Wine world catch phrases and industry jargon abound these days, making wine tasting and wine buying choices slightly daunting for the likes of us neophyte oenophiles (see, there it is again!). What constitutes a “natural wine”? How do I know if this wine is organic? What on earth is biodynamically made wine? Here, a primer for wine tasting in Santa Ynez Valley wine country; a simple sampling and shopping guide for dinner parties, date nights, and your organic-everything friends or family.
The Santa Ynez Valley boasts such a wide array of wine varietals, winemaking methods and wine tasting experiences, you would be hard-pressed (pun intended) to cover all of its vineyard-blanketed ground in one day. Good news, is that the Santa Ynez Valley’s vino variety is rivaled only by its bountiful inventory of lodging accommodations – hotels, motels and inns, B&Bs, resorts – at nearly all wine country vacation budget levels. A healthy roster of food and wine festivals and events, year ‘round, also provides ample opportunity for getaways to this burgeoning California wine destination.
Welcome wine to the table with a clean conscience, and “clean” wines.
Let’s talk “natural wine”: there is no clear definition of natural wine, nor are there any legal confines which determine whether a wine can, for sure, be deemed “natural”. What do exist, are a number of organizations around the world which set guidelines for particular wine growing regions; associations which only allow wines made a certain way, to carry a natural wine designation. Loosely utilizing some of the rules set forth by these organizations, we can somewhat-safely say that natural wines at their very base level, must start with grapes which have been organically and/or biodynamically farmed.
The Santa Ynez Valley has a growing (again, with the puns) number of organically-farmed vineyards, some of which sell their grapes to numerous labels, often aside from the vineyard’s own estate labels. One such vineyard and wine label, is Coquelicot Estate Vineyard, a certified organic (CCOF) planting located in the Los Olivos District, a micro-AVA within the Santa Ynez Valley AVA. Wines which originate from Coquelicot’s vineyard range in varietal from Chardonnay to Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling to Grüner Veltliner, to Pinot Noir, Malbec, Syrah and Sangiovese, as seen in Coquelicot’s own Sangiovese Rosé.
Another organically-farmed Santa Barbara wine country vineyard, is Spear Vineyards & Winery, in the famed Sta. Rita Hills – an AVA most known for its award-winning Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Spear produces its own estate label, but also sells grapes to other Santa Barbara County winemakers and brands like Kings Carey Wines, which bottles a low-intervention Grenache from organically-grown Spear Vineyards grapes.
But as a consumer, how do you know if a wine comes from an organically-farmed vineyard? Well, it can be a selling point, and labels which recognize this will often advertise the fact on their bottles. Look for the terms “made with organic grapes” or “made with organically-grown grapes”, on wine bottle labels.
In the same vein as organic vineyards, are biodynamic vineyards. According to the Biodynamic Association, “Biodynamics is a holistic, ecological, and ethical approach to farming, gardening, food, and nutrition.” Simply and broadly said, biodynamic vineyards are farmed with sustainability in mind, as well as a happy ecosystem, eco-friendly practices and cheerful grapes – and people. Santa Barbara County examples of wines produced from biodynamic farming practices, are Ampelos Cellars (also organic) in the Sta. Rita Hills AVA, and a number of bottlings produced with grapes from biodynamic and sustainable Duvarita Vineyard, a Santa Barbara County AVA vineyard turning out popular wines like Story of Soil’s Duvarita Pinot Noir or Syrah, and Storm Wines Pinot Noirs.
Organizations which monitor what could be considered natural wine, often differ on the hot-topic of sulfites. Sulfites are used as a preservative in most wines, and the use of sulfites in rather small quantities will usually, still qualify a wine as “natural” in a number of purist wine circles. Santa Ynez Valley wine country examples of low-sulfite wines are Solminer Wine Co., which also places the utmost importance on organic farming practices, and Lumen Wines, which pulls grapes from sustainably-farmed vineyards. The afore-mentioned Kings Carey Wines, also produces a low-in-sulfites, dry Sémillon, affectionately referred to as “an alternate white wine”.
Time for an intervention: low-intervention.
One facet of what could be considered “natural” winemaking, is intervention level – either in the vineyard, or in the winery. Low- or minimal-intervention wines are left somewhat untouched by the winemaker, allowing all of the naturally-occurring processes of fermentation, to do their thing. One of the newer, minimal intervention wine labels coming out of Santa Barbara County, is Metrick Wines – but low-intervention wines are abundant in the Santa Ynez Valley.
Let’s get technical. Switching gears just slightly, another wine-geek term and trend is “carbonic”. Carbonic maceration, to be more exact, is a fermentation process for red wine, differentiated by the way in which fermentation is initiated. In carbonic maceration processes, no yeast is added to kick off fermentation; the process essentially starts within the grape itself, when those grapes have been sealed in a large vessel which also contains carbon dioxide. You might see the mention of “carbonic” on Santa Ynez Valley wine country labels like Lo-Fi Wines, which practices whole cluster carbonic fermentation on some of their minimalist wines (how’s that, for a mouthful?), or Stolpman Vineyards’ carbonically fermented, 100% Sangiovese, “Love You Bunches”. Buttonwood Farm Winery & Vineyard, a sustainable, working farm and vineyard, got into the carbonic game with its 2017 “Carbonique”, a 100% Cabernet Franc fermented via carbonic maceration.
With all of this newfound wine knowledge in-hand, it’s time to go wine tasting! The wine labels mentioned above, plus scores more, may be tasted and purchased at their respective wineries and/or tasting rooms, or in Santa Ynez Valley restaurants, wine bars and wine shops, scattered throughout the Valley’s six towns of Ballard, Buellton, Los Alamos, Los Olivos, Santa Ynez and Solvang. Looking for a way to sample multiple natural wines from different labels? Visit Bodega Los Alamos, one of the region’s wine, beer and cider purveyors which not only tends toward local wines, but also natural-leaning ones.
Make that “thing to do” – natural wine – one of your “things to do”: book now, to start your Santa Ynez Valley wine education activities.
About VisitSYV.com: Visit Santa Ynez Valley provides listings of the best Santa Ynez wineries, best places to eat in Solvang, Santa Ynez hotels and inns, and things to do in Santa Ynez Valley. Visit the website at www.VisitSYV.com for complete travel and visitor services. “Like” the Facebook page for ideas on planning Santa Ynez vacations. Email info@VisitSYV.com for help planning your next vacation in the Santa Ynez Valley.