that the pair actually represented separate wineries.

South African-born Storm – a member of another double act, as brother Hannes is also an accomplished winemaker in Hemel-en-Aarde – moved to California in 2003, seeing the potential of Santa Barbara for cooler climate wines. In 2006 he started his own label, with a mere six barrels and a simple philosophy: “to make the wines that I wished to drink. The more you do it, the better you become at it”.

Chanin grew up in California, studying art – evident in his striking label designs – before deciding to pursue a career in Alaskan salmon fishing. Unconvinced, his mother felt he might be better suited to the wine world, and the rest is history. After stints at Au Bon Climat and Qupé, he established his eponymous brand in 2007, describing his style of winemaking as “new old,” which makes a lot more sense when you taste the wines.

… Santa Barbara does actually go ‘sideways’ …

Chanin believes his region’s unique qualities are yet to be fully appreciated by the wider wine world: “100 years from now, Santa Barbara will be renowned for perhaps 100 different varieties. We have so many micro-varieties that shine.”

As the name of the film suggested, albeit accidentally, Santa Barbara does actually go  ‘sideways’, running transverse, with a funnel effect that sucks in Pacific air from the West, bringing cool nights, morning mists and afternoon sunshine. In short, perfect conditions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

The region is, however, not without its challenges: “We’re basically in what Burgundy would define as a drought every growing season,” Chanin tells me. Wild fires have also given Santa Barbara some unwelcome notoriety of late: “With climate changes, fires are going to become a much more regular feature of what we do,” Storm says ruefully, “although we are fortunate that the smoke disappears really fast, thanks to the marine conditions”.

Both men feel place a huge emphasis on picking times, with Storm describing those finely balanced decisions as “fundamental, the foundation of these wines”. For Pinot Noir, he says there is a precise point “between there being any green edge and it turning into something more voluptuous, where it loses some of its personality”.

The Storm wines were recently snapped up by James Thomas at specialist importer Tiger Vines, a relative newcomer with a small but impressive portfolio. The Chanin wines sit very comfortably within the offering at Flint Wines. They are available on restaurant wine lists and good independent wine stores.

Wines are listed in order of tasting:

Chanin Los Alamos 2016 Chardonnay (RRP £42) comes from some of the oldest vines in Santa Barbara county, planted in 1969  Bright, with fresh apricot and pithy citrus. It spends 15 months in French oak, with around 15% new, but the effect is subtle, with the lees playing a more important role. It goes though malolactic fermentation: “a necessity,” says Gavin Chanin, because he starts with such high acidity.

Chanin Bien Nacido Vineyard 2015 Chardonnay (RRP £45) comes from another relatively old vineyard, planted in 1973, with gravel and limestone soils.  Ripe peach combines with pink grapefruit, butterscotch and a pinch of nutmeg to produce a richer wine that’s still beautifully balanced, with an elegant mineral streak.

Storm Presqu’ile Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir (RRP £55) from the Santa Maria Valley, around seven miles from the Pacific Ocean, has some whole bunch fermentation and around a year in 20% new French oak. Crunchy, fresh red cherry and raspberry abound, with a herbal note and a smattering of smooth silky spice.

Chanin Bien Nacido Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir (RRP £43) has a savoury edge. Red cherry and raspberry dominate at first but as the complexity builds, there is black cherry, white pepper, thyme and cedar. The firm structure suggests this will be with us for a while yet.

Chanin Sanford and Benedict Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir (RRP £50) comes from the Santa Rita hills at the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley, home to some of the region’s oldest Pinot Noir vines. Burgundian in style, Gavin Chanin believes the wines from this site have a “darker character”. Plum, black cherry and tobacco lead this elegant, structured wine.

Storm John Sebastiano Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir (RRP £60) is seductively perfumed, with violets,  fresh, expressive, crunchy red fruit and a juicy, defined palate that lingers like a gentle summer breeze.

Storm Duvarita Vineyard 2014 Pinot Noir (RRP £60) comes from “a vineyard that’s basically planted on a sand dune,” says Ernst Storm, “this is a wine that shows that we can capture that Old World sense”. Dark berries, sour cherry, subtle peppercorn and some forest floor notes all contribute to an excellent wine that is tightly focused, nervy and full of personality. 

The last wine involved something a little different: Storm Slide Hill Vineyard 2014 Syrah (RRP £50) is also biodynamically farmed. Classic cool climate Syrah, with around 10% whole cluster fermentation, the fruit is dark and inviting. Foraged blackberry, dried oregano and cracked black pepper, a little tannic chew and a graphite finish all add to the sense of a wine that should cost more than it does. 

I didn’t know a huge amount about Santa Barbara’s varietal definition before this tasting. Now I feel that I do. And like a great movie, I could do it all over again.  Finally, just for the record, there was no mention of Merlot.

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