Point Conception, north of Santa Barbara, is the tip of a rare group of coastal mountains and hills that run east to west, creating a natural funnel for fog and cool coastal breezes. From the north slope of those hills, extending a few miles to the south is the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, set between Buellton and the coast in Lompoc.
Originally formed as the Santa Rita Hills AVA, the current spelling was the resolution of a formal protest by the Vina Santa Rita appellation in Chile.
Unless you follow current California pinot noir production, the Sta. Rita Hills may not be a familiar name.
Having lived in the Los Angeles area for 25 years, it was my go-to appellation for fine pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay. Vintage to vintage, it is typically among the best in the state.
The classic Sta. Rita Hills pinot noir most often garners the attention, but chardonnay releases like the 2017 Foley Estate “Barrel Select” Chardonnay ($60), the 2016 Brewer-Clifton Sta. Rita Hills Chardonnay ($36) and the 2016 Alma Rosa Chardonnay Sta. Rita Hills ($38) are always welcome on my palate.
Another favorite is the 2016 Seasmoke Chardonnay ($80), a Burgundian-style wine, aged in French oak, that delivers a lush mouthfeel and the lively cool-climate acidity that, according to one local winemaker, is the signature of the appellation.
Matt Dees, winemaker at The Hilt, speaks passionately about exploring the natural acidity of chardonnay. He once described it to be very low on his list of grapes to work with. Today, it’s the varietal he enjoys the most and believes when chardonnay becomes dominant in the future, those produced in the Sta. Rita Hills will be easy to identify.
To this end, he farms the three Hilt estate vineyards on the old Rancho Salsipuedes property that are close to the ocean, totally unprotected from steady wind gusts up to 50 mph and burdened with poor, extremely shallow soil. According to Matt, this is the most desirable location to produce fruit for cool-climate chardonnay.
The Hilt is owned by billionaire Stanley Kroenke, who includes Jonata and The Paring in Santa Barbara County, Screaming Eagle in the Napa Valley and Domaine Bonneau du Martray in Burgundy, France among his winery holdings.
Dees, originally from Kansas City, Mo., has felt a connection to the plant world since childhood. After earning a degree in soils science from the University of Vermont, he stayed and made wine there for three years before coming to the Napa Valley to work for Staglin. He later moved to New Zealand and produced wine at Craggy Range.
The three distinct estate vineyards, named Radian, Bentrock and Puerto del Mar, lie 13 unobstructed miles from the ocean. While poor soils force the vines to dig deep, cool temperatures and heavy winds allow the grapes to ripen slowly and, to Matt’s delight, retain their natural acidity. He feels that this extreme version of “refrigerated sunshine,” along with his style of winemaking will help to distinguish chardonnay produced in the appellation. To prove his point, Dees shared three unique releases from The Hilt.
Boasting consistent ratings in the mid-90s, The Hilt 2012 Vanguard Chardonnay ($75) is sourced from multiple Santa Barbara County vineyards. It displays complexity throughout with fruity, flinty, floral and savory qualities. Despite the age, it remains rounded and youthful.
The Hilt 2017 Estate Chardonnay ($45) is the inaugural vintage, patiently released three years after the vineyards were acquired. When asked why they waited to release their first estate chardonnay,
Matt gave a simple answer: “It has to be delicious.”
The wine is sourced from the Bentrock and Radian Vineyards that, while close to each other, are very different in elevation and soil type. That blend results in stone fruit and spice on the nose and hints of tropical fruit and apricot on the palate. Matt noted that this release is “screeching in acidity, tense and salinated.”
Aged in both French oak and stainless steel, the single-vineyard The Hilt 2018 Chardonnay Radian Vineyard Sta. Rita Hills ($75) is defined as a wine of place. There is a distinct minerality on the nose with hints of apple and lemon. Because of the harsh conditions in the vineyard, the acidity doesn’t move, creating rich, balanced citrus flavors throughout.
Chardonnay vines represent 30% of The Hilt estate plantings and a diverse laboratory for Matt’s passion. He describes the Sta. Rita Hills as a fortress of acidity and believes the appellation’s food-friendly wines will gain broad acceptance in the marketplace.
Guest columnist Lyle W. Norton is a wine enthusiast and blogger in Santa Rosa who has written a wine column for 20 years. Visit his blog at www.lifebylyle.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org.