I think it was the unique fruitiness of the best Santa Barbara Chardonnays that first drew my attention. French white Burgundies are leaner and tighter-knit. Napa Valley Chardonnays are fairly full-bodied and rich but rarely jump out of the glass. And Sonoma County Chardonnays, though often very fruity, are more into the slightly floral ripe-pear camp.
Santa Barbara Chardonnays, when they succeed, will show the variety's inevitable aroma of apples but then will add a unique tropical fruit component that gives them an extra measure of juicy succulence. And, with modern winemaking techniques adding complexity to the flavor mix, they are always among the leaders in California.
Indeed, in many vintages, the wines of the Central Coast (Monterey, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties) set the quality pace among California offerings.
The following wines come from a cross-section of Santa Barbara producers and are made in a variety of styles. Regardless of winemaking intent, however, the bottlings that are best have taken advantage of the Santa Barbara fruit.
If there are no out-and-out bargains in the list below, so too are there no wines so expensive that they hurt my feelings when it comes to buying a nice bottle for dinner. Overall, the quality is quite high, and the wines reinforce the notion that the Chardonnays of Santa Barbara County are to be taken seriously and to be enjoyed comprehensively.
* * 1997 Babcock Vineyards "Mt. Carmel Vineyard," Santa Ynez Valley, $30. This wine is a study in balance and restraint. Its medium-intensity aromas start off with sweet fruit scents and pick up an attractive bit of creme bru^lee richness from a dollop of oak barrel seasoning. Slightly round at entry then firming across the palate, the wine is long in fruity flavor even while showing a bit of youthful tightness in the finish. It is enjoyable now but will be even better with a year or two of bottle age.
1997 Babcock Vineyards "Grand Cuvee," Santa Ynez Valley, $30. Less fruit and more winemaking are evident in this wine. A toasty, nearly ashy character rules the day here. Fortunately, there's enough fruit to keep it enjoyable.
* * 1996 Byron Vineyard & Winery "Estate," "Byron Vineyard," Santa Maria Valley, $32. Year after year, Byron makes Chardonnays that capture the fruit we are looking for. This wine is informed from first sniff to lingering aftertaste by notes of apples; creamy oak and buttery notes fill out and enrich the fruit but never get in the way. Like the Babcock "Mt. Carmel" bottling, but fruitier still, this wine trades on balance and depth rather than on winemaking.
* 1997 Byron Vineyard & Winery, Santa Maria Valley, $19. More direct than Byron's "Estate bottling," this one relies even more on bright, lively citrus and tropical fruit as its first order of business than does its cellar-mate. To be sure, it has some background oakiness for richness, and its backdrop of bracing acidity provides just the right amount of balance to the wine's sweet fruit flavors.
* * 1997 Testarossa "Bien Nacido Vineyard," Santa Maria Valley, $32. This wine shows the exciting success that comes when the toasty and roasted grains notes of aging in oak barrels on the lees are wedded to deep and succulent fruit. It is Santa Barbara County at its best, and a delicious reminder of why these wines deserve plenty of your attention.
* 1997 Au Bon Climat "Le Bouge d'a Co^te," Santa Maria Valley, $25. From a winery that always seeks complexity in its wines, this full-bore effort starts with oaky and leesy notes and uses fruit to keep things alive. Notably, for all of the wine's admirable stuffing and range, it is slightly sour at the finish and needs service with tangy dishes that can handle the wine's acidy edge.
* 1997 Kendall-Jackson Vineyards "Camelot Vineyard," Santa Barbara County, $20. Here is another wine that bears all the attractive hallmarks of Santa Barbara Chardonnay. Its aroma suggests tropical fruits, and it is rounded and softly inviting at entry, bright and firm in the finish.
1997 Qupe, Santa Barbara County, $17. If citrusy and pert in character, this wine is simply lower in overall volume and reach. The direction taken by the wine says "Santa Barbara," but the depth of flavor needed to earn commendation is not in evidence.
1996 Sanford Winery "Barrel Select," Santa Barbara County, $30. Despite the first suggestions of tropical and sweet pear tones in its aromas, this wine is dramatically seasoned by and ultimately overwhelmed by toasty, smoky oak, finishing dry and coarse.
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Definition of Symbols
* * * A world-class wine, superb by any measure, the top 1% to 2% of all wines tasted.
* * An exceptional wine, well worth the effort to find, 10% to 12% of wines tasted.
* An admirable wine, tasty, focused, attractive, about 25% of wines tasted.
No Rating: The best are quite pleasant and can be good buys when moderately priced.
$ Good value for the money.
x Below average quality, to be avoided.