This past October, the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Association hosted their 24th annual Celebration of Harvest festival. Gathering together nearly 150 wineries to pour at the Santa Ynez Mission in Solvang, the Harvest Weekend also included a host of other exciting events including a La Paulee dinner prepared by Chef Pink of Bacon and Brine, a seminar on the wines of Santa Barbara County moderated by Matt Kettmann of the Wine Enthusiast, and an evening concert featuring Toad the Wet Sprocket.
The festival weekend also coincided with the one-year anniversary of the creation of the Ballard Canyon American Viticultural Area (AVA). In celebration, not only were attendee’s given a first glimpse at the new, specially designed Ballard Canyon Bottles, reserved solely for estate grown Syrah, but they were also able to attend a special pop-up seminar and vertical Ballard Canyon Syrah tasting led by none other than founder of the Ballard Canyon Winegrowers’ Association and renowned grower/winemaker Michael Larner of Larner Vineyards.
Michael Larner has garnered a reputation for both growing and making some of the most prized Syrah in Santa Barbara from his 35 acre vineyard located in the heart of Ballard Canyon. Originally working as a geologist, in the early 90’s Larner decided to pursue his dream to make wine and in 1998 the Larner Vineyard was planted. The first estate wines were released less than a decade later.
The Goldilocks Effect
Due to Larner’s background working as a geologist, he was able to give key insight into the unique soil composition and terroir of Ballard Canyon. Larner explained that as most of the region is comprised of sandy soil with a mix of chalk in some areas (ie the Larner Vineyard) and limestone in others (Rusack vineyard), the vines are able to get more nutrition due to clay’s ability to retain water. The region’s location, nestled in between the cool Sta. Rita Hills AVA and the warmer Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara AVA, allows for what Larner refers to as the “Goldilocks” effect: the perfect combination of elements found in both climate zones creating a region that is “just right” for Syrah.
Syrah is one of the few grapes grown throughout the Santa Barbara County AVA and as such, has a multitude of expressions. What makes Ballard Canyon so special is the fact that the region’s Syrahs can express both the lush, dark fruit flavors found in wines from the warmer east as well as display the peppery, spice notes found in wines from the cooler climate east. These Syrahs are also entirely unique for the clarity of fruit and rocky minerality only found expressed in wines from within the AVA.
In fact, the very creation of the Ballard Canyon AVA was a result of a group of Sommeliers identifying just these signature traits in a number of Syrah’s from within the region and calling for the creation of an AVA. This tasting proved that the market would get behind these wines and after a year of collecting geological and geographic data, the AVA was submitted and on October 30th, 2013 it was approved. Currently, the Ballard Canyon AVA consists of seventeen vineyards, planted mostly to Rhone varieties, and six estates.
Vintage Variation Larner next turned to a discussion of the dramatic vintage variations experienced in the region alongside a vertical tasting of his Estate Syrah from both the 2009 and 2010 vintages.
2009: A classic year with generally warm weather, no late rains and a healthy yield of fruit. The wines from this vintage display an excellent rocky minerality, typical of the region, as well as a harmonious balance of fruit and spice
2010: A completely different story due to late rains on the back end of the season causing a cooling down period. The wines from 2010 generally exhibit a darker expression of fruit with much more of a pepper note and a savory, tapenade character.
Looking forward to the 2014 harvest which just concluded only weeks ago, Larner speculated that this year could be another great vintage if the wine growers paid attention to what was going on in the vineyard and didn’t wait too long to pick. For now, we can only wait to see how the fast and furious 2014 vintage will play out, but if the previous vintages can tell us anything, it’s that Ballard Canyon is a region to keep your eye on!
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